Liliana Cruz Mendez is a married mother of two who lives in Falls Church, Virginia. She is also undocumented, having fled to the United States from El Salvador in 2006. For years, Cruz Mendez has checked in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials periodically without incident. Last Thursday, however, ICE agents detained her during a routine check-in, announcing plans to deport her back to El Salvador.
Cruz Mendez’s detention outraged her community and so incensed Virginia Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe that he is now attempting to intervene. On Wednesday, McAuliffe pardoned Cruz Mendez of the minor traffic violation that ICE appears to be using to justify her deportation. (She was found guilty of driving without a license, a misdemeanor, in 2013.) McAuliffe’s pardon alone will not prevent Cruz Mendez’s deportation. But, the governor noted, it may influence the decision of the immigration judge who ultimately decides her case.
Gubernatorial intervention into deportation disputes is unusual, but it may become more common in the Trump era. As the fight over “sanctuary cities” demonstrates, state-level Democratic officials are moving to protect undocumented immigrants as the Trump administration cracks down on them. Under the Obama administration, ICE was required to focus its deportation effort on serious criminals. Trump, though, loosened these limitations, allowing the agency to go after undocumented immigrants who have committed minor crimes or no crimes at all. His administration has also ramped up enforcement efforts, targeting vulnerable individuals like victims of domestic abuse, sometimes even arresting them at courthouses.
McAuliffe, who frequently clashes with the state’s Republican legislature, has sought to shield undocumented immigrants from the newly emboldened ICE in every way he can. The governor vetoed one bill that would’ve banned sanctuary cities in the state and another that required local jails to hold undocumented immigrants for as long as federal immigration officials requested. Now he is trying to help immigrants on a case-by-case basis, much in the same way that he restored voting rights to thousands of former felons.
This may be a lost cause, as innocence does not guarantee a reprieve: Nearly 11,000 of the more than 41,000 immigrants detained by ICE under Trump have no criminal conviction. But at the very least, McAuliffe’s resistance proves governors play an important role in the legal and moral resistance to Trump’s most unjust policies.