Gabriella Portillo’s grandparents sold her into El Salvador’s sex trade when she was a child. She escaped to the United States and turned herself in to immigration officers, who allowed her to stay in the United States with her biological mother, who was already living in the US.
When she was thirteen, Portillo was sexually assaulted by another family member and had to report it to authorities herself—a scary endeavor when one is not in this country legally. DHS took her into custody, and she ended up in foster care.
After having been through sexual, physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her family, Portillo lashed out against administrators at a treatment center. She was charged with arson, assault with a deadly weapon (a wooden pole with a nail sticking out it) and spitting (“placing bodily fluids”) on a government worker. Portillo plead guilty to the charges and got placed in a juvenile delinquency center. She was ultimately taken in by her caseworker.
When Portillo turned eighteen last May, she was going to school, attending all of her parole meetings, and taking parenting classes. Her foster mother, Tylisha Oliver, drove Portillo to an impromptu parole meeting in August only to watch Portillo be aggressively handcuffed by seven police officers so she could be taken to begin deportation proceedings.
Portillo was deported back to the family members who sold her into the sex trade in the first place. She was pregnant, had one outfit, and had a tattoo that could get her shot by local law enforcement in El Salvador because it’s similar to a tattoo that local gang members have.
There are two problems with Portillo’s case that are unfortunately common and dangerously misunderstood in this country’s immigration system. The first is that Portillo was not properly informed of her options when she was charged with assault.
A common strategy is for defendants is to plead guilty to minor charges in exchange for concessions from the prosecution. It’s called plea bargaining, and regardless of its efficacy in cases involving United States citizens, it is not a good move for undocumented residents.
Once an undocumented immigrant pleads guilty to a crime, their chances of gaining legal residency status in this country greatly diminish. The best option, if one has to plead guilty, is to try to plead the charges down first to those belonging to a lower deportation priority level. Unfortunately, criminal lawyers aren’t necessarily well versed in immigration law, and in Portillo’s case she was denied the opportunity of pleading her charges down, which could have kept her from getting deported. Her lawyer did not explain to her the consequences of pleading guilty to her original charges.
Furthermore, the United States government spends billions of dollars on deportations per year. The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) claims this money goes towards the deportation of aggressive criminals—the agency’s purported number one priority.
Specifically, the number one priority is “aliens who pose a danger to national security or a risk to public safety.” There are three levels within Priority 1. Level 1 Priority 1 immigrants are those who have been convicted of an “aggravated felony” or two or more felonies. An “aggravated felony” doesn’t necessarily refer to a violent crime, however. Congress made up the term in 1988, which can refer to “more than 30 types of offenses, including theft, filing a false tax return and failing to appear in court,” according to the American Immigration Council.
Only 20 percent of the undocumented immigrants deported in 2013 fell under this Level 1 category. Out of those, some might have been deported just because they didn’t show up to court once.
While Gabriella Portillo was convicted of an aggressive crime, it’s partly because her lawyer didn’t understand what that would mean for her future, and partly because Gabriella Portillo was tired of a system that kept letting her down.
Maybe Portillo wouldn’t have lashed out if she had been treated fairly and not made to believe she was a delinquent for fleeing awful living conditions. Even if she still would have resisted administrators, ICE needs to rearrange its priorities.
When seven police officers arrested Portillo, they were picturing the misconception of Priority 1 Level 1 deportees. But Portillo was pregnant, tired and 18.
In the words of Portillo’s foster mother, “They think she’s a bigger threat than what she is.”