By Scott McClintock

Dressed in a white button-down shirt, black jacket and pants, Sandra Valencia looked like she should be heading off to work.

Instead the 32-year-old native of Mexico sat at a long conference table in the immigration clinic at the Washington and Lee University School of Law, signing documents that could determine whether she is deported. (Read story in Spanish)

Valencia said she knows no one in Mexico—except an abusive father she says poured boiling water on her when she was a toddler.

“I’ll be alone,” she said, her shiny black hair framing her face and complementing her green eyes. “I don’t have anybody but my father, and he’s very ill at this moment.”

Illegal immigration has become a major issue in the months leading up to the presidential primaries.  The Obama administration has been criticized for deporting people who have lived in the United States for years but have not committed any crimes, while Republican hopefuls have taken a variety of stances on the issue.

Since President Obama took office, more than 1.1 million deportations have occurred. A key part of the administration’s deportation effort is the Secure Communities Act, passed by Congress in 2009.

Under Secure Communities, the FBI automatically sends the fingerprints of people who are arrested at the local level to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to check against its immigration databases. If these checks reveal that a person is unlawfully present in the United States or can be kicked out of the country because of a criminal conviction, ICE decides whether to seek deportation, prioritizing people who pose significant threats to public safety and who have repeatedly violated immigration laws.

In a widely publicized memo in June, John Morton, director of ICE, said the agency would exercise “prosecutorial discretion” in its dealings with illegal immigrants, suggesting that it would seek deportation of people with criminal records, not those who have been leading quiet lives in communities across the nation.

But, as Valencia’s case shows, immigrants who have stayed out of trouble also are continuing to get caught in the government’s deportation net.

“She basically has been a good citizen, a good member of the community,” said Hanna Jamar, a W&L law student who is Valencia’s representative in the deportation case.

The decision on whether Valencia stays or goes is set for February 2013, despite a relatively clean record; she has two speeding tickets.

Valencia moved from Iguala Guerrero, Mexico, to San Diego when she was 6. She fled with her mother to escape an abusive father, leaving behind five brothers who lived with the oldest sister to await their opportunity to cross the border.

By sewing wedding dresses, Valencia’s mother supported her daughter and saved money to help the rest of her family come to America.

When Valencia was 17, her mother filed an application for a green card for her daughter. A green card grants permission to be in the United States but does not provide the right to vote. All Valencia needed was an appointment to pick up her green card.  It never came.

W&L law student Hanna Jamar and Sandra Valencia of Danville. (Photo by Brooks Simmons)

Valencia’s mother died before the process could be completed, and paperwork got lost when her case was transferred from California to Virginia. Valencia had moved in with a brother living in Danville after her mother had undergone open-heart surgery.

That same year, Valencia also married and moved to Winston-Salem, N.C.  The marriage, to a man who was not a U.S. citizen, negated her pending green card application.

When she divorced a few years later, Valencia moved back to Danville where she lives with her three children.

Eventually, Valencia received a Social Security number and a passport.  In 2008—12 years after Valencia’s mother tried to get a green card for her—the application was denied, and the process to deport her began.

Valencia has not been to Mexico since she left when she was a child. She said her three children speak very little Spanish.

“I just said we may have to leave the U.S. and they just look at it like, ‘Oh, my mom is just kidding,”’ she said.

A study by the Pew Hispanic Center shows that almost 6.5 million—63 percent of unauthorized immigrants in the United States—have lived here for more than 10 years. Close to half of those immigrants are parents of minor children.

Rockbridge County and Lexington became participants in the Secure Communities program in June 2010.

Capt. A. M. “Bucky” Miller of the Lexington Police Department said local police aren’t deliberately seeking illegal immigrants to arrest.

“If I pull somebody over for speeding and they’re illegal, ICE isn’t going to come get them.  Not one person,” he said.

“Let’s say we have a van full—ICE will come,” Miller said. “ICE likes to deal with large numbers. They want big arrests.”

On Dec. 1, Valencia and Jamar attended a hearing in Arlington. They had compiled more than 600 pages of documentation of Valencia’s life as a law-abiding citizen, and they were prepared to make arguments before a judge.

Instead, they were asked to turn in some forms and a deportation hearing was set for February 2013. It will take that long, Jamar said, because of a backlog of similar cases.

“I would like to be able to have the opportunity to stay here with my children,” Valencia said, “and have the opportunity to go back to school and get an education.”

Killeen King, Burl Rolett, Brooks Simmons and Tilden Bowditch also contributed to this story.