Gov. Terry McAuliffe granted a pardon Wednesday to an immigrant mother facing possible deportation by federal immigration authorities after being convicted of driving without a license, an unusual intervention by the governor that underscores Democratic resistance to new enforcement policies under President Donald Trump.
Immigrant-rights groups had been asking Virginia officials to help Liliana Cruz Mendez, 30, who left her native El Salvador in 2006 and lives in Falls Church with her two U.S.-born children, ages 4 and 10. Cruz Mendez was convicted of the driving offense in 2013 after she was pulled over for a broken taillight, according to CASA, a Maryland-based immigrant-rights group that has drawn attention to the case.
Cruz Mendez had received two deportation stays allowing her to remain in the country, but she was detained again Thursday by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement during a “regularly scheduled check-in.”
McAuliffe said his decision to clear Cruz Mendez’s criminal record “won’t necessarily” prevent deportation, but will be a “positive factor” in her legal case. Cruz Mendez is still being detained by ICE pending an appearance before a judge.
“Taking Liliana away from her kids & husband won’t make VA safer,” McAuliffe said in a series of Twitter posts Wednesday. “Feds need to focus on public safety threats and real immigration reform.”
Carissa Cutrell, an ICE spokeswoman, said an immigration judge issued a “final order of removal” for Cruz Mendez in 2006 after her original arrest by the U.S. Border Patrol.
“Even without any criminal convictions, she is still subject to removal from the United States based on that final order of removal,” Cutrell said.
McAuliffe’s office said the governor has used his clemency powers to assist people dealing with immigration laws who had legal status of some sort, but the pardon for Cruz Mendez is believed to be the first time McAuliffe has used his executive authority to help an undocumented immigrant facing deportation.
Corey Stewart, a Republican candidate for governor who has promised to crack down on illegal immigration and sanctuary cities, said Cruz Mendez should be deported and McAuliffe “should not and cannot get in the way of federal law enforcement.”
“It is an absolute myth that enforcing immigration laws splits up families,” said Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors. “If somebody breaks the law and as a result of that they’re split up from their family, that’s their fault, not the government’s fault.”
If Cruz Mendez is deported, Stewart said, she can take her children with her, even though their U.S. citizenship entitles them to stay.
Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, the front-runner to win the GOP nomination for governor in the June 13 primaries, declined to comment. Running as a moderate, Gillespie has opposed sanctuary cities and the issuance of driver’s licenses for those living in Virginia illegally, without matching the tough anti-immigrant tone of Trump and Stewart.
The Republican Party of Virginia issued a statement criticizing the action by the governor, calling him a “wannabe” presidential candidate.
“We know that Terry McAuliffe is auditioning to run for the Democrat nomination for president in 2020 and is trying to check every box with out-of-state liberal interest groups. The least he could do is pretend that he cares about the citizens of Virginia instead of pandering to the illegal immigration lobby.”
Virginia’s U.S. senators, Democrats Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, say they have contacted ICE about the case.
In a statement, CASA Executive Director Gustavo Torres said McAuliffe’s action was the first ever gubernatorial pardon for a CASA client and a “good step in our fight to free Liliana.”
“With this pardon the governor has sent a clear message” that “Liliana is not a criminal, as ICE asserts, but rather a loving mother and wife who has been a valuable member of the Virginia community for more than a decade,” Torres said.
CASA operates in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Under Virginia law, first violations for driving without a license are treated as a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000.