The story of a mother from Meriden, Connecticut, went viral earlier this year when more than 13,000 people signed an online petition asking immigration officials to let her stay in the country. Nelly Cumbicos fled her native Ecuador nearly 20 years ago because of violent threats against her family.
She has a teenage son who was born in the United States and she’s married to a U.S. citizen, but immigration officials scheduled her for deportation in February. Then, those immigration officials changed their minds…twice.
Supporters say the emotional rollercoaster started for Cumbicos earlier this month, when protesters from across Connecticut gathered outside of Meriden City Hall. They wore red T-shirts that said “Keep Nelly Home" because they say Cumbicos has no criminal record and she’s a valued member of the community.
One of the protesters, Michael Thomas, rallied the crowd to ask City Council to stand by Cumbicos as she fights her immigration case. Thomas had a big announcement.
“For any late arrivals that may not know this,” Thomas said, “Nelly received a stay this afternoon!”
Cumbicos would no longer have to board a plane to Ecuador by February 16. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, or ICE, made the rare decision to issue Cumbicos a stay on her deportation.
Cumbicos could not stop smiling.
“Thank you, everybody, for helping me and supporting me and my family,” Cumbicos said before entering City Hall to address the council.
Cumbicos’ lawyer, Erin O'Neil-Baker, had petitioned the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York to review her immigration case. On February 5, ICE officials told Cumbicos that she could stay indefinitely until that case came to a head.
Four days later, nothing changed with Cumbicos’s case, but something changed at the Department of Homeland Security that oversees ICE.
“They reassessed the merits for the petition for review,” said O’Neil-Baker, the immigration lawyer who represents Cumbicos. “They determined that they would not stop her deportation, and they set a new deportation date.”
O’Neil-Baker said she had never heard of a case where ICE officials changed their minds so quickly.
A spokesman for ICE would not comment on Cumbicos’s case while it is still under judicial appeal.
“Her final removal order, which was previously issued by an immigration judge, remains in effect,” ICE said in an emailed statement earlier this month, “Barring a revocation of her final removal order, Ms. Cumbicos Romero will be required to depart from the country. For operational security reasons, ICE does not discuss the specific times or dates of removals.”
O'Neil-Baker said that ICE ordered Cumbicos to leave the country by Wednesday, February 28.
“It was upsetting and it was shocking and disheartening,” O'Neil-Baker said of the new deportation date. “However, in the time that we’re in where policy is shifting, where procedures are shifting, it was disappointing. But it’s kind of the new...the new process.”
O’Neil-Baker said her client will leave the country before a Board of Immigration Appeals in Virginia could get a chance to decide whether to give her a day in court. In 2002, an immigration judge in Hartford had ordered Cumbicos deported. O’Neil-Baker said Cumbicos was not there to plead her case because she never received notice of her court date. When Cumbicos leaves this month, Baker said she loses her right to that appeal.
“It made no sense,” said David Leopold, an immigration lawyer in Ohio and former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association in Washington, D.C.
Leopold said Cumbicos’s experience with ICE reminds him of his client, Amer "Al” Adi Othman, of Youngstown. Leopold said Othman bought a plane ticket back to his native Jordan in early January. Then he got a call from ICE saying his deportation had been canceled.
“I asked them point blank, you know, is there another date set for his removal?” Leopold said, “And I was told no. There’s no date set for his removal. Just have him check in with us on January 16, and we’ll see where we are.”
So Othman went to the regional ICE headquarters outside of Cleveland with his whole entourage: his wife, Fida (who’s a citizen), his lawyer, Leopold, and Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan from Ohio.
“And the Agent asks Amer, Fida and me to come into the back room,” Leopold said, “The door closes, locks and he says, ‘I’m not gonna mince any words here. I’m taking you into custody today.’ If my jaw wasn’t connected, it would have hit the floor. I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing.”
ICE detained Othman. He made national headlines when he went on hunger strike in prison. While Othman refused food, the agency ignored congressional steps to ask for a stay.
Othman’s lawyer said that a private congressional bill for a stay would be Othman’s best option. Othman came to the United States on a student visa and married a citizen, who he later divorced. In a closed-door meeting in the 1990s, Immigration officials ruled that the marriage was a green-card sham. Othman didn’t know of the decision until he applied for a green card with his new wife—and the mother of his children—years later. He had been ordered deported, but immigration officials had allowed him to stay when he checked in year after year.
Leopold said since the Trump administration changed deportation priorities, ICE used its resources to forcibly remove Othman to his native Jordan three weeks ago.
“All of those are resources that are not going to ferreting out, arresting and deporting criminals,” Leopold said.
Othman intends to come back to the United States to be with his four U.S.-born daughters.
Back in Connecticut, Nelly Cumbicos’s family could not be reached for comment before her scheduled deportation date.
Outside Meriden City Hall a few weeks ago, WSHU asked Cumbicos what advice she had for people facing deportation.
“Keep going,” she said through a Spanish interpreter.
Cumbicos’s lawyer says her client intends to board a plane to Ecuador on February 28.