On March 18, after 25 years in prison for crimes she says she did not commit, Rosie Sanchez walked free for a moment. But as soon as she walked out of the prison doors, she walked immediately into a United States Immigration and Customs vehicle that drove her to the Mexican border.
“To have it happen that quickly is just unheard of,” said Jennifer Farrell, a second-year law student at the USC Gould School of Law who has been working on Sanchez’s case as part of the Post-Conviction Justice Project. “That’s why it was such a shock that she was deported the day she was released from prison.”
On Dec. 8, 1985, Sanchez, who was then a shop owner in the garment district, was arrested for murder when a rival shop burned down, killing a man who was sleeping inside. Sanchez has insisted she was innocent since the day of her arrest.
Sanchez’s case was brought to the attention of the Post-Conviction Justice Program last year, and Farrell spent several months fighting to prove Sanchez’s innocence. She was eventually pardoned by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on March 18.
After receiving her pardon, Sanchez was released March 18. But because authorities said she was never a legal citizen, she was immediately deported.
In the late 1970s, Sanchez applied to an amnesty program, according to Farrell. She completed an application, submitted it to the Department of Motor Vehicles and received a license. Sanchez paid taxes and possessed a business license for her store in Downtown Los Angeles.
“She thought she was here legally,” Farrell said.
In 1991, after her conviction, Sanchez applied to transfer to a prison in Mexico, but received a letter stating that because Sanchez was a legal citizen in the United States, she could not transfer to a prison in Mexico.
In October, when Farrell represented Sanchez at her parole hearing, she presented parole plans that Sanchez would voluntarily deport and live with her sister in Mexicali, Mexico.
“Part of the reason we did that is because that would be a better legal argument for when the board considered her for parole,” Farrell said.
She added that because Sanchez was innocent and not a danger to society, they did not expect Sanchez to be deported.
“Everyone had gotten their hopes up that it was going to work out,” Farrell said.
In March, when Sanchez’s parole was upheld by the governor, the prison said Sanchez could temporarily stay with her daughter in Los Angeles after her release the following week.
Initially Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Sanchez would be detained in Los Angeles for two weeks and then face an immigration committee that would re-evaluate her case.
But a few days before Sanchez’s release, ICE called and said she would be deported immediately.
“ICE says she’s always been illegal and has been here illegally,” Farrell said.
Farrell is now working with Sanchez to help her return to the United States.
“We’re trying everything we can,” Farrell said. “I will be on the case through the end of the semester, but the clinic will definitely stay with the case as long as there’s something we can do for it,” Farrell said.
Farrell is talking to immigration lawyers at the law school and looking into Sanchez’s legal status as a citizen of the United States. ICE has not yet returned any phone calls, Farrell said.
Ultimately, Sanchez would like to come back to Los Angeles and spend time with her four children, who have all settled in the area.
“She wants to be able to live with her kids,” Farrell said. “Right now, she’s completely banned from the United States … We really don’t think it’s fair what happened.”
Sanchez is currently celebrating her release with friends and family in her hometown of Mexicali. Sanchez and her children were not available for comment.
“She’s happy to be there, [but] it could be better,” Farrell said. “It’s still overall a victory, but with an asterisk.”