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SALT LAKE CITY — One of three Utah sisters granted a year's reprieve from an imminent deportation order by federal immigration authorities calls the decision a "miracle." And one person who may have helped deliver it is Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.
"This has truly been a miracle. God heard our prayers," said Silvia Juarez Avelar, at a press conference Thursday afternoon at the Scott M. Matheson Courthouse.
Juarez Avelar and her sisters Barbara Tapia Alevar and Laura Rangel Avelar have been granted a year's reprieve from a pending order of deportation for overstaying tourist visas.
The sisters, adult women with children, were scheduled to report to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in Salt Lake City on June 13 with one-way airline tickets to Mexico in their possession. The women, who would have had to pay their own airfare, were supposed to be in Mexico no later than June 15.
ICE regional spokeswoman Virginia Kice confirmed in a statement that the matter will be set aside for a year.
"After conducting a further review of the sisters’ cases and taking the agency’s enforcement focus into consideration, ICE has decided to grant the women deferred action for a period of one year," said ICE regional spokeswoman Virginia Kice in a statement.
It was great, it was relief. I can sleep better. My kids are happy. It's great.
"At the end of that time frame, ICE will reevaluate their cases to determine appropriate next steps.”
The women, who have been represented by an attorney, said they are unsure why ICE officials granted the reprieve. But it appears Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff played a significant role by sending an email request to ICE director John Morton on the women's behalf.
Shurtleff confirmed Thursday that he sent an email to Morton asking if something could be done to prevent the breakup of three families. The sisters have six children among them. The Avelar sisters are law-abiding and employed.
"I figured it's not going to hurt to ask," Shurtleff said, explaining that during his three terms as Utah attorney general that he had developed professional relationships with Morton and Janet Napolitano, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
"Why not try to use it?"
Shurtleff said he does not know if his email set matters in motion for ICE to grant the extension. He credited the immigration service for taking another look at the case.
"This was a just and truly American thing to do. Now they can go back to focusing resources on the bad guys."
Juarez Avelar said she believes that Shurtleff's actions made a difference. "He heard our story and he actually had compassion."
The family hopes that their case will receive another review because they were just children when their parents brought them to the United States nearly two decades ago.
"When I was 8 years old, I didn't even know where we were going," Juarez Avelar, 26, said.
Shurtleff said he hopes the women can find a means to work through the system to gain legal status.
The Avelar sisters, each a graduate of Kearns High School, "for all intents and purposes are American. I hope they can get square with the law," Shurtleff said.
On Dec. 7, 2010, the sisters were detained by ICE agents, along with their parents. Two days later, their mother and father were deported, based on a deportation order entered in 1997. The sisters were allowed to remain in the United States on the condition they reported to ICE authorities each month.
The Avelar sisters, all graduates of Kearns High School, "for all intents and purposes are American. I hope they can get square with the law," according to AG Mark Shurtleff
The Avelars' parents are now living in Mexico City but have no close relatives. "If we were to go back, we don't even have a place to stay," she said.
Shurtleff reiterated that he does not condone illegal immigration, but said the sisters' case is yet another example of the nation's broken immigration policy. He noted that it also demonstrated that ICE officials can, under appropriate circumstances, exercise prosecutorial discretion, he said.
In June 2011, the Obama administration issued a memo to ICE officials reminding them of their prosecutorial discretion regarding investigations, arrests, detention, parole, initiation of removal proceedings and the execution of final orders.
Officials may take into consideration individuals with serious health conditions, people with serious mental or physical disabilities, pregnant or nursing women, victims of domestic violence and longtime lawful permanent residents, among other factors.
Kice said in a statement that "ICE exercises prosecutorial discretion on an individual basis, based on totality of the circumstance in each case."
Tapia Avelar said she was initially in shock when she heard the news. Then the tears flowed. "I (cried). My daughter did. Everyone I told did," she said.
The advocacy organization Salt Lake Dream Team conducted a press conference Monday outside Temple Square to inform the public that the three mothers were facing deportation.
Allie Schulte of the Salt Lake Dream Team said many people facing deportation actions or have other matters pending before ICE officials are reluctant to go public for fear of making matters worse. But often once the issues are in public view, "the likelihood for them to get help is greater."