GRAND HAVEN, Mich. (WOOD) - A former high school honors student said she's living in fear -- of the U.S. Immigration officers who could send her back to China, and the Chinese sex-trade smugglers who might be waiting for her.
Cayla Roberts said she was 14 when smugglers, known as snakeheads , forced her into the United States for the sex trade in 2002. She was arrested before they put her to work.
Now, she is facing deportation.
"Before we left China, the smugglers told me we can't run away from them, because they know people up here, too, and they can find us," Roberts, now 24, told 24 Hour News 8. She spoke in three locations across Michigan Thursday afternoon at immigration reform rallies.
Roberts' attorney says Cayla's story illustrates the flaws in an immigration system that handles many people here illegally the same -- whether they were adults who came here on their own, were children taken along by adults, or whether they were smuggled in.
He says it points to the need for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to use more "prosecutorial discretion" in such cases -- an Obama administration policy that can stop the deportation process.
Cayla said she was 12, living in the Fujian province when her parents had a baby boy -- violating China's one-child policy.
Her only reminder of that childhood is a family picture. She cut out the face of her father, then taped it back in.
"As long as I can remember, I have always been the disappointment in the family because I was not a boy," she said.
Worth less, her father told her, than a bag of potatoes.
"The potato (is) worth more than you; they can feed people, what can you do?" she recalled her father saying.
24 Hour News 8 is not using her given Chinese name -- or the name the smugglers later gave her -- because she fears it would help the smugglers find her.
In 2002, after her mother died, her father sold her to smugglers, she said.
"I have took care of you for 14 years now, and it's your time to give back," she recalled.
Experts say snakeheads charge tens of thousands of dollars to smuggle Chinese children into the U.S. -- most of that repaid by the children once they got there. And, the children are expected to send money back to their family in China.
"Here you have a girl who's brought here, her father basically sold her to satisfy a gambling debt, sold her into basically what amounts to slavery to work in the sex industry, the most despicable thing you can imagine," said Cayla's immigration attorney, David Koelsch, director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.
She said her father dropped her off at a train station.
At the end of the train ride, "there was some guy with my name on the paper, and I just kind of followed the guy."
The journey led her to Mexico, by plane, with 29 other smuggled Chinese immigrants, then into the U.S. through San Diego, she said.
The snakeheads created a passport with a new name.
"They say, this (is) you now."
But before she reached the East Coast sex trade, men with guns and handcuffs pulled her and three other girls from a van, late in the night.
"I was scared; I was sitting in the van shaking. I didn't know what to do; I didn't know what's happening. I didn't even know I was in the United States."
Turns out, these armed men were her saviors -- San Diego police officers.
Immigration officers flew her to a center for undocumented children in Chicago. She called her father.
"There's no home for you here anymore, and there's two options if you ever come home," she quoted him as saying. "One option is, either I will kill you, cuz there's no home for you here anymore, or I will just give you a bottle of medicine and you can take care of it yourself, just kill yourself."
The smugglers, she said, started calling her at the center, threatening her.
"For them, she's a commodity," said Koelsch, the immigration attorney. "She's just like an automobile or some other commodity. They want to put her back into the stream of commerce. They lost money on the deal because she was arrested at the border. That's the way their business works."
It was Bethany Christian Services that eventually brought her to a foster family in Grand Haven.
"Why did you take me in?" Cayla wondered. "Why would you take a stranger in and love as your own? And their answer was always, 'Why not? You know, why not?"
And, she flourished, with nearly perfect grades at Grand Haven High School.
"She perservered obviously through tough times getting here," said her English as Second Language (ESL) teacher Ben Lawrence. "But once she was here, she wanted to learn English, get top grades, take the hardest classes we could offer here at Grand Haven, and she did it. She just had an incredible drive."
She volunteered with her church to rebuild homes after Hurricane Katrina, to work with poor children in Kentucky and in New York.
Cayla got married more than a year ago, to Seth Roberts, after he got out of the Air Force. They had met in high school, dated for two years.
She said the marriage had nothing to with her immigration status. In fact, it hasn't helped.
In a few weeks, she will graduate from Western Michigan University with degrees in psychology and interpersonal communications.
For nine years, Koelsch has fought to keep Cayla in the country, without success. He tried to keep her here under a "juvenile" status, but the U.S. Immigration Service denied that because of confusion over her date of birth, Koelsch said.
He's tried twice to seek asylum, as the victim of smugglers and because she is now a Christian and could face religious persecution in China, but an immigration judge in Detroit denied both.
In April, the U.S. Court of Appeals rejected her request.
Her last hope, Koelsch thought, was at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Office in Detroit, and an Obama administration policy called prosecutorial discretion . It allows ICE attorneys to pick and choose who can stay and who must go.
"That's what we thought this prosecutorial discretion was supposed to be for is for a child who came in unaccompanied, undocumented with nobody, and this country was here to help her, and they have helped her to this point, but then they're like OK, goodbye," said Cayla's foster mother, Bari DeWitt.
An ICE memo gives a list of potential reasons to block deportation, including for the victims of trafficking.
It also includes reasons to deport -- from posing a national security risk, to belonging in a gang.
"I have followed every single law they have told me to," Cayla said. "Unfortunately prosecutorial discretion has been very rarely exercised in the last year that it's been on the books," Koelsch said.
A recent ICE report shows the agency has reviewed more than 219,000 pending deportation cases, and found that 7.5% qualified for prosecutorial discretion. So far, fewer than 3,000 have been closed, meaning the immigrants will not be forced to leave.
Among them: 175 children; 182 who came here under the age of 16 and are pursuing a college education; and 60 who were victims of crime, including human trafficking.
Cayla can't legally work here, or get a driver's license.
The only way she can become a U.S. citizen is to return to China to get permission from that country -- something that could take years. And, her attorney said, it could put her in danger -- from the smugglers, her father, from China.
"I'm considered a traitor to China because I left there illegally," Cayla said.
Khaalid Walls, spokesman for ICE in Detroit, said he couldn't provide many details about the woman's case. He said he can't confirm that ICE had denied the request for "prosecutorial discretion."
He confirmed, though, that she would have to return to China to become a U.S. citizen. He said there is no time set for deportation.
"There is no imminent departure," Walls said. "The bottom line is the case is under review."
Koelsch said he will continue to fight for Cayla.
"So, why would we turn our back on somebody like that who has so much to offer us?" he said. "It doesn't make economic sense, it doesn't make sense from a social perspective, certainly not from a perspective of what the United States is and what we stand for. We're better than this."
Two Kalamazoo men are in jail after Kalamazoo officers found them with money stolen from Sunny Mart Friday afternoon.
Two people were taken to the hospital after one vehicle crossed the center line, causing a head-on crash in Ada Township Friday night.
A baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex ceremony must serve gay couples despite his religious beliefs or face fines, a judge said Friday.