It was a touching moment for Sarah Saldaña, director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as she picked up an award at Southern Methodist University from the Hispanic alumni group this week.
She was selected as this year’s distinguished Hispanic alumna. The 63-year-old Dedman School of Law graduate was grateful, she told a packed room in the SMU Meadows Museum at the Thursday luncheon.
Her story was their story — one of hard work and a large family. She had four older brothers who were all Golden Gloves boxers. Her hard-working mother struggled to make ends meet as a nurse on a $13,000 annual salary.
And she talked about the difficult path she traveled from her humble origins in Corpus Christi to her post as head of an agency constantly under scrutiny from both supporters and opponents of immigration reform.
“It’s a difficult time in our country,” she concluded. “Whatever you want to do to bring your own rational voices, starting in our backyard, in our community, I would greatly appreciate your help.”
Moments earlier, however, she had shown some of the toughness she had earned as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas when she listened to a couple of immigrant advocates. They had confronted her the night before at a community meeting with immigration advocacy groups, and they had come to the luncheon to press their case.
They, along with several congressional Democrats, are asking for an end to detention for immigrant families. They also asked for an advisory committee to pay surprise visits to the detention centers and report back to her.
Hundreds of Central American mothers and children, many of whom are likely to qualify for asylum, continue to be held in three detention centers that opponents say are degrading and unfair.
“We feel we’re not at the table, but we’re on the menu,” Marco Malagón, co-founder of the North Texas Dream Team, told Saldaña on Thursday.
She listened, which was more than the advocates had done the previous night.
Malagón, the North Texas Dream Team and members of the Texas Organizing Project had stood up and turned their backs to her then. At the luncheon, however, Malagón had stood and applauded her.
“We care about her success,” he said. “But as ICE director, we will always let her know that she needs to guide the system in a humane way to protect our families.”
Saldaña said later she would have no problem with that.
She likes a good debate, she said, and “can take the volume being a little higher.”
But disrespect is something else.
“I respect you. You respect me. That’s what I expect. That’s the bottom line.”
She remains committed to carrying out the current policy of President Barack Obama and the secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson.
That means focusing on catching and deporting unauthorized immigrants who are also convicted criminals, she said. And there should be no debate about that.
“The people who are victims of these folks who are in the country illegally are often other undocumented immigrants who are living cleanly and rightfully and pursuing their dreams here. Those aren’t the people we’re trying to go after.”
This article was originally featured on The Dallas Morning News