Sara Mendez Morales started working on farms in Guatemala at the age of six, became a victim of sex abuse and human trafficking and wound up in the United States in 2007 and Ohio by 2013.
Now, she's sitting in the Butler County jail. After serving her time for a crime to which she pleaded guilty in 2019, ICE will not release her due to her immigration status, with no indication of when she might get to go back home, despite a judge's order that she can stay in the state due to the dangers involved in returning to Guatemala.
The 34-year-old mother of two children, suffering from cancer, was working to get solid footing for herself and her family.
"Just trying to get her life together with her children, found out her partner was abusing her daughter," said Kim Alabasi, Morales' attorney.
Morales reported the abuse to a doctor at her chemotherapy appointment in April 2019. Less than two weeks later, police arrested her for child endangerment.
"She had tried reporting him a few months earlier and he broke her phone, he beat her up and he locked her in a room for three days," said Sara Liebler, an advocate for Ohio Immigrant Visitation. The group helps those in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody to communicate with their loved ones.
Morales wrote Liebler from jail asking for help.
"She felt like no one could hear her, that the things she said didn't matter, that everyone had made up their minds about her and there was no hope," said Liebler.
Morales ultimately accepted a plea deal to the charges and completed her sentence in August 2020. But because she's an immigrant without a visa, ICE has continued to hold her at the Butler County jail, despite a judge's order that she can remain in Ohio since her life would be in danger if she returned to Guatemala.
"This is somebody who was victimized her entire life," said Alabasi. "I mean, it's a very long, horrific story."
ICE agents told Alabasi they intend to keep her in the Butler County jail because of the seriousness of her conviction. Her attorney has appealed that decision and Morales has filed paperwork providing her with a path to permanent residency, since she was brought to the United States as a victim of human trafficking.
"It's really horrifying to know she stood up against so much and then she was still punished in a way that just goes beyond belief," said Liebler.
WCPO reached out to ICE for comment and has not yet heard back.
In the meantime, advocates said the Butler County Department of Job and Family Services is working to give full custody of her children to foster parents.