Special Reports

No country for her: Locked up, fighting deportation

Tara Ammons Cohen doesn’t feel like a celebrity.

She didn’t look like one Monday, dressed in the bright yellow pants and formless shirt of a detainee sitting inside a small white-washed interview room at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

Her only “jewelry” was the plastic identification bracelet she has worn on her left wrist for more than 17 months.

Her story – of adoption as a 5-month-old in Mexico by American parents and how 38 years later she now faces deportation to the country where she has never lived – has gone viral on the Internet.

Google her name and nearly two dozen pages of stories and comments, in English and Spanish, pop up.

“I guess it’s nationwide,” she marveled.

Two television stations, including the Hispanic national news network Univision, waited to interview her Monday.

Her story has prompted comments, both pro and con, about her battle. But if celebrity somehow helps her get home to her family in Omak, she’ll take it, whatever way it comes.

Immigration Judge Tammy Fitting in Tacoma twice has ordered Cohen deported, most recently Dec. 7. But Cohen intends to ask her to reconsider and, if she fails to win her freedom, to appeal the decision, even though that will keep her in detention until a ruling comes down.

Going into her most recent hearing, Cohen and her attorney, Manuel Rios, had hoped for a sympathetic decision, one that might even let her go home for the holidays.

Fitting had ruled that the drug charge that prompted Cohen’s deportation case was not a “serious” crime. She pleaded guilty to stealing a purse containing two bottles of prescription pills and to a trafficking charge, though she never sold a pill.

The ruling opened the possibility that Cohen might be allowed to stay in the United States.

However, the judge rejected Cohen’s argument that she would be in danger living in a country she didn’t know and where she didn’t speak the language and knew no one.

For Cohen, it was a black day after months of hoping.

She called her mother, Janet, in Upland, Calif.

“I just lost it, crying and freaking,” Cohen said Monday. “She calmed me down, told me I would make myself sick.”

She called her husband, Jay, the next day. She understood his huge sigh of frustration and anger. She talked to her oldest son, Troy, 13.

“He was monotone about it,” she said. “It’s sad in my heart.”

Troy and all his friends had planned a slumber party and a scary movie family night when his mom got home, she said.

Her 10-year-old son, Gavin, knows what’s going on but still has questions, Cohen said.

“He’s resilient,” she said. “He loves his mommy more than all the stars in the Milky Way. I talk to him every day, but he doesn’t know when Mommy is coming home.”

Cohen last hugged her boys 22 months ago. At that time, she was in jail in Okanogan County, where she was awaiting sentencing for theft and drug dealing. Sentenced to a year and a day, she spent three months in state prison in Spokane.

Immigration and Custom Enforcement agents picked her up at the prison when she was released.

Cohen saw both boys last March at the detention center, but it was through a glass partition. They couldn’t touch.

Cohen said she recently asked detention center officials whether she could have a “contact visit.”

“They told me when I get ready to be deported I could have a contact visit,” she said.

It bothers Cohen that she’s missing a chunk of the boys’ childhoods. Two birthdays for each have passed. She wasn’t there for Troy’s first dance and didn’t meet his first girlfriend.

“My oldest boy is taller than me now,” she said. “His voice has changed. He sounds like a man.”

She misses volunteering at school and decorating the house for the holidays.

“What I miss is Jay and my boys picking at each other during card games,” she said.

Despite all that, 17 months in detention have gone by surprisingly fast, she said.

Cohen wakes early but often doesn’t leave her bed or room until about noon.

“I have a bunkie (roommate); I have ear plugs,” she said. “It can get pretty loud in here at times.”

She watches her soaps on TV.

“Something’s got to take me away from here,” she said. “I read a lot.”

Early on, she spent almost every day in the center’s law library, writing her appeals and researching immigration law. She won her first appeal.

Cohen said she has picked up nicknames from other detainees: Mexi-can’t and White Girl.

Overall, Cohen said, she has been treated well at the detention center. The food could be better, she said, noting she has gained 25 pounds.

Exercise amounts to walking in a circle.

She misses the simple things.

“I haven’t seen grass or trees in 17 months,” she said, “just concrete.”

Cohen said her immediate goal is to put her faith in the judge to change her decision and to deal with whatever happens.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself,” Cohen said. “I’ve learned I don’t need alcohol and drugs to define me.

“I’ve grown to be a woman. I didn’t give up. I did fight.”

Mike Archbold: 253-597-8692 mike.archbold@thenewstribune.com