Jussara Davis stared forward into the muted light of an overcast afternoon as she drove home to Tampa, leaving hours of mopping and scrubbing and tidying behind her. She was debating what to make her teenage boys for dinner — rice, beans and fried beef, maybe — when a Pasco County sheriff's cruiser pulled in tight behind her gray Honda Accord, lights flashing.
Davis, a petite woman with a youthful face, summoned calm. "I am not a criminal," the 42-year-old reassured herself. It is true that she is not a U.S. citizen. But she had never been arrested. She owns a home. Pays taxes. Volunteers at church.
She spun her self-soothing script for why she should not be deported as she maneuvered into the Fast Track Urgent Care parking lot at State Road 54 and Gateway Boulevard. Deputy Brian Hernandez walked up to her driver's side window. One of her brake lights was broken, he told her. He asked for her license and registration. Flustered, she accidentally gave him her health insurance card. She also gave him a fake ID.
"You still live in Washington?" Hernandez asked, body camera footage shows. He was referring to her out-of-state plates. Washington is one of 12 states that issue licenses to undocumented immigrants.
"Yeah. I still have my friends here, my kids," she replied, saying what she thought might get her in the least amount of trouble.
Davis called Kristin Martin, whose house she had just finished cleaning, while Hernandez walked back to his cruiser. She did not want to be alone. Just in case.
More deputies wheeled into the parking lot — one, two, three SUVs. Davis' self-doubt rose like bile.
"Maybe I am a criminal," she thought.
Martin had been parked next to Davis for 40 minutes, the women exchanging nervous words through their open windows, when a deputy ordered Davis to get out of the car. She was under arrest for driving with an expired license, last valid in 2012. The fake ID had prompted deputies to contact Border Patrol.
"Please," Davis asked the deputy. "Can I call my sons?"
No, he said. She could make a call at the jail. The tunnel vision hit. While she was being handcuffed, Davis told Martin to call the boys' father, her ex-husband.
In that moment and in many anxiety-ridden moments to come, the boys were all Davis could think about. Giving Leonardo a chance to thrive was the main reason she let her tourist visa expire 17 years ago, why she never went back to Brazil. Who will make sure 18-year-old Leo, a diabetic, gets his insulin shots? Who will take John, 15, to band practice?
That was on June 21. Jussara would not see the boys again for 27 days.
Under President Barack Obama's immigration guidelines, federal agents would not have prioritized someone like Davis — a primary caretaker without a criminal history, beyond minor traffic infractions — for deportation. Now, anyone who is unauthorized is fair game for removal, according to immigration lawyers and advocates.
Davis' story speaks to a pattern unraveling nationwide since President Donald Trump took office, they say.
In 2014, the Obama administration ordered immigration officials to exercise more discretion in whom they targeted for removal. They were told to consider a few factors when they came across an unauthorized immigrant: among them, how long the person has lived in the country and whether they had a young child or ill relative.
The Trump administration revoked those guidelines in February, identifying all undocumented immigrants as a top priority for removal.
Deportation numbers have actually declined under Trump, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Federal authorities deported 61,370 criminals nationwide from January to June, down from 70,603 during the same period last year. But officials are arresting more people who haven't committed any crimes, the agency said; 4,100 such immigrants were arrested in June, more than double the number in January.
"Parents of U.S. citizens with no criminal records get deported every day," said attorney Marianthe Poulianos, who is representing Davis in her deportation case. "I always feel like people doubt me when I say that. Here's a very real example of it."
Davis spent her first night away from her boys at the Land O'Lakes Detention Center. There, deputies contacted U.S. Customs and Border Protection to let federal agents know they had arrested an undocumented woman. She cried with little reprieve until the next morning, when she was transported to the Customs and Border Protection station in Tampa.
While she was filling out paperwork there, an officer told her she wouldn't be able to send money to her family in Brazil anymore. Davis says he laughed in her face. Her family never asked for anything, she responded.
After her arrest, Border Protection had filed a request to detain Davis. Detainers, otherwise known as "immigration holds," ask local jailers to voluntarily keep immigrants held on other charges past their scheduled release date. This gives federal agents time to determine whether they will trigger deportation proceedings.
Some cities and counties across the United States are choosing to not honor detainer requests in a stubborn response to heightened immigration enforcement. Some believe detainers will weaken trust in local police. Others point to court rulings that indicate detainers could be unconstitutional.
The Pasco Sheriff's Office complies with all detainer requests that are "supported by probable cause," said public information officer Amy Marinec. The Sheriff's Office does not track how many detainer requests it honors.
From Tampa, Davis was taken to the Pinellas County Jail in Clearwater, where she spent three nights in a cell, alone, before being transported to the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach, one of Florida's five immigration detention centers.
There, Davis had a few roommates — some mothers, like her — and long stretches of time to mull over an uncertain future. She read books, learned how to knit. A good cook herself, she picked at the bland cafeteria food. She was let outside three times a day, 30 minutes at a time.
Davis mostly worried about her lanky, handsome sons. She both cherished and dreaded her daily phone calls with them. It hurt to hear their tired voices. It hurt to ask Leo to gather documents for her, to work with the attorney, when he had just begun college classes at the University of South Florida. At 18, he already had an associate's degree. She was so proud of him.
Leo was suddenly thrust into adulthood: cooking, cleaning, driving his little brother around. And Trump's campaign promise to do away with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which he was protected under, loomed above the mechanical engineering major.
This was Davis' problem. But really, it was the entire family's.
"If I get out of here," she kept thinking, "I will do whatever it takes to become a citizen."
Davis grew up outside Curitiba, the largest city in the Brazilian state of Paraná. Her parents owned a small coffee farm. If she wasn't in school, she was in the sun, harvesting or cultivating crops. Despite the grueling work, the family was poor and lived in a small wooden house without indoor plumbing.
She wanted something other than this difficult and monotonous life, so she went to technical school to get a teaching certificate. That's where she met the father of her sons, Jaconias De Campos. It was 1995. She was 21.
They married within the year, and baby Leo arrived in 1999. Davis taught young children with special needs. De Campos was a security guard. Finally, Davis had escaped poverty, but the couple barely made enough to get by.
"A good life in Brazil is a poor life in the U.S.," she said.
So when De Campos' brother invited the couple to stay with him in Tampa, they seized the opportunity. They applied for tourist visas and booked one-way flights.
Davis adored so much about the United States — the movies, the food, a more transparent government than she had known in Brazil. The path toward prosperity seemed wide open, even though she had to work three jobs at first, cleaning houses and offices and waitressing, and even though some of her clients never paid her.
Above all else, she liked the schools. She envisioned Leo going to college here and reaching a level of success far beyond what she allowed herself to hope for in her own life.
So, Davis stayed and let her visa expire. She didn't hear from the government about her status, and life went on. She had another baby, John. Bought a three-bedroom house and painted the living room a soft yellow and filled it with family photos. Went through a messy divorce.
All this time, she aspired to become a citizen. But options for permanent residency are slim for people who overstay tourist visas, her lawyer, Poulianos, said. An immediate relative, such as a spouse or a child over 21 who is a U.S. citizen, must file on their behalf. She planned to have John file for her once he was of age.
The fear of getting caught was ever-present, like an itch she couldn't scratch. But the fear was outweighed by what now seems like a naive sense of justice — that if immigration officials knew how much she had given to this country, knew how bright and kind and American her boys were, they would let her go.
Davis was released from the Broward Transitional Center on July 18. She had waited a month for a hearing to determine her bond amount, if she was lucky enough to be granted bond. She was. She paid $10,000 — her life's savings, just about — for what might prove to be only temporary liberation. Davis makes about $24,000 a year.
Leo drove the four hours down to Pompano Beach to pick up his mother. He was nervous. He didn't want to see her cry.
He pulled up to the center, painted an ironically cheerful pink, and found Davis waiting outside. Overcome, he tried to get out of the Camry to hug her.
"She told me to get back in the car and to get the heck away from that place," Leo recalled.
Davis didn't cry. But Leo saw that the detention center had wilted her.
The first thing Davis did when they got back to Tampa was clean the house, which had become uncharacteristically messy in her absence. She took the boys to dinner at Village Inn.
Then she slumped into a numb sadness. To will herself out of bed in the morning, she had to focus hard on her sons. Nothing else did the trick.
"Some days," she said, "I feel dead."
But Davis says she cannot indulge her depression. Her life as a single mom is even more chaotic since her release.
Because she cannot drive, she pays a service $25 a day to get to and from the homes she cleans. When she's not working or taking care of John and Leo, she's preparing for her first deportation hearing on Nov. 28 in Orlando. She must prove that she has been in the United States for at least a decade, is a person of good moral character and that her children would face exceptional hardship if she left.
Davis will be able to apply for citizenship in five years if she is granted a green card by an immigration judge, Poulianos said.
When asked how her life might change if she is granted such a gift, Davis brightens, sits up straight.
She would go to college, teach again. She would improve her English. Her heartbeat would no longer quicken at the sight of a police car.
And one day, maybe, she would look back on the summer of 2017 with detached relief, like a vivid nightmare that never entirely fades from memory.