Rosa Maria Ortega voted for Republican Ken Paxton for Texas attorney general in 2014.
Now, as she sits behind a plate glass window Monday with heavy eyes and wearing a tan Tarrant County Jail jumpsuit, she’s crushed that Paxton and others can celebrate her incarceration as sending a message about illegal voting.
Ortega, 37, a permanent resident who arrived in Texas as an infant and has four children, all U.S. citizens, was charged with two counts of illegal voting for voting illegally in elections in 2012 and 2014. On Thursday, a Tarrant County jury handed down a sentence of eight years in prison and a $5,000 fine for each count. After serving her sentence, she will likely face deportation.
She believes she is wrongly being used as an example of voter fraud.
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“I thought I was doing something right for my country. When they gave me the sentence they just broke my heart, and they didn’t just break my heart, but I already knew my family was going to be broken, my kids especially,” Ortega said Monday during an interview at the jail, where she will remain for about a month until being transported to a Texas Department of Criminal Justice facility. “To me, it’s like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this. I just can’t.’ ”
As a green-card holder, Ortega says she never thought she couldn’t vote. While a resident of Dallas County, Ortega received a voter card after providing a valid driver’s license and Social Security card and being approved through the state process, according to Toni Pippins-Poole, the Dallas County elections administrator.
In 2012, she voted for Mitt Romney for president; two years later she voted for Paxton for attorney general, according to her attorney, Clark Birdsall.
Upon moving to Tarrant County, she again registered to vote, but her application was rejected because she checked the box indicating she is a non-citizen. Confused, she told election officials she had previously voted in Dallas County. She received another application and this time marked the box affirming that she is a citizen.
That raised red flags, and she was arrested for voter fraud.
“She wasn’t trying to topple the government. She was voting Republican for who she thought would do a good job,” Birdsall said. “Even if the government’s case is exactly right that she did it when she knew she wasn’t supposed to, goodness gracious, 50 percent of our population couldn’t be bothered to get off the couch and vote in our last presidential election.”
Paxton’s office prosecuted the case with the Tarrant County district attorney’s office.
“This case shows how serious Texas is about keeping its elections secure, and the outcome sends a message that violators of the state’s election law will be prosecuted to the fullest,” Paxton said in an emailed statement. “Safeguarding the integrity of our elections is essential to preserving our democracy.”
‘Be strong, Mom’
Ortega’s brother Juan, 35, said he would understand the punishment if Ortega was illegally receiving money to vote or if she was attempting to alter the ballot box.
“But she did this thinking she was doing something productive for society,” said Juan Ortega, a U.S citizen who lives in the Ellis County town of Ferris. “Rosie doesn’t know any other country. She’s never traveled to any other country. This is all she knows, the United States.”
Rosa Ortega said she simply wanted to be a part of the democratic process and didn’t understand the status difference between a permanent resident and a citizen.
“I just wanted people to hear my voice. But I really didn’t think I was doing anything wrong,” Ortega said. “People make mistakes — people make mistakes.”
She said her fate is quickly sinking in and she is devastated about losing her four children, ages 12 to 16. Family members said the children were pulled out of the Arlington school district and enrolled in the Dallas school district on Monday. The children’s biological father, Rene Garza, has assumed custody, Ortega said.
She said she cries at night in her cell thinking about her children.
“The oldest, they don’t want to see me. They don’t even want to talk to me. I recently talked to my [oldest] son and he just told me, ‘Mama, I love you,’ and he just dropped the phone,” Ortega said. “I don’t know what’s crossing their minds. I don’t know why they don’t want to talk to me. But before I even came to the trial, I talked to them as well, and they told me, ‘Mom, we know that you didn’t do this. We know that you just went exactly how any person would go through this voting thing.’
“But, there is a God — we always believed in God, that’s one thing for all of the family,” Ortega continued. “And they tell me, ‘Just let God take care of it. Be strong, Mom.’ That’s the last words I heard from my kids.”
Ortega said Garza, who lived alone in North Dallas, has had a limited role in their children’s lives and she is concerned how they will adapt to a new home life and new schools.
“At first they were upset. They were like, ‘No, Mom, I don’t want to go,’ ” Ortega said. “I said, ‘You have to understand that I know it hurts, but you have to understand no matter what, that’s your dad.’ I always tell them about the Bible, honor your parents, honor your mother and father. They kind of got it — they’re like, ‘OK, Mom, we’re doing it for you — we’ll stay strong for you.’ ”
Engaged to be married
Ortega was visited last weekend by her two younger children, Gracie, 12, and Clara, 14. They came with Ortega’s fiance, Oscar Sherman.
“Oscar told them, ‘Stay strong, you are going to see your mom through [glass],’ and they didn’t really think how unusual this is,” Ortega said. “When they came in they just started crying — they couldn’t hold it in.”
Ortega was engaged to be married in April to Sherman. They met eight years ago at an Oak Cliff diner where she once worked as a waitress and quickly hit it off and moved in together. Ortega said her kids call Sherman “Dad.” Sherman said he and Ortega would have wed years ago if not for her husband refusing to sign divorce papers.
He had finally agreed to the divorce, Sherman said. Sherman already purchased airplane tickets for a honeymoon in Hawaii.
Peering through the glass window during the 20-minute interview Monday, Ortega wiped away tears each time she spoke of her children, with whom she may never again spend a free moment on American soil.
“I go outside and I look at the sky and I say, ‘God, why me? Why me, a single mother that did right, that just didn’t know the differences?’ ” Ortega said. “I worked two and three jobs. I paid taxes. I was involved with everything. To be treated like this, it’s not fair.
“The main thing that hurts me being here is my kids, and that’s one thing they didn’t even see or know about or worry about — that people have family. I didn’t do nothing wrong. I just wanted to vote and be part of it.”
Jeff Caplan: 817-390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan