The good news arrived rather unexpectedly. Most of the people who attended the rally in Erie, Pa., were still on the bus ride back to Cleveland when they heard that Alfredo Ramos-Gallegos had been released from prison. But who would have thought he'd get out so quickly?
Relatively speaking, of course.
On Feb. 8, 2014, a Mentor police officer flagged a car near Great Lakes Mall. Alfredo Ramos-Gallegos, a passenger, handed over a Mexican voter registration card, which prompted the officer to call in backup of the border patrol ilk. Ramos-Gallegos was arrested and brought under what U.S. Attorney David Hickton once termed "the fast-track policy to expedite handling of criminal immigration cases." The feds meant business. Hickton charged him with one count of illegal reentry, a felony, because he had already been deported once back in 1999. Chances were good that he'd be deported again, leaving his two children in Mentor living without their father.
The 40-year-old immigrant ended up in the Erie County Prison, and as he counted his days behind bars his family and friends energized a local protest movement to address the prosecution of immigrants in the U.S. The gravity of Alfredo's case was immense and hit home for plenty of other families facing similar circumstances in their own homes.
But on March 20 he was set free, and just a few weeks later Hickton himself filed a motion to dismiss the felony charge. Attorneys who were watching the case say Alfredo's peaceful, tax-paying life, long established here in Northeast Ohio, helped the U.S. attorney use discretion over the law to grant his release.
But he is not a free man, in the broader sense, and likely never will be. He was only granted a one-year stay from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), meaning that next spring he will await word again from the ICE on whether he's allowed to stay in America. But for now, good news.
Things like Alfredo's turn of fate almost never happen in 2014 America, where there's a nationwide push for immigration policy reform. President Obama's tenure has seen some 2 million deportations, and federal prosecutors are charging illegal reentrants with alarming frequency — a 28-fold increase over the past 20 years — leaving stories of families ripped apart from sea to shining sea.
Like that of Elizabeth Perez, who understands all too well what Alfredo's family was thinking about while the federal government held him.
The 35-year-old mother, U.S. Marine vet and recent Cleveland State University graduate was at the rally for Alfredo outside of the Erie County Prison and on the bus back to Cleveland when the crowd received the good news.
"That was something I'll never forget for the rest of my life," she says. After years of embedding herself within immigration advocacy efforts in Northeast Ohio, Elizabeth couldn't help but think that maybe she'd get some good news this year too.***
June 23, 2010.
When the call came, it popped up as "unknown" on her cell phone. Elizabeth Perez was jostled from a nap in her Cleveland Heights home. It was midday, and she was already exhausted. She'd been to the doctor that morning and arrived back home to tell her husband the good news before he left for work: They were going to have a second child. Their first, a three-month-old son, was sleeping nearby when Perez answered the phone.
A Mayfield Heights police officer greeted her on the other end; he was inquiring about a man named Marcos Perez whom he had just detained at a traffic stop. En route to one of his two jobs, Marcos had run a yellow light. But Marcos didn't have the proper identification on him, because he lost his wallet a few days prior, but also because he wouldn't have the proper identification: Marcos Perez was an undocumented, Mexican-born immigrant who had been living the U.S. since 1993.
But, yes, Elizabeth told the officer, Marcos was her husband, and what exactly is going on here?
When asked, she couldn't offer up her husband's social security number, which only stoked the officer's suspicions more. He continued to grill her and soon threatened to call ICE. Elizabeth asked the officer not to go down that route and pleaded to speak with her husband. But her cell phone battery died right then — click — and she had no number to call back.
"I grabbed my baby and started walking to the police department," she says.
Her car — the car Marcos was driving — had been summarily gutted, she found out when she arrived at the station. The dashboard was ripped out entirely, as were the heating vents. Papers that had been sitting on the passenger seat were ripped into tiny squares. The police never had an answer when she asked why all of that was necessary.
Elizabeth says she was advised not to pay bail, as that would have led Marcos directly out of Mayfield Heights custody and into the hands of ICE. So Marcos stayed put for two weeks for running that yellow light.
During that time, being rather well versed in English, he listened silently as immigration agents spoke with police, insulting him, his wife and his wife's father, who was serving as Marcos' attorney. They called the whole lot of them stupid for thinking they could get away with this while treating Marcos like some big prized catch from a weekend on the ocean, he would later tell his wife.
"The whole mentality is that he wasn't a person," she says. "The whole time he wasn't a person; he was just an animal, a piece of garbage off the street. That's how they treated him. And the truth is he was in there for running a yellow light. That's what his charges were."
When Elizabeth arrived on Marcos' final scheduled day in jail, she waited around for a while and nervously watched the clock tick away. When an immigration hold is placed on someone in custody, a local police department grants ICE a window of opportunity to show up and claim the person in question. Tick tock. Tick tock.
Elizabeth held her infant son and thought about her and her husband's second baby. There had been so much to think about in those past two weeks. Marcos was the sole breadwinner for the family that summer. She simply wanted him home.
She held on to hope, resisting the urge to panic, until a prison guard pulled her aside and pointed out the window to an unmarked white van outside.
"He's in that van," the guard said. "And you're probably never going to see him again."***
She met him in California in 2009. It was a love story like any other in a way — a quickly blooming romance that proved no obstacle was insurmountable.
Their relationship came after Elizabeth finished 10 years in the armed forces, both in the National Guard and the Marines, with deployments in Afghanistan and Japan and work all over the U.S. in between. But after a decade, Elizabeth felt the call of motherhood and the desire for family and ended up in California with her sister.
Marcos Perez was working three jobs at the time, filling the days with carpentry, the nights with restaurant service gigs, including at the place where Elizabeth's sister worked, and the weekends with what Elizabeth calls "oddball construction" work. He kept an active life, one in tune with the outdoors, and in his sense of industry Elizabeth saw a kindred spirit. Besides, he was so kind. She fell hard.
It didn't occur to her then to inquire about Marcos' legal status, and it wouldn't have. For one, it's not like people typically run citizenship checks on their dates. And secondly the mood in California, Elizabeth says with a tinge of reflection, is a bit different — it's not something you ask about.
Elizabeth and Marcos began building their relationship, and life continued to change around them. Soon they were planning the birth of their first son.
The conversation about Marcos' status occurred in fragments over time. It wasn't even really clear to either of them what impact, if any, it had on their budding family.
"To me, it was like, 'Oh, well you're here...,'" Elizabeth says. "It didn't matter at that point. And it wouldn't have mattered much in the beginning anyway, because I really liked him from the first day I met him."
Marcos' legal status rested comfortably on the back burner but the couple planned for the necessary and eventual process, saving up money to get Marcos naturalized. Other legal designations also didn't matter much to them. They considered themselves "mentally and spiritually married," Elizabeth says, but, "it wasn't something that we felt was super important at the time." They didn't really know how to go through the marital process with Marcos' lack of documents but they were together and that's all that mattered.
The couple moved to Cleveland, where Elizabeth's family roots ran deep and where Cleveland State University held the promise of a bright future. It took Marcos a long time to find a job, though he did sling burritos at Chipotle for a time — "How stereotypical," Elizabeth says with a chuckle — and now and then picked up more of those oddball construction gigs. He was on his way to becoming a supervisor at a janitorial company, a promotion that would come in especially handy with two children to support and a partner heading to college.
"I wasn't doing anything bad. You know, as a human, you feel inside your heart when you're working in the wrong way," Marcos says via phone from Mexico City. "I felt really good. I had my family and my two jobs. I was going to go to school."
And then Marcos Perez got pulled over on his way to work.***
Elizabeth Perez positively beams when she smiles, and she smiles often. Framed by her two energetic sons, Ignacio and Marcos (now 4 and 3), she is an ebullient presence in her living room. And she smiles as she tries to tie Ignacio's curly, flowing hair into a ponytail, the prospect of which upsets Ignacio greatly. That smile quickly fades away when she talks about Marcos' departure.
The white van pulled out of the Mayfield Heights' police station parking lot and Elizabeth, in a quite visceral reaction, spat on the floor. Marcos was transported to Bedford municipal jail, then ICE's Seneca County Jail before being tossed on a flight to deep Texas, where he'd be ferried to the far side of the Mexican border with no inkling of what to do next. He was still wearing his work clothes from weeks' prior when he'd been pulled over. He had $17 in cash. With no ID, there was no immediate way to get money wired from Elizabeth back home.
Marcos eventually gained the trust of a stranger in that forgotten border town, garnering enough rapport to have Elizabeth send money through the middleman. He made his way to Mexico City, the sprawling political center of a country with which Marcos bore only a passing familiarity. Mexico City, for Marcos, is home to a tangled family history that involves his mother giving him away as a child so many years ago and a father he's still never met (a lifelong absence that he says now reminds him of his own sons). It's not his home. But with nowhere else to go, Marcos reestablished himself in the city of nearly 9 million. After a brutal first year with few prospects, he took up work as a soccer referee.
Following the birth of their second child in 2011, Elizabeth moved the family to Mexico City. Anything, she thought, to keep them all together. Elizabeth and Marcos became legally married. The long-awaited signatures made everything official and with that, the formal visa application process to return to their lives could begin. They were advised it would be about a two-year wait before everything was approved. Two years was manageable. Two years wasn't that long. The couple poured thousands of dollars into lawyers to help navigate the paperwork.
But simply being together in the meantime wasn't enough, not when all their money was funneled to lawyers, leaving little left for daily life, and not when Elizabeth battled hunger — real, indescribable hunger — for the first time in her life as a result. She couldn't keep her kids in that environment for long.
And there was the matter of her thyroid, part of which had been removed years before. She needed regular check-ups at the VA hospital and, being a veteran, she thought she and her family deserved to be close to the American systems that had motivated her to devote ten years of her life to serving her country. Her roots were in the United States, after all, and Marcos' future was on American soil. Two years.
Elizabeth returned to Cleveland and began working on her bachelor's degree in social work at Cleveland State with additional studies in Spanish. She and the kids would spend summers in Mexico City where the family would enjoy brief stretches of normalcy, but once they returned to Northeast Ohio, the stresses of thousands of miles of distance would begin to show. Ignacio experienced frequent night terrors, and though Skype and long-distance calls helped bridge the gap, his anguish was rarely quelled completely.
Two years, she'd remind them. Daddy would be home soon.
But in the run-up to the November 2012 application interview, Elizabeth stumbled upon a horror tucked in the legal language of her husband's application. Because he had been deported from the country, he was ineligible for this particular visa pipeline. The couple, as it happened, had sunk thousands of dollars into inept legal representation and several years of their lives into a path with a dead-end.
Marcos went to the interview anyway, because sometimes crazy things happen and because you reach for whatever glimmer of hope you can. It didn't matter. His application was rejected. He would remain ineligible for a visa until 2020.
"We got the money back," Elizabeth says, referencing the lawyer who led the family astray and the military retirement she was forced to cash out decades too early to pay for the privilege. "But I would have rather gotten the time back. I was having a really hard time mentally. I went into a state that was not good. I had all my hopes in life riding on that; that was the only thing that kept me moving forward. And when that fell through, I just fell into this deep, dark place."***
It's not unusual for families to be roped along by lawyers who don't understand immigration law. The issue is sprawling and complex and can hardly serve case-by-case guidelines on the estimated 22 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., according to 2012 Census data. In Cleveland, the estimates hover around 9,000.
There are two general routes to naturalization for undocumented workers: Those already living in the U.S. can return to their home country and initiate a waiting period of up to 10 years. Only then can they apply for a legal return. Non-residents who have never set foot in the U.S. apply for citizenship with sponsorship from a parent, sibling, or even an employer. That process can take between 2 and 30 years.
Waiting periods are measured not only in years but in lifetimes. And the deeper into the labyrinth of immigration law one delves, the more obstacles and qualifications arise. A U.S. citizen, for example, hoping to bring his or her unmarried children into the country faces an average wait time of seven years. For children coming from Mexico in particular, the wait is closer to 21 years.
Those timeframes, outlined among dazzling legalese in State Department bulletins, tripped up Elizabeth and Marcos and their first lawyer, who hadn't realized that those visas are only available to people who have not crossed into the U.S. already. Ergo, Marcos returned to the back of the line to wait until 2020 with other previously deported immigrants. His is a fairly emblematic story of federal and immigration roadblocks. And as time went on, Marcos' dreams receded further from view.
"I want to see my family. Sometimes families, in these kinds of situations, they separate," Marcos says. "It's kind of hard to make it work like that." Four years in, he's calmer about his station in life these days. But knots of resentment don't fade easily.
At 35 with two kids and an exiled husband, Elizabeth is fiercely aware of the passage of time. When doctors removed part of her thyroid several years ago, they found cancer cells. The news came as a shock and added one more gut-wrenching stressor to the pile of life, the sort of thing that married couples would typically confront together in partnership.
But it might be the frightening, lingering possibility of doomed cells that can help her build a case to reunite her family. The Perezes are working on the application for a humanitarian visa, usually reserved for political refugees, as a long-shot attempt to bring Marcos home before 2020. As always, Elizabeth is hoping for good news.***
The March 20, 2014, rally in Erie, Pa., was something proactive Elizabeth could do. After slipping into depression after her husband's 2012 visa application was denied, she'd connected with HOLA, a statewide grassroots advocacy group for Latino outreach. As she fought her personal battles, she'd committed herself to understanding the plight of immigrants and identifying real solutions for the people she was meeting. They were good people, after all, like Marcos.
Statistics published by the University of Arizona's National Center for Border Security and Immigration show that most men and women who illegally reenter the U.S. after an initial deportation are just like Marcos Perez: people with promise who contribute to society via taxed employment and community and family involvement.
Local immigration attorney David Leopold has a similar characterization of the vast majority of undocumented immigrants and the tenuous position they attempt to hold every single day.
"The real problem is not him," says Leopold. "He would comply with the law like millions of other people if he could. This is a guy who pays his taxes with an ITN number, you know; he doesn't have a social. He does what he can to comply with the law. The one thing he can't comply with is the immigration law. He can comply with the tax law, he can comply with the criminal law, he can comply with the law that says you gotta take care of your kids — and that's both a moral law and a regular law. He does all that, but he can't for the life of him comply with the immigration law because there's no way for him to do that."
Men like Marcos walk on increasingly thin ice, and one slip changes their world forever. And while each story is unique, Marcos Perez's ICE dossier reads familiarly. According to federal records, the biggest increases in deportations over the past five years involve people charged with nothing more severe than a traffic violation. The deportation rate for men and women in Marcos' shoes quadrupled over time once Obama took office in 2008. The president backs his policy, citing criminals in need of a swift kick out the door. Elizabeth refers to all of this as the "deportation machine."
"There are people who ought to be prosecuted, no question about it," Leopold says. "If some dangerous felon or drug dealer or some terrorist is deported and then reenters the U.S., that's what that law is for."
In 1992, there were 690 illegal reentry felony cases prosecuted in the U.S. In 2012, there were 19,463. The average prison sentence lasts two years, which often comes on top of yet more time lost to the quagmire of naturalization policy. Those stats don't even include men like Marcos, who aren't charged with any federal felony before they're flown to the nearest border.
There are families like the Perezes, with one undocumented parent, and there are families with two undocumented parents and there are families with some children who are U.S. citizens and some children who are not U.S. citizens. They each have their own circumstantial roadblocks to cross.
"They're all still here. Something has to give," Elizabeth says. Her voice takes on a frantic tone when she talks about other families in similar situations.
"You can't just keep deporting and separating all these families. It's going to have effects on their futures — our futures. Who knows? My sons, when they're teenagers, they're going to be angry. I already know this, because all teenagers are angry. But what are they going to be angry about? Are they going to be angry, like, 'Mom, why didn't you take us to Mexico?' Or are they going to be mad at my husband? 'Dad, why didn't you cross the border to come be with us?' They're not going to be happy. That really tears me apart when I think about that."
Elizabeth diverts her attention making popcorn in the microwave and doing what she can to calm Ignacio and Marcos. With that sort of limitless energy that only toddlers possess, they've been wrestling each other for an hour. In between suplexes, the kids pause now and then to watch La Casa de Mickey Mouse, which is blaring on the TV. Elizabeth watches on.***
"People hear things and that's how they justify what's happening," Elizabeth says.
Detailed truths don't sell newspapers. And the real story from the view of the people living this stuff doesn't make it onto TV. Broad brushstrokes and generic rhetoric fail to capture the nuances of each family.
"Then they think that the situation is not as bad, because they just believe what they hear and what everyone else says, even though it's not true. That makes them feel that — one — it's not as bad as it really is and — two — things are justified. Like, 'Why didn't they get papers this whole time since they've been here?' Well they can't get papers! What are you talking about? 'Oh, they just drain our system.' They're not allowed to get subsidies. They can't get food stamps. They can't get anything! What are you talking about? 'They take away from our social security.' They're not allowed to get social security! They don't get earned income tax credits, though they pay taxes with ITN numbers. They're paying into it that way."
She lands, near frenzied now, on a exasperated closing note: "Where are you getting all this information from?"
Cleveland political leaders and news outlets have historically pushed the immigrant issue off the table, and quite publicly too. What little coverage the matter picks up is either vitriol from the cartoonish Kevin O'Briens of the world or intimation that it's not the in city's interest to welcome outsiders ("I believe in taking care of your own," Mayor Frank Jackson famously said last year on the topic of immigrants in Cleveland).
"People hear things and that's how they justify what's happening," Elizabeth says. She leans back now, reasserts eye contact and admits: "I thought the same stuff before, though."
Before the yellow light and the white van and the border town and the night terrors. There's a pretty grim line of demarcation in her family's life — the sort of game-changing twist that no one really sees coming when they plan for the future. On one side of the line is a life steeped in sepia. On the other side, where Elizabeth and Marcos now find themselves, is one colored in grays.
"This is my country and I love the United States. I don't want to leave. This is my culture," Elizabeth says. "I don't want to ever say anything negative about my country. We have a process here to make things change. That's what sets us apart from a lot of places. We can make a change, and I feel like a change needs to be made. This is not right. It is not right that elected officials either turn a blind eye to it or they're just so uneducated about what's happening to people. As a veteran, I'm not happy with what's happening. But as an American, I say that we have the opportunity to change things."