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.