OAKLAND, Calif. - Ricardo Mercado was heading out from his West Oakland home to work at the Royal Coffee warehouse as he did most every morning, when an agent from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement appeared suddenly on the sidewalk and whisked him into custody.
The 38-year-old husband and father of three had his car keys jangling in his hands. Did he want to run inside and give them to his wife? the ICE agent asked.
No, Mercado recalled in an exclusive jailhouse interview this spring from inside the West County Detention Facility in Richmond. He was worried the agent would arrest his wife too. And he didn’t want his children to start crying.
“I was just going outside,” he said, fear still evident on his face as he sat behind a glass window. “They was waiting for me. They showed me the papers with my name and all kinds of information.”
His wife, Lilia Perez, never got to say good bye. She was inside the house and never knew what happened until he called her later from the ICE building on Sansome Street in San Francisco. %INLINE%
More than 40,000 undocumented immigrants in ICE custody on a given day
Mercado has been in federal custody for nine months -- since July 11.
He sought asylum and was denied. He came to the United States illegally 21 years ago. He was 17 at the time and said he left Michaocan, Mexico to help his impoverished parents. He is not considered a Dreamer as those eligible for DACA have to had come at age 16. In 2006, he was convicted of a DUI on Christmas Eve and has been ordered twice to be deported.
He is also one of the estimated 40,000 undocumented immigrants in daily ICE custody across 112 detention centers nationwide – and one of 200 in the Contra Costa County Jail. The National Immigration Forum in Washington, D.C. estimates the cost to detain these immigrants costs $208 a day per person, or $8 billion a year.
Mercado is also just one of the thousands who are now caught up in the Supreme Court’s “Jennings vs. Rodriguez” decision in February, where a majority of justices declared that undocumented immigrants do not have the right to periodic bond hearings and can remain in custody indefinitely.
And his detention comes at a time when the immigration the debate has reached a national boiling point: The Trump administration has been vocal about ridding the country of undocumented immigrants it often equates with dangerous criminals and gang members, while others call this rhetoric racist and unfair to an entire group of people who should be given an easier pathway to citizenship.
ICE declared the Supreme Court ruling a victory
“I am incredibly pleased with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Jennings v. Rodriguez,” Acting ICE Director Thomas Homan said in a statement after the ruling. ”This decision clarifies detention authorities and is an important first step in addressing dangerous judicial decisions eroding laws enacted by Congress.”
Homan’s views are shared by many in the country, who believe that undocumented immigrants like Guillen broke the laws by coming to the United States without the proper authorization and should be sent back to where they came from.
Is holding a detainee indefinitely unconstitutional?
Some legal experts say they do not believe holding someone indefinitely will hold up legally upon further review. And they point to a little wiggle room in the ruling, which was sent back to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to answer two unresolved questions: First, whether indefinite detention without a chance for bail is constitutional. Second, whether the challenge to that no-bail provision can be brought as a class action, instead of as individual cases.
UC Berkeley School of Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky said in his opinion it’s not constitutional to hold a detainee indefinitely without a hearing. But the ultimate decision he said, “comes down to what the majority of the Supreme Court will hold and I think that will be a very close question.”
Mercado and his immigration attorney, Kevin Crabtree in Oakland, are hoping the courts will have time to come back with a ruling that’s more favorable. Crabtree filed a writ of habeas corpus on his client’s behalf in early March. Mercado is seeking to stay here on the basis of “withholding of removal,” which is similar to seeking asylum, Crabtree said. The request is based on Mercado’s claim that his relatives in Mexico are being extorted, and that there are risks for him and his nuclear family as well. Crabtree said the district court this month found Mercado was "unlawfully detained," however, and ordered an immigration judge bond hearing. His case is scheduled to be heard on Wednesday.
9th Circuit judges ruling more leniently
Two recent Bay Area cases give the Mercado and his family hope. On March 13, a federal judge in San Francisco ruled that Floricel Liborio Ramos, who also filed a similar writ, should be released from detention under appropriate supervision conditions as she waits her final deportation hearing. And on March 30, an immigration judge ruled that Fernando Carillo of San Jose can stay in the United States after he proved it wouldn’t be safe to return to his native Mexico. Immigrant rights attorney Jehan Laner Romero explained that the district court judges within the 9th Circuit, are unique with their recent detainee rulings, as a legal precedent in this circuit allowed for more lenient interpretations. Lower court immigration judges across the country, she said, are mostly interpreting the case more conservatively, ruling that detainees in several categories should be denied these bond hearings.
The legal fees are racking up -- $10,000 and counting. But Mercado and his wife are willing to stay and fight.
“There have been people in this country for many, many years and when these things happen they throw everything away and they say that’s it, I’m leaving,” he said. He wants to take a different path, even if it means a costly and protracted battle. “If people have the opportunity to stay and fight to live in this country, they should do it,” he said. “That’s the reason I keep fighting.”
Mercado’s biggest worry is to be deported: “If I’m deported, then I lose my family and I don’t wanna lose them. It’s kind of hard to take them over there. We come from a poor family. And my country is very danger.”
Despite his one DUI, Perez argued her husband is not a danger. He is a wonderful father, she said, and was their daughters’ soccer coach, which made him the envy of all her friends. “He don’t kill nobody. We just go to work we just try to do everything good. We just want a better life for our children.”
Since her husband’s detention, Perez has been raising their two daughters and son on her own, struggling to pay legal fees and put food on the table while working as a cook at an Ethiopian restaurant in San Francisco. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said through tears. “I’m scared. I’m scared maybe we have to go. I don’t want that life for my kids. But what can I do? Nothing. Nothing.”
This is not a dream
She took a moment to collect herself. “Sometimes when I wake up, I’m thinking maybe it’s a dream. But no, it’s not.”
Perez tries to keep strong, but sometimes she can’t control her emotions when she opens the box of love letters her husband has written to her from detention. They are filled with words like “mi amor” and “corazon.”
What’s worse for her is watching her oldest daughter struggle growing up without her father. She’s old enough to understand that he is behind bars and might be for a long time. It was her birthday a little while ago, and Perez asked her daughter what she wanted for her birthday.
“She said, ‘Mommy you can’t give me nothing,’ “ Perez recalled her say. “ ‘You can give me one thing. That’s my dad. And you can’t give me that.' "