I'm in a waiting room in a large courthouse in San Francisco. Immigration court. Sitting next to me is Magdalena Martinez. She's here for her mom: Bertha Mejia, from El Salvador. Bertha's undocumented.
In 2011, immigration officers came to Mejia's home in Oakland. There was raid in the neighborhood. Martinez remembers that morning.
"I got a phone call from my sister, Vanessa, saying that immigration had come and picked my mom up. So I rushed to my mom's home and, yeah, she wasn't here," says Martinez.
Here's her sister, Vanessa Madrigal, was there when officers approached her mother's home.
"They came and knocked on the door, so they asked for identification and as my mom gave them the identification she stepped out, and as soon as she stepped out, they grabbed here and arrested her and said, 'Call immigration.'"
Mejia was one of several people arrested that day. That was nearly two years ago. Ever since, she's fought to remain in the US, from a jail used for immigrant detainees that's hours away.
Madrigal says they hope the judge will let Mejia fight deportation from outside a cell and rejoin the family.
"She's the caretaker for Pablo, my sister's son, and for my daughter, Jasmine," says Madrigal. "So, they spent a lot of time with her."
We see Mejia walk into the courtroom, ushered by a guard. She is 54 years old, petite, with curly hair. She wears an orange uniform and has shackles on her ankles and wrists.
There is a lot at stake. Mejia left El Salvador over 30 years ago. All of her family is here in the US: siblings, her daughters, her mom, grandkids.
Her case also is not rare. America's population of detained immigrants has ballooned to more than 400,000 as enforcement tightens. Most detainees are like Mejia: undocumented–but not violent criminals. Critics say there are cheaper, more humane ways to treat these immigrants while their cases are pending.
Rosy Cho is Mejia's lawyer. She says, "I think if the American public knew really what was going on and how their taxpayer dollars were spent–and also that we are spending our energy detaining women with no history of violent crimes, I think a lot of minds would be changed and I think reform what happened more quickly."
In court, Mejia tells her story in Spanish. Judge Anthony Murry listens through an interpreter. She tells how she left El Salvador because of war, poverty and sexual abuse. In California, she has worked as a cook and housecleaner.
Then, in 2005, she was raped by a man whose house she cleaned. It added to Mejia's history of abuse. After the rape, she got a DUI and got caught several times shoplifting food. A psychologist testifies at the hearing that Mejia's crimes stem from post-traumatic stress disorder, arising out of a childhood of sexual abuse and which the 2005 rape exacerbated.
Then, the family waits for several hours in a hallway outside of the courtroom, hoping for a ruling to be issued the same day. Turns out, the ruling comes in a few days later.
The judge rules that Mejia must remain in detention. He rules that she poses a danger to society because of her history of petty theft and driving under the influence—and that she is a flight risk despite her close family ties in California and the persistence she has shown to continue her case.
Mejia's lawyer, Rosy Cho, is also fighting back with appeals. She says Mejia is eager to improve herself. "This a woman who has suffered a lot in the past and hasn't always made the right decisions," says Cho. "Does that mean that we throw her away and separate her permanently from all her family in the United States?"
I talk to Mejia in the courthouse, behind Plexiglass. I ask her about the judge's position, that she'd disappear if let out of detention.
"Where would I go?" she says. "I have children, grandchildren here. I'll try to win my case."
And what if she's deported to El Salvador, after 30 years away? Mejia says she's afraid. She only has distant, ugly memories of the place. Then, Mejia is bused back to detention. The latest news is she'll be transferred to another facility, farther away.
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