“It was just a routine interview,” said Lilian Calderon. “We didn’t think anything of it.”
On January 17th Lilian and her husband Luis Gordillo brought their four-year-old daughter, Natalie, to the doctor’s office for a quick check up. Then the couple went to their immigration appointment. Lilian was in the process of becoming a lawful permanent resident, as the wife of a United States citizen and the mother of two children, also United States citizens. Brought to this country at the age of three, Lilian was working to change her status from undocumented to documented, following the legal process laid out for her by immigration officials and lawyers.
Lilian and Luis brought a photo album and other papers with them, documenting their life together: their relationship which began in high school, the birth of their two children, holidays, birthdays, marriage photos.
“We arrived at our appointment and Luis and I were in the waiting room just hanging out talking about what we were going to do when we left there,” said Lilian. “It was definitely not how planned the day as going.”
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The immigration officials wanted to interview thee couple separately. Luis went in first and it was probably a ten minute interview. He came out of the interview saying, “It’s fine. It went fine.”
And then they called Lilian in.
“I think it was maybe a five minute interview,” said Lilian. The immigration officer asked her basic questions.
“Everything is in order,” said the immigration officer. “It’s a legitimate marriage. I don’t have any more questions for you. We’re going to go ahead and approve your petition.”
“Then, at the end of the interview, the immigration officer said that before I left I had to speak to other immigration officials that were there.”
The two immigration officials Lilian was speaking to stepped out of the room when the new immigration officials entered. “They came in and told me they had to detain me because I had a prior order of deportation.”
“That’s when I was like, ‘Well, you just approved my marriage, what do you mean I have to go with you?’ I asked them if I could speak to Luis and they said ‘No.’ I said ‘Why not? I have to tell him what’s happening,’ and they said, ‘No. We’re going to inform him of what’s happening.'”
Lilian was told she could call her lawyer when she reached the immigration office in Warwick.
“Is there anything you want to give him?” asked the immigration officers.
“Of course,” said Lilian. “I want to give him the pictures and the album…
“They didn’t even give me a chance to say bye to him.”
Lilian Calderon “is back with her family after almost a month’s detention,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island ACLU. “A detention that was the result of a cruel bait and switch. A detention that occurred solely because she did what the government had asked her to do to address her citizenship status.”
After being processed in Warwick, which included photos and fingerprinting, Lilian was finally granted a phone call. She called Luis.
“I don’t know what to do,” said Lilian. “They’re telling me to sign these documents and I don’t know what anything is.”
“Don’t sign anything if you don’t understand what it is,” said Luis.
Lilian’s attorney went to the immigration office to try to get her released. Lilian was not allowed to see her lawyer.
She was shackled for a second time that day and sent to Suffolk County House of Correction at South Bay where she was processed again. Then she was transferred to the ICE Unit in the prison. None of the officers have any answers to any questions the inmates might have, says Lilian.
She used the pay phones in the prison to call her husband and let him know where she was. Luis called Attorney Martin Harris, who contacted Lilian “and made things easier because he made me feel calm.”
“The ladies in the ICE Unit kept asking me, ‘Why are you here?'” said Lilian. “Even the [correctional] officers were asking, ‘Why are you ICE? Why are you here?’ No one understood.
“Every time I got moved they would say to me, how are you ICE? Is it drugs? And I was like, no, it’s not. And that’s a problem because everyone thinks that when you’re detained you’re detained because of drugs.
“They don’t tell you that the women detained in that unit are moms and grandmothers and they’re daughters,” continued Lilian. “And while I was there there were a few other women who were also there because they went to their immigration interviews with their husbands who are citizens and they have citizen children and they were detained as well. With no reason, no explanation…
“Some of them have been there a month, two months. I met a lady that was there for three years. She was shuffled from one place to another place and finally to where we were. She didn’t know what her situation was she was just waiting for her release.”
Lilian says that the prison has two caseworkers for the entire unit. One of the caseworkers told Lilian, “You know, I don’t know anything about immigration. I can’t help you. I don’t know what to tell you. We’re here because we work for the jail and we have to be here but I can’t help you.”
“That’s okay,” said Lilian. “You can help me just by listening and I told her my story and [the caseworker] asked, ‘Then why are you here? Why did they detain you? It doesn’t make sense.’
“I know,” said Lilian. “None of this makes sense. It’s not okay.”
The caseworker helped Lilian make a phone call.
Over the weeks Lilian spent in prison she was put through orientation. “They make you go through the steps that you would if you were detained under other reasons,” said Lilian. “So we did what they call orientation and what they call classes. We had to…” Lilian pauses, because this is difficult for her.
“We had to sit through videos that had to do with rape in prison,” says Lilian finally. “And all I could think of while I was there was I can’t believe I have to sit through a video of how to not get raped in prison, because just the other day I was picking up our daughter from school and I was thinking, okay, what are we going to do for winter so we can beat cabin fever, you know? And here I am a couple of days later watching these videos on rape and watching these videos on drugs and alcohol and domestic violence…
“I asked one of the officers, ‘Do I have to go to this? I don’t want to go, it doesn’t pertain to me – I mean, if I needed to be here for those reasons, this is great, you guys have help for people that need it – but I don’t need that kind of help. I need immigration help.'”
“I was like, what do you mean?” said Lilian. They said, “You’ll go into solitary confinement until you agree to do what you’re supposed to do here, because it’s not a choice.”
After her orientation, Lilian was visited by caseworkers who offer detainees and inmates the kind of help they might need to make their lives better once released. The caseworkers don’t offer immigration help. They offer help for addiction, domestic abuse etc.
“I don’t have those kind of problems,” said Lilian. “I have immigration problems. You can’t help me, but you’re forcing me to sit through these classes… At the end of orientation they make us pick these classes because they want us to be ‘productive.’ They want us to not sit in our units and they want us to get out.
“I said to one of the caseworkers, ‘Do I have to pick a class?’ I really don’t want to go outside of my unit because I feel safe where I am. The ladies that were there were all the same. We’re all moms, we all try to help each other. We care for each other. I didn’t meet anyone [in ICE detention] who wasn’t nice. And you’re telling me I have to pick a class, a class that doesn’t even pertain to me – it was anger management, it was narcotics anonymous, it was domestic violence, it was HIV and AIDS classes – and I was like, ‘I don’t want to leave my unit. I like my unit. The ladies are nice. We talk to each other. We’re kind of each other’s support and stuff –
“And [the caseworker] said to me, ‘You need to pick something, because if you don’t pick something, you’re going to solitary.'”
“Every time I would say something or disagree with something, it was automatic – You need to do what we say or we’re going to put you in solitary,” said Lilian.
“I didn’t do anything wrong that would put me in this position.”
To speak to her lawyers, Lilian had to use a payphone and call Luis. “When you try to call your lawyers, there’s another number that you dial. It wouldn’t let us make any outside phone calls to our lawyers. It would say, ‘All our lines are blocked.’
“The other ladies that were there, [some] didn’t speak English and they would ask me to help them and I would help them and say, ‘It’s not going through. You can’t call your lawyer.’ And they would ask me why and I would say, ‘You know what, I don’t know, but we can ask the officer that’s in charge of our unit. And when we would ask our officer she would say, ‘Oh, I don’t know why not. You just have to bring that up with your caseworker. Fill out a form and your caseworker will see you.
“But sometimes our caseworker wouldn’t come for two or three days,” continued Lilian. “So if you need to speak to your lawyer, you have to wait for a caseworker to come and let you use a private line to call your lawyer. But what if it’s an emergency? We’re supposed to be able to call our lawyers any time we need them. And we couldn’t.”
Lilian and Luis did what they could for the other detainees in the ICE Unit.
“I remember on occasion I would call Luis and say ‘Hey, so-and-so needs to call their family and she hasn’t been able to. Can you call them and tell them that she needs to talk to them?’ And he did that for a few of the ladies in there.
“Some of these ladies, when they couldn’t call anyone, it’s like, ‘You’re stranded. You’re stuck, you can’t – You’re like a sitting duck.’
“This is a month,” said Lilian, looking inward. “I can’t even imagine being in there two months, three months, four months… The people inside, they get nervous every time another day passes, another week, because they don’t hear anything. No one knows anything.”
“Everyone thinks that when you get detained by ICE its because it’s either drugs or violence or crime, like it has to be crime related,” said Lilian. “But it’s not true, because – I’ve never…” Lilian searches for the words. “Like I said: We would take our daughter to school. We would pick her up. We would take our children to the park. We would take them to the library. They had a schedule. They had some form of normalcy. There was never anything wrong – anything that would lead to a crime.
“So for you to think that I had to be picked up because it was either drug related or violence or some sort of crime, that’s a misconception. [People] don’t understand that we’re all moms. We’re all trying to figure things out. Or daughters. There were grandmothers there and you’re like ‘Why are you here?’ and it’s the same thing. They’re just going through the system and the system just picks them up and tells them ‘You have to wait here until we figure out what to do with you.'”
“[People] say to me, ‘You shouldn’t have gone through the system,’ but I say, ‘No, I’m trying to do the right thing.’
“But it’s a broken system.”
Lilian was release on February 13th. She had chocolate and strawberries for Valentine’s Day with her family. She has been granted a 90 day stay of deportation by United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
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