It was a regular Sunday when they arrested me. I’d just gotten paid—back then I was working in the fields, picking grapes—and the kids decided they wanted to go to IHOP for breakfast.
We got in the car and my oldest daughter, Jennifer, was driving and joking around, and we were all laughing. She was just being so silly. We got to the restaurant, the little ones ordered pancakes, and Jennifer and I had omelettes. We finished and got back in the car.
That’s when they came. I don’t know where they had been hiding, but suddenly there were seven ICE officers, all in uniform. I don’t know how they found me, but they thought I was driving the car. One of them started knocking on the driver’s side window and asking Jennifer: Are you Floricel Liborio Ramos?
One officer, he spoke Spanish. He said: You have to get out of the car and answer some questions. Then he said: Sorry, but we’ll be taking you in, and the kids will be staying here. Is there anyone who can come and get them?
I had to phone my friend who was miles away. She asked me if I was allowed to wait for her to arrive—after all, the youngest kids were only 10 and 12. The officer said no, they had to take me right now. IHOP is always busy on a Sunday. There was a line of people waiting to eat and they were all standing there watching as the commotion happened. One officer told me I was going to go through deportation, that I couldn’t see a judge. I cried out: I have a life here! I have three kids who live here! They’re citizens!
They put me in handcuffs in front of my kids and put me in the back of a car. I looked at my children’s faces. All I felt was sadness.
I kept eye contact with them until the car started moving. Then I sat in the back, alone. The ride was silent.
I came to the United States from Mexico in 1998, when I was 18. I come from a humble background, five brothers and sisters, from an indigenous family. I always wanted to help my parents out, but nobody would give me work in Mexico, so I decided to cross the border. I went first to Los Angeles, then I went to San Jose.
Once I was there, I got my chance—two jobs, working six days a week at each of them. I worked at McDonald’s, starting a shift at 5 a.m. and getting out at 2 p.m., then I went to work in a taqueria from 5 p.m. until 11 or 12 at night. It was really tiring and stressful. The work had to be done really quickly, and one of my jobs was washing the dishes, so I would get home and my clothes would be dirty and damp, but I would just fall asleep sitting down on the sofa. But when I got my paycheck I’d feel so pleased, because at least I knew my parents would have something to eat.
That was when I met my children’s dad. He worked at the taqueria and was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico too. I would get out really late, and when I’d leave at midnight he would give me a ride home. We started hanging out, and then it turned into a relationship. He was deported in 2012—one day he left for work and didn’t come back. The kids still talk to him, but he’s not really part of our lives any more.
One Monday in the detention facility, an officer walked around and called out names. There were nine of us. We were told we’d have to get up at 3 a.m. because we were going to be taken away. This feeling of fear came over me—normally they would only take people out at that time of night when they were going to be deported. They said: No, you’re actually going to be transferred. The facility had gotten too full.
They drove us to Gilroy and put us in a small van to transfer us to the next place. By this time it was hot outside, over 100 degrees, and there were too many people to fit inside. We were squeezed in, shackled at the wrists, the waist, the ankles. There was no air conditioning, and it was even hotter inside the van than it was outside. It was like getting in a furnace; everything was so dark. I felt like I was choking.
That’s when the chaos started. One woman was older, she had diabetes, she started feeling dizzy and throwing up. Another lady was claustrophobic, and she started screaming and tearing off her clothes. We hadn’t had anything to eat, and they didn’t give us any water—all we needed was just a single drop of water—and we were all still chained up, handcuffed, our clothes drenched in sweat, banging on the grill shouting, saying, We can’t breathe!
Then one woman just passed out. We couldn’t tell if she was alive or dead. We started telling the driver, Please! Stop! Somebody’s unconscious!
I couldn’t breathe any more. I thought I was never going to see my kids again. But he didn’t stop the van, he just told us to shut up. He just sat there, driving and texting on his phone. I think we’re only alive by a miracle.
Sometimes I thought it was going to be my last night in the cell. I’d be mentally prepared, I’d go to see the judge, optimistic that something would happen. Then it wouldn’t, and I’d leave feeling even worse, because we had nothing concrete.
But the worst thing was that I couldn’t be there when my kids needed me. All of their birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas. Those were the days I would just cry and cry. I worked cleaning the toilets for a dollar a day—nobody else would do it, but that dollar was money I could use to make a phone call to speak to my children. One minute costs 10 cents. When I called them I was desperate to have a long conversation, but I couldn’t afford it.
They’d say: When are you coming home? We’ve been alone for a long time now, what’s happening? I’d try and dodge the questions, tell them to be good and to stay out of trouble. Daisy, my youngest daughter, would just cry. My heart was broken. Then the phone would just go dead, and I’d have to borrow minutes from someone else because I couldn’t let the conversation end like that.
When you are detained, you don’t see the daylight. You’re stuck in the process. When they would take us to a court appearance, they would chain us up: at the hands, the waist, the ankles. In reality, we were only being taken to a different room in the detention center—we would only ever talk to the judge by video link. But we’d be shackled the whole time.
They never gave me an interpreter at court hearings, so I would try and understand what the judge was saying by looking at her face. I used to see how she would talk to other people; she would act much more patient with some of them than others. For me, her body, her behavior... they were very harsh. I would see the reactions on her face, it heightened my fears.
To them, I was a single mother who had started using alcohol. I’d never drunk a drop before, but I was having problems sleeping because of anxiety—and after a long shift one of my co-workers offered me a beer. I started drinking to help me sleep, and that’s when I got a DUI. I know I made mistakes, but I’d taken parenting classes. I’d done a rehab program. I wasn’t drinking anymore. But in court they would say I had no right to be free because I was a danger to society. They’d say: Imagine what could happen if she was released and then went and killed someone.
It really darkened my feelings. I used to think: Am I a risk to society?
I never really slept for a whole night while I was there. When it was hot at night, the officers would turn off the air conditioning. The mattresses were made out of plastic, and they would get so hot. So we used to clean the floor with our sanitary towels and then sleep on the floor because it was made of concrete, and so it was colder. I felt like I was choking.
There were a lot of nightmares that something would happen to my kids. I’d wake up at three in the morning, the anxiety running through my head. I would close my eyes and think I was about to fall asleep and then the nightmares would start again. Sometimes I’d dream that I’d been released and then open my eyes and all I’d see is the wall and I’d realize that I was still in detention.
They would let you have a paper and pen in your cell, so I kept a journal. It helped to write my experiences and feelings down. But the trauma is never going to go away. One day, when I feel ready, I want to sit down with a coffee and go through it and read it over. I’m not ready yet.
One day, after 11 months in detention, they put on the shackles, put me in a van, and drove me to the detention facility in San Francisco. I was taken into a room and they started giving me documents to sign. You’re about to be released, they said. Who are you calling? Does your lawyer know?
I was afraid. I thought: If I answer these questions wrong, maybe they’ll send me back. I couldn’t believe them. But then they took off the shackles, led me out through this huge door, pushed me out, closed it, and just left me there in the street.
I saw this Mexican man walking by slowly, he looked so happy, I could see him just enjoying his liberty. I was thinking: Does anyone know about me?
It was only when I saw my lawyer coming down the street, when I was able to hug her without anyone yelling NO TOUCHING!, when I could walk about without shackles, that I was finally able to believe.
Right now my goal is to be with the kids, support them, help them stay in school. It was a long time I was gone, and for now I am free—but they were put in a difficult place. My youngest daughter always cries, she wants me to sleep in the bed with her every night because she’s worried she’ll wake up one day and I won’t be there. I’m relieved, but I still feel like a prisoner—without documentation, I’m not allowed to work, I’m not allowed to drive, and I don’t have anyone to really talk to. If I get scared, or if I have a strange feeling, I just text my lawyer.
The process is difficult, but the hardest thing is the uncertainty. Not knowing.
When you’re in detention, they own you. You’re impotent. They take a hold of you. And that’s where the uncertainty comes in. You don’t know if it will be weeks, months, or years until they make a decision. It becomes difficult to tell reality from fiction. It changes your state of mind. It’s like you are dead, but actually you are alive. It’s like when they put meat in the freezer. You’re stuck in time. ∆
Floricel Liborio Ramos is one of 50,000–70,000 undocumented immigrants who have been denied bond hearings by the U.S. government. She was given supervised release by the U.S. District Court in March 2018 after 11 months of detention, and at the time of press was still waiting for decision on her deportation case.
As told to Bobbie Johnson. Translation and interpretation by Andrea Valencia.