In a unique moment in history where the world is encouraging efforts to practice social distancing and reduce the spread of Covid-19 to protect one another from a dangerous pandemic, immigration and customs enforcement (ICE) continues daily operations, terrorizing communities and potentially risking the spread of the virus to a vulnerable population less likely to seek out medical care for fear of being handed over to immigration authorities. Although ICE alleges it has decreased the number of arrests made and is only focusing on apprehending individuals who pose a threat to the public, people like Celia Torres, a mother of four U.S.-citizen children must still comply with in-person ICE check-ins and face potential arrest and subsequent deportation.
Last month Celia attended a check-in at the USCIS Santa Ana, CA. field office. Community members, grassroots organizations like Resilience OC, California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, and congressman Lou Correa, rallied in support of Celia, a woman who has been fighting for her right to stay in the United States for over 10 years. Celia is frustrated with both the immigration and criminal justice systems: “the police, they write-up their reports whichever way is more convenient for them. They paint me as a bad mother, but if I was a bad mother, I wouldn’t be fighting so hard to stay in this country, I wouldn’t be fighting for my children’s right to a better life, if I was a bad mother, I would have left a long time ago.”
Celia came in contact with law enforcement over a decade ago when she stepped inside a phone company to pay an overdue bill and ensure the services were not terminated. She left her twin infant daughters in the car for a moment, just enough time for a passerby to see the children unattended and call the police. As a result, Celia was arrested, released on bail, and then immediately apprehended by ICE and incarcerated in immigration detention, thus beginning her long battle for her freedom.
Celia cautions the public against calling for police intervention before having all the facts: “I was not out shopping and having a good time. I was paying a bill. If the public were more conscious then that person should have asked and tried to ensure there was no adult around. I was being responsible trying to make sure my phone was not cut off, because that is what a responsible person does.”
Celia has also felt disappointed by the legal system. She explains that judges have not had consideration for the wellbeing of herself and her children when handling her case, arguing that a fair judge would have counted factors such as the time she already spent in jail, the fees she’s paid, and legal malpractice she has experienced as indicators that she’s already suffered enough. Citing that the punishment does not fit the crime, Celia explains: “When someone robs, they are imprisoned, serve time, and then let go. But my case has not been like that. My case goes on and on, I am not getting justice. They are making my life impossible.”
Over the years Celia has maintained multiple jobs to keep a roof over her children’s head and keep up with lawyer fees. She has never applied for government aid, other than medical, as a precautionary measure so as to not give the government a reason to indicate she is a burden to them. Unfortunately, due to court hearings, meetings with lawyers, and ICE check-ins, Celia recently lost her job; and now, her partner who is in the restaurant business has also been laid off as employers are cutting back on hours and personnel to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Last week the American Civil Liberties Union sued ICE for the release of immigrants especially vulnerable to COVID-19 and just days ago the first immigrant in detention tested positive. Detainees live in close quarters to one another and detention facilities are notorious for not providing appropriate medical assistance under normal circumstances–we are not in normal circumstances.
We join the many organizations demanding the supervised release of all immigrants in detention and demand ICE execute its discretion to suspend all check-ins indefinitely. Celia proclaims: ICE is not abiding by the governor’s regulations around COVID-19 to shelter-in-place. They are breaking the law too by continuing to apprehend individuals. Celia must present herself with a USCIS officer at 9:00am on Tuesday March 31st at the field office in Santa Ana, CA. where once again she faces the possibility of being apprehended and deported. “This is a nightmare because you don’t know how it will end.” Despite feeling that the law is not on her side, Celia takes comfort in knowing she has her partner’s and her community’s support. The OC Rapid Response Network will be hosting a Drive and Honk for Celia Action and a Facebook and Instagram live press at 8:30 am conference where the community can tune in to #KeepCeliaFree!
Gabriela Gonzalez is a doctoral candidate in the department of Criminology, Law, and Society at the University of California, Irvine. Her research examines how laws, legal systems, and legal actors interact with one another to construct and reproduce the social exclusion of marginalized groups in society.
Sandra De Anda is a community member who focuses her work and her writings on immigration, gentrification, and housing. Her writing has been featured in the late OC Weekly.
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