It was a Saturday night, and Luis Mora and his girlfriend Jaleen Udarbe decided to meet up with some old friends in Jamul, California. They were at the party for about 30 minutes before they decided to head back home. But on the way back, they took one wrong turn, and the series of events that followed was an experience that Mora now says he’ll always carry with him.
Instead of turning onto the road toward Chula Vista — toward home — they had turned onto Highway 94 on the way to Tecate, Mexico, and ran into a Border Patrol checkpoint. It was here, 40 miles away from the border on Dec. 30 that Mora, an undocumented UC Berkeley student, was detained by Border Patrol agents.
“We noticed that there was Border Patrol agents,” Mora said. “And there was a little sign that said Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and at that moment, we both froze. … We didn’t know what to do.”
Mora turned to Udarbe and told her that if they cooperated, it would be okay. One of the officers walked up to their car and asked for Mora’s documentation, to which Mora responded that he was an undocumented student. Mora recalled he gave the officer his driver’s license, which the officer used to check Mora’s record.
Mora’s U.S. visa expired two to three years ago, and he currently has an AB 540 plan, which qualifies him for in-state tuition. Mora applied to become a DACA student but was denied, according to Udarbe.
When the officer returned to the car, he said, “You’re here on a visa that expired,” Mora recalled.
“Yes that’s true, that’s why I’m undocumented,” Mora said.
“OK, you know what that means,” the officer said, as Mora remembers.
“Yes. That I can possibly be detained and deported if I acquire some sort of criminal record,” Mora said.
“OK, just get out of the car — you’re under arrest,” the officer said, as Mora remembers.
“There was a little sign that said immigration and customs enforcement and at that moment, we both froze … We didn’t know what to do.
— Luis Mora, UC Berkeley junior transfer
Thus began a whirlwind of events for Mora, two weeks characterized by both fear for his future and determination to stay in this country. Mora was taken into custody by Border Patrol in San Diego on Dec. 30 and was then transferred into ICE custody at Otay Mesa Detention Center four days later on Jan. 3. Although he was in ICE custody for a longer period of time, he found his experience with Border Patrol to be more deeply disturbing.
Behind Border Patrol
“The Border Patrol custody was most horrible. Horrifying, again, to see how they treat people like that,” Mora said. “They will dehumanize immigrants constantly. They will feel superior because they have papers and others, and we of course did not.”
Mora described the conditions of Border Patrol custody as abysmal, with two bathrooms and two showers for about 60 detainees. The bathrooms were never cleaned, and there was no privacy. Of the two showers, only one was operating. The detainees were given sticks with a sponge on top in replacement of toothbrushes, because the officers were afraid the detainees would turn toothbrushes into weapons.
If detainees became ill, Mora said, the officers would use fear tactics to prevent them from going to the hospital, warning detainees that if they chose to go to the hospital that they would have to remain in custody for an additional two to four weeks.
On top of the hygiene conditions, the officers would allegedly name-call Mora and other detainees. Mora recalls being called “fuckface” and “exotic” on a regular basis. And despite all these conditions, Mora said he was most impacted by the stories and lives of other immigrants in the detention center.
ICE director emailed me back just now and said he will not grant a supervised release. He will defer to the court to make a decision on bond. So Luis will likely be detained for much longer at Otay Mesa and may miss his Spring semester at Berkeley. #FreeLuis
— Prerna P. Lal, Esq. (@prernaplal) January 6, 2018
From individuals younger than Mora to 60-year-old men, there was a wide range of detainees who stayed with Mora. Whether it was young children trying to make money to send back home, or grandfathers who had secured documentation for their children but not themselves, most of them, Mora recalled, were just trying to make a better life for their family.
Mora remembered one man who was utterly shocked and heartbroken. This individual told Mora that he had turned himself in at the border in request of asylum and was immediately put in handcuffs and ankle braces.
“I don’t know why Border Patrol decided to do that. But allegedly they took him through some stairs, and since he had ankle braces, he tripped, and due to the handcuffs he wasn’t able to protect his face,” Mora said. “He face planted into the ground and he broke his entire right side of his face. And that’s how I met him, the first time I saw him he was broken up.”
Mora teared up as he remembered this story. With little hope left, this detainee repeatedly told Mora that he was going to deport himself and return to his home country.
“If this is how people treat other humans, I would take the chances of dying in my home country than to die in a country that doesn’t even want to help people,” the individual said to Mora.
One day, the officers’ allegedly called this individual in and none of the other detainees saw him again. Mora said they all assumed that he deported himself and took the chance of facing the danger of his home country.
“They come to the United States … and a lot of them were very oblivious about the treatment that was going to happen. Most of them didn’t even jump the border — they turned themselves in,” Mora said. “They had to go through the asylum process and unfortunately, how the asylum process works is that they criminalize you before they actually give you anything.”
— Malini Ramaiyer (@malinisramaiyer) January 22, 2018
Mora found the ICE detention center to be better in terms of treatment, yet he felt that the agents’ perspective towards the immigrants was still dehumanizing. He recalls the constant use of fear tactics to convince detainees to sign their own deportation.
Mora said he read every document three to four times before he signed to make sure he was never conceding to his own deportation. He recalled that when he took his time to read papers, the Border Patrol agents claimed that he was only delaying his release from detention. When Mora asked for papers in English, they gave the documents to him in Spanish. When he took even longer to read the papers, the agents urged him to hurry up or just sent him back to his cell.
“Even if you speak the language and even if you know your rights, it’s still intimidating. Because you know at the end of the day, they’re the law,” Mora said. “If you don’t respect them, or you don’t follow the rules, perhaps they’re right. Perhaps you’re not going to go anywhere. Perhaps they’re not lying to you, perhaps they’re actually telling the truth. Perhaps there’s no hope for you.”
“The day before (the hearing) I was nervous, I did not know what to expect,” Mora said. “I was really really surprised because the hearing barely took five minutes and the judge acknowledged … that despite my consequences for not having legal documents, I still have the right to fight my case.”
After waiting under ICE custody for over a week, Mora was finally granted bond by immigration judge Ana Partida on Jan. 17. His attorney Prerna Lal paid his bond of $1,500, and Mora was finally released. While Mora was in custody, various activist groups and politicians organized to get him released.
Campus immigrant rights organization Rising Immigrant Scholars through Education, or RISE, rallied public support through the #FreeLuis campaign. Several politicians, including U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, and U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, also contacted ICE on Mora’s behalf.
Mora emphasized that he was very grateful and proud of the response from his Berkeley community, even though he believes the UC Berkeley administration was a little too slow to release a statement.
On Sunday, students from RISE at Berkeley and staff from the Undocumented Students Program waited at the Oakland International Airport to celebrate Mora’s return to Berkeley. Since he now has documentation after paying his bond, Mora was able to take a flight for the first time since he originally moved to America when he was 11, according to Lal.
UC Berkeley alumnus Juan Prieto and junior Valeria Suarez were among the RISE members at the airport and chanted “This is what community looks like” as Mora arrived at the terminal. Reflecting on how they mobilized the community around Mora’s release, Prieto and Suarez said they were happy to finally see a victory for the undocumented community.
— Prerna P. Lal, Esq. (@prernaplal) January 18, 2018
Now, Mora must wait until he receives a court date to make the case for why he should stay in this country. In the meantime, he wants to return to campus and finish his education. Lal said they are optimistic that Mora will be on his pathway to citizenship by the time he graduates.
After the past two weeks, Mora said he wants to become an immigration judge and use his own experience to help other immigrants. Though he is back and ready to start classes Monday, Mora said he will need some time to process his experience in the detention center.
“In the detention facility, we used to say this is something we have to live with now, this is something that is never going away,” Mora said. “For whether you were released or you were deported, it was an experience that has raised our character and has given us that change to see that there is always a light at the end of the day.”