After dinner one night in January 2011, Diana Ramos left her apartment in Phoenix, Arizona to pick up some customers in the nearby town of Mesa. Despite not having a license, Ramos, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, supported herself and her three children by shuttling people around in her white minivan. Her kids barely looked up from their homework when she left. It wasn’t unusual for her to take an evening call.
But this time, she did not return.
Soon after Ramos arrived at the gas station where she was supposed to pick up her customers, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents pulled up behind her. The four passengers had just come from a drop house for people who had recently been smuggled across the border. Federal agents claimed she was planning to take them to Florida. Ramos claimed she had no idea, and that she was taking them to Phoenix.
When she couldn’t produce a license or any other legal papers for the ICE officials, she was arrested and taken into federal custody. Ramos was initially charged with “reckless disregard of the fact that aliens had entered the U.S.” and “attempted transport of illegal aliens.” She ultimately pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor crime of “eluding examination or inspection by immigration officers” and was transferred to Eloy Detention Center, a 1,596-bed facility 65 miles southeast of Phoenix and run by private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America.
From Eloy, Ramos filed a “defensive” asylum request (a form of asylum that is submitted after a person is detained by ICE), claiming that she had come to the United States to escape an abusive common-law husband in El Salvador whom she had left nearly 20 years before. In her application, Ramos, 52, wrote that she had not applied for asylum sooner because she “did not know such protection existed.”
What followed was a bureaucratic odyssey that would keep her in immigration detention for more than four years. While the average length of detention is 36 days, why was Ramos held for so long? Unable to obtain a lawyer full time (detainees are not guaranteed representation), Ramos stumbled through the hearing process, never knowing whether she was helping or hurting her case. Court backlogs created more delays, caused in part by a heavy caseload and the need for judges to spend extra court time to guide defendants through the unfamiliar process. Her asylum appeals were turned down repeatedly, as were her pleas to be released on bond. She was deemed a flight risk.
A spokesperson for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, Kate Sheehey, could not speak directly to the Ramos case. She called all detainee cases a “top priority” on an immigration court docket and said that cases requesting relief or protection are “more complex and can take much longer.” ICE data from FY2009 (the most recent comparative data available) show the average length of detention for defensive asylum seekers was 110 days — over three times the average for immigrant detainees in general.
The Board of Immigration Appeals took two years to rule on Ramos’s first asylum appeal. While many are released from detention in the course of their legal proceedings, Ramos was denied bond multiple times. “People never think someone has been there more than a year, and my mom has been there for four,” said Ramos’s daughter, Ana, in a recent interview.
In April, the good news finally came: after filing a federal habeas petition over her prolonged detention, Ramos was released on bond on April 28.
“I don’t know why I stayed there for so long,” Ramos said.
Ramos was 17 when she moved in with 29-year-old Jose Nolasco, whom she had known since childhood. The abuse, she claimed, started immediately. He broke her arm, she said, for forgetting to wash a shirt. He would drag her by the hair and rape her, punching her in the stomach when she became pregnant with their fifth child. She tried to leave twice, but Nolasco found her and brought her back.
When he cut up all her clothes and threw her on the street for the third time, Ramos left her five children and fled to Chiapas, Mexico, in 1996 at age 33. She returned after roughly two years to collect her three daughters. One of her sons would later join her in the U.S. while her eldest remained in El Salvador. “I didn’t have a place to go in Mexico for all five,” Ramos said.
In 2003, Ramos and her two youngest, Rebeca and Ana, took a bus, then a plane, then a minivan to join a group of migrants in the Sonoran Desert. (Her eldest daughter wanted to stay in Mexico.) The group walked across the border into Naco, Arizona. Ana and Rebeca remember their mother lagging behind in her high heels, trying to look less like a typical border-crosser.
The three lived in one room of a two-bedroom apartment in Phoenix. Ramos enrolled the girls in elementary school and got a job at a fast-food restaurant. Their lives began to settle. The girls learned English. Ramos quit the restaurant and started her taxi business, which gave her more flexible hours. Her son, Salvador, joined them in 2005.
While visiting friends in Florida in 2008, Ramos was arrested for shoplifting sandals from Walmart and was taken into ICE custody (Ramos said she was trying to return a pair she already bought for a different size, and walked out with the new shoes). The shoplifting charges were ultimately dropped, but the deportation proceedings continued. Fearing a return to El Salvador, Ramos told them her name was Susana Lopez and opted to be sent to Mexico.
Even after her run-in with ICE, Ramos did not discuss the family’s legal status with her kids. She wanted to keep things as normal as possible. But that changed in 2010, when Arizona passed SB 1070 — a controversial law that required officers to request documents during police stops from people whom they suspected of being in the U.S. illegally. “That’s when everyone started getting scared,” Ana said. Their friends fled Arizona for places like New Mexico and California. Some even returned to Central America. Ramos said she grew increasingly worried about driving without a license; she had a vivid dream in which she was arrested and dressed in a green-and-khaki uniform.
She finally broached the subject with her children, asking them where they would want to live should she ever be detained or deported. They shrugged it off. “Just here, wherever,” they told her. Ramos was picked up by ICE officials a month later.
Ana struggled to keep her grades up as their family lived in legal limbo. “I didn’t know if we were going to have to leave for El Salvador,” Ana said. “I started slacking on my classes. I didn’t see the point of school.” Ramos’s son, Salvador, was picked up by ICE and deported back to El Salvador three months after his mother was detained.
As Ramos worried about how her kids fared without her, Rebeca and Ana worried about how she was coping in Eloy. Between their part-time jobs, they sent $150 each month for her to buy toiletries and nonperishable food. When they visited, they noticed that she had lost weight and had rashes on her skin, which Ramos attributed to poor nutrition.
The most frustrating part was “that there’s nothing else we could do,” Rebeca said.
Ramos, who has the equivalent of a sixth grade education, often had to represent herself in court proceedings. Her family paid for two private immigration attorneys to help with different parts of her case, but could not afford to keep them. The court did, however, provide Ramos with a translator.
When appearing alone, Ramos worried she would say the wrong thing and hurt her chances of staying in the U.S. “The lawyers know the laws and all the codes. How was I supposed to know all that?” Ramos said. Having an attorney can have a huge impact on the outcome of an immigration case. From 2009 to 2014, 89 percent of people requesting asylum without an attorney were denied, compared to a 48.5 percent denial rate overall.
Ramos also had a particularly tough audience. According to statistics compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a data analysis organization at Syracuse University, immigration judges at Eloy denied 95 percent of asylum requests from 2009 to 2014. The judge who heard her case, Judge Irene Feldman, also saw a disproportionate number of immigrants representing themselves, which TRAC analysts said could contribute to high rejection rates. Over three-quarters of the asylum cases she ruled on from 2009 to 2014 involved immigrants without legal representation, compared to roughly 15 percent nationwide. Judge Feldman would not comment for this story.
According to Judge Dana Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, deciding complicated immigration cases is like “doing death penalty cases in a traffic court setting,” because of the backlog and understaffing. Those who appear without a lawyer create even more work, as it falls to the judge to ensure the person understands the proceedings and has considered every possible option for relief. “It does put that individual who is unrepresented at a disadvantage,” Marks said. “The judge compensates for that as much as they feel they fairly can.”
Sheehey, the spokesperson for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, said that while there is no guaranteed representation, there are several government initiatives that connect immigrants with legal services. Providing more detainees with legal advice, Sheehey said, has improved the courts’ efficiency by leading to “fewer hearings, which results in faster case completions and less time for respondents in detention.”
Ramos’s first bond hearing in March 2011 was not recorded or transcribed, according to her federal habeas petition. Her request for release was denied, as were several subsequent requests for bond hearings. Such rejections, said Judge Marks, are based on past behavior: Judges weigh people’s ties to the community against their criminal background and history of immigration violations to determine whether they are a flight risk or a threat to public safety. How long someone has been in detention is usually not a factor.
“There is not a list of specific criteria like there may be in certain state criminal courts, where a certain class of offense means you get a bond a certain amount of money,” Judge Marks said. “It’s much more subjective.”
When Ramos was granted another court appearance to appeal for bond in May 2013, the hearing lasted six minutes, according to her federal complaint and court transcripts. She appeared without an attorney and her request was denied. As Judge Feldman wrapped up the hearing, she handed Ramos a form to appeal the denial and asked if she had any questions. “Yes,” Ramos said. “Uh, why is it that you’re not giving me a bond?”
“I do believe that you are a flight risk. I don’t think anything has changed,” the judge said. “Good luck to you.”
Ramos was deemed a “flight risk” in part because no one in her family had permanent legal status in the U.S. Her daughters were shielded from deportation in 2012 under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — a federal initiative that allowed undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children to temporarily remain in the country — but that did not change the judge’s ruling.
Ramos had also gone to Mexico several times since she first arrived in the U.S, which, according to ICE spokesperson Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe, made Ramos a flight risk. Ramos returned to Mexico in 2003 to bring her youngest daughters to the U.S., and again in 2005 to visit her oldest daughter and retrieve her son, Salvador. When trying to re-enter the U.S. in 2005, she was caught three times and gave officials a fake name. It took her two weeks to make her way back to Phoenix.
“On four occasions Ms. Ramos…used aliases claiming to be a Mexican national in order to secure repatriation to Mexico rather than face removal to her native El Salvador,” Pitts O’Keefe said in an emailed statement. “She was detained by ICE for nearly four years based on an immigration judge’s finding in 2011, and again in 2013, and affirmed by the Board of Immigration Appeals in 2014, that she posed a significant flight risk.”
Ramos claimed she had no intention of leaving Phoenix, the only U.S. city she had lived in since she first arrived. Rebeca and Ana grew up there and were legally working and studying at a community college. A church pastor was housing Rebeca and Ana and wanted Ramos to move in while she waited for a final decision. “It’s like none of that mattered [to the court],” Ana said. As her asylum appeals stalled for years, Ramos’s family feared she would be stuck in Eloy indefinitely.
In November 2013, Ramos represented herself in court again, this time to discuss her asylum request. The judge recognized her case had dragged on. “As far as I’m concerned, you’ve been detained here for too long a time and you deserve a decision,” Judge Feldman said. She set a court date for the following week. “I’m going to ask you to be strong, Ms. Ramos. You’ve been very patient.”
The judge issued a ruling eight days later denying Ramos’s asylum request. The judge ruled that “the mistreatment she described, while reprehensible,” did not meet the standards of persecution required to be granted asylum. It was another year and five months before Ramos was released.
In November 2014, President Obama announced an executive action that would allow millions of immigrants without serious criminal convictions to temporarily remain in the U.S. “We’re going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security,” Obama said in a speech. “Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.”
But while parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents were potentially shielded from deportation, parents of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients — like Ramos — were not.
Pitts O’Keefe, the ICE spokesperson, said that ICE officials are reviewing cases after the announcement in order to release detainees who are no longer an “enforcement priority.” “It was determined that [Ramos] met the ICE enforcement priorities,” she said, though Ramos does not meet the criteria as outlined in a Department of Homeland Security memo, which includes recent immigrants and those convicted of serious crimes. Pitts O’Keefe said the decision to keep Ramos detained was based instead on “the case in totality.”
Ramos was denied release on bond a total of five times. The Department of Homeland Security and ICE denied two other requests made directly to them.
In 2014, legal services organization Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, which had been helping Ramos with her case, connected her with pro bono attorneys at the law firm, Perkins Coie. They filed a federal habeas petition in December, arguing that Ramos had “been detained for almost four years, and has been denied the chance to post any bond despite the government’s abject failure to produce competent evidence that she poses a flight risk.”
Less than a week before her federal court date in April, her lawyers and the prosecutor in her case reached a settlement agreement for Ramos to be released on bond. "We are happy that Diana is finally reunited with her daughters after more than 4.5 years apart," Howard Cabot, one of Ramos’ pro bono attorneys, said in a statement. “There simply do not appear to be enough resources to bear on the thousands of cases currently being processed…. Individuals end up waiting far too long, many times without adequate representation, for their case to be resolved."
The Arizona U.S. Attorney’s office said they could not comment on the settlement.
When the guards called Ramos’ name to pack up her belongings, Ramos said the 50 women on her cell block began cheering and crying. She gathered her bible, books, and magazines, and changed back into the capri pants and long-sleeved shirt she’d been wearing when she was arrested.
Ramos’s appeal for asylum was again denied in February, and there is no court date set to discuss her third. As she waits, Ramos must stay in Arizona. She cannot work or drive.
“I always had the hope that one day they would call me and I would be out,” she said. “I woke up everyday thinking, This will be the day.”
This story was written by Christie Thompson for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.
Christie Thompson is a staff writer at The Marshall Project. Thompson covered prisons, drug policy, mental health, and other criminal justice issues as an investigative reporter for ThinkProgress and as an intern at ProPublica. Her work has been published by The Nation, WNYC, TheAtlantic.com, the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, and The Chicago Reporter.