On a breezy day in Manchester, New Hampshire, Mateo and his wife, Lisa, decided to run an errand.
As the couple rode down an interstate highway on July 31, 2017, they came upon a police vehicle on the shoulder with its lights flashing.
Under New Hampshire traffic laws, drivers must slow to a safe speed and “give wide berth” to stationary emergency vehicles with flashing lights.
But Mateo, 36, did not know this.
He kept on driving as usual in the right lane, right past the police officer. As he continued driving, Mateo saw the flashing blue and white lights of a different police vehicle in his rearview mirror.
He heard the wail of the vehicle’s siren. He pulled over slowly. His heart raced, his eyes widened, and his jaw dropped as he looked at his wife in the passenger seat.
When the officer approached the driver’s side window, Mateo, an immigrant from El Salvador who speaks fluent English, explained that he had his passport with him, but he had not yet obtained a driver’s license.
The officer quietly went back to his vehicle, and Mateo – whose name has been changed in this story to protect his anonymity – feared the worst.
An hour later, a second officer arrived. The two officers arrested Mateo and took him to a New Hampshire jail. There, he was informed that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was “coming to get him.”
The worst had happened.
“I was filled with fear,” he said. “My wife was outside of the police station, crying and shaking. She was so afraid. I was devastated.”
Mateo and his wife, a U.S. citizen, had married in 2010 after meeting at church, and Mateo had been working at a local restaurant as a cook since 2006. His prayers to find work and safety after fleeing El Salvador in 2005 had been answered. He had been grateful – and finally happy – until he was arrested.
In a painful twist, Mateo’s arrest came while he was in the process of obtaining his I-130 – the first step toward becoming a permanent resident.
After being stuck in jail for 10 days, Mateo was transported to a Boston, Massachusetts, detention center, where he remained for over seven months. Then, he was sent to a New Hampshire detention facility.
He was moved from there in September 2018, this time to LaSalle ICE Processing Center in Jena, Louisiana, over 1,600 miles away from his home. He was told that he had an immigration hearing pending there, and he was to appear before an immigration judge.
But after he arrived in Jena, nothing went as “planned.”
“I asked ICE what was happening, but they knew nothing,” he said. “I asked and asked, but they just told me to wait. So, I waited, and I waited, and I waited. I never had my hearing.”
Because Mateo’s moving violation was civil in nature, he wasn’t guaranteed an attorney at the government’s expense. For many detained immigrants like Mateo, attorney fees are too costly, and they are left to represent themselves pro se, often leaving their request for parole or bond denied.
Mateo reached out to the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) – a project of the SPLC that provides pro bono legal counsel to those facing deportation proceedings in the Southeast. SIFI took on Mateo’s case for bond, but not before he was transferred again, this time to Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Alabama, in October 2018.
‘Abusing their power’
With each move to a different immigrant prison, Mateo sank into a deeper state of depression. With virtually nothing to do no matter where ICE held him, he became listless. He had a lot of time to think, to worry.
“I thought about my family, my wife,” he said. “I was very stressed, because I didn’t know what was going to happen, or why my case was taking so long.”
At Etowah, Mateo and his fellow detainees were forced to wake up just after dawn. At 9 a.m., they were permitted an hour outside. There, Mateo and his fellow detainees would try to play soccer or exercise. But their hearts weren’t in it.
“Everyone was just trying to get their mind off of thinking about their families,” he said. “All you saw were sad faces.”
During their “break,” the men sat on a bench with their eyes glazed over. They stared blankly at the forest near the jail, and glanced toward the sky, their minds elsewhere.
When their “break” was over, Mateo found it humiliating – and cruel – when officials shackled him around the waist and handcuffed him to take him back to his dorm. There, he would cry, pray and read the Bible; it was the only way he could cope.
As he tried to sleep on the thin mattress of the metal bunk bed, the guards played the radio loudly and slammed the large, metal doors to the room open and shut at the same hour each night. They did this to purposely wake the men up, he said. He often slept only two or three hours each night.
For meals, Mateo was forced to eat the cafeteria food, which gave off a smell so vile, it would nauseate him, and he would retreat to his dorm. Some men in the prison would rather starve than eat, he said. He didn’t have enough funds in his commissary account to afford the overpriced ramen noodles.
During his “down time” at Etowah, Mateo said he read about immigration laws from the handbook the immigrant prison provided. He learned quickly that he and the other men were not being treated fairly – that ICE was doing the opposite of what it had promised to do.
“They keep us detained for so long, when we know the law says that’s not how it should be,” Mateo said. “They were doing whatever they wanted to do. They were abusing their power.”
Broken and shattered
After being labeled a “dog” and a “rat” by prison guards for so long, Mateo felt broken inside. He felt robbed of his humanity.
“They look at us as just a number, they strip us of our dignity,” he said. “They strip us of our rights. Even if you are polite, they don’t pay attention to you. They’re racists who want to intimidate you by yelling and calling you names.”
The guards also insisted to Mateo that he would be deported, even though they knew nothing of his case. But their threats stung. Their intimidating tactics were working, and fear lay like a knot in Mateo’s chest.
After being in jail for so long, he didn’t know what was going to happen. Were the guards right? Would he be deported?
Eventually, Mateo’s fear grew so great that he sought the help of a psychiatrist. But his request for medical attention went unanswered for several days.
What’s more, he saw that doctors ignored requests from other men. The guards were cavalier; they didn’t care about his or the other men’s suffering, he said.
“One man was limping, and he requested to see a doctor over and over,” he said. “But they never helped him. They flat-out refused [his request].”
Inside, Mateo felt numb. He was shattered and losing hope, to the point that he no longer wanted to fight his case. It had been close to a year-and-a-half since he was placed in detention.
“I couldn’t take it anymore,” he said. “It was awful, and a lot of people were giving up.”
One person who had not given up was SIFI Attorney Rose Murray.
She was busy working on Mateo’s behalf. From Alexandria, Louisiana, Murray phoned Mateo and Lisa, to obtain the information she needed to secure his release. Research shows that because Mateo had access to an attorney, he was automatically 10-and-a-half times more likely to prevail in his case.
Included in the stack of supporting documents Murray gathered were 14 letters from Mateo’s friends and co-workers. All of them had known him for over a decade, ever since he fled his home country on foot in 2005.
The letters were glowing testaments to Mateo’s character – that he was a good person, a great friend and a hard worker.
Finally, on Dec. 10, 2018, Mateo’s first official hearing was scheduled. However, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) did not bring Mateo’s file to court, even though the agency knew in advance that he would appear. So the hearing was deferred, and Mateo was forced to wait another 10 days in detention.
‘A feeling you can’t describe’
But on Dec. 20, 2018, Murray again presented Mateo’s bond request and asked that the process be expedited. After Mateo appeared in court via Skype from Etowah (only the audio was working at the time), a Louisiana immigration judge finally granted his bond.
“Mateo’s case is certainly one that causes us to question ICE’s standard practices of immigration detention, and what incentives are at play that make detention – with all of its human and financial costs – the default,” Murray said. “Given his lack of any criminal history or dangerousness, his approved I-130, and even a secondary form of immigration relief, it’s concerning that ICE continued to detain him for so long.”
Mateo was full of glee after his release. As he walked out of the immigrant prison, he admired the blue pale of the sky and the green depths of the forest. He smiled as he embraced his wife – a deep, genuine smile – for the first time in 18 months.
Now out of immigration prison, he could feel the joy of freedom again.
“I was so happy,” he said. “It was such a great moment. When you get out of a place like that, you get a feeling you can’t describe.”
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images