During a day of sightseeing in Mesa, Arizona, in December 2017, Nancy Gonzalez Hidalgo and her husband decided to grab a bite to eat before stopping at a flea market to shop for children’s clothes. They had come to the U.S. the previous month on a valid tourist visa.
While they were at the restaurant, two men they had never met before sat at a nearby table. The men kept their eyes glued to their phones and didn’t speak. It was odd, Hidalgo recalled.
Later, after Hidalgo and her husband finished their shopping and stopped for gas, the men from the restaurant took them by surprise, surrounding Hidalgo and her husband in the parking lot of the gas station. Hidalgo didn’t understand what was going on. She looked at her husband frantically before the men slapped handcuffs on their wrists and arrested them. Hidalgo was confused and panicked.
It turned out that the men were working undercover, and they alleged that Hidalgo’s husband had marijuana on him. But according to Hidalgo, the men – presumably federal agents (she wasn’t sure which agency) – concocted a story that she knew her husband was carrying the drug. They claimed they overheard her speaking to her husband about marijuana at the restaurant.
They lied, she said. In fact, the men had absolutely no proof that their “story” about her was true.
Nevertheless, Hidalgo was accused of failing to inform the police of her husband’s drug activity, and she was placed into federal custody in Florence, Arizona. She was pregnant at the time.
While in custody, she was separated from her husband, and she could not see her children. But that wasn’t the worst part. Nor was it the fact she was in prison for a crime she didn’t commit.
The worst part was that she suffered an early miscarriage in prison.
She was bleeding, but the guards only offered her diapers to help with the blood flow, along with Tylenol to “ease” the pain. Later, she was given towels to wear as underwear, and a prison doctor told her the bleeding was “normal.”
Hidalgo was heartbroken. She was inconsolable, but no one seemed to care.
“It was the worst day of my life,” she said.
In June 2018, Hidalgo was still stuck in prison. Her options were running thin. One day, she was offered a paper to sign that she thought would get her deported back to Mexico. She wanted to be deported. But by signing the paper, she was pleading to the charge that put her behind bars.
She didn’t care. She wanted to go home. Her two children, who at the time were 11 and one, needed their mother. She signed the document.
But it was all for nothing.
Instead of being deported, Hidalgo was sent to Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, where she was detained in June 2018.
The Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) – a project of the SPLC that provides pro bono legal counsel to immigrants facing deportation proceedings in the Southeast – took on Hidalgo’s case, hoping to secure her release from the immigrant prison and get her sent home.
But Hidalgo would wait at Irwin for over six months. She waited alone, grieving the loss of her third child and in constant pain from a severe lack of proper medical treatment.
She had no one to lean on. As she waited, she thought, “I am never coming back to this country.”
A desperate situation
At Irwin, Hidalgo wears a bracelet inscribed with the words, hecho en México. The words remind her of home, that she was made in Mexico, and that’s where she wants to be.
But instead, she is locked up in America.
“I want to be deported, but they won’t let me leave,” she said in Spanish during an interview from Irwin County in October 2018.
Upon first arriving at the prison, Hidalgo was horrified.
“I cried all day,” she said. “I’m separated from everything, and I don’t have a single right here. I’m very depressed.”
Inside the immigrant prison, Hidalgo says there are roughly 60 women using four bathrooms. Normally, one is out of order, leaving only three toilets for the women to share. The bathrooms are rarely cleaned, and the workers who clean them only do so every few days.
But the verbal abuse is worse than the deplorable conditions of the center, she said. The guards only speak to her in English, something she says they do to purposely confuse her. They also yell, saying they “don’t give a damn” about her children, and that she and her fellow detainees “don’t have any rights here.”
The guards also threaten to take away her personal belongings and not to bring her fresh underwear. To boot, she and the other women are scared that the guards’ promises to hurt their immigration cases will turn into a reality.
But the cruelest part of her long detention has been the inadequate medical care she has received.
Immediately upon her arrival at Irwin, Hidalgo began experiencing severe abdominal pain. At first, she was prescribed Advil, but she knew she needed to see a gynecologist. Prison staff said they couldn’t provide one, because Hidalgo wasn’t pregnant.
When she eventually saw a doctor, he diagnosed her with an infection and prescribed antibiotics. However, the prison did not give Hidalgo her first round of medicine, therefore worsening the infection caused by her miscarriage. By November 2018, the pain was so excruciating, she said, it would radiate into her legs and wake her during the night.
But she was afraid to see that same doctor again. He didn’t speak Spanish, and during her procedures, no interpreter had been present to ensure that she understood her diagnosis and follow-up procedures.
“They don’t explain anything,” she said. “They do no more than putting you in bed.”
She didn’t know if the doctor was racist, but she did know he hurt her. This was a common complaint from many of the women who were sent to the same doctor, and because Hidalgo – like the other women – didn’t want to see him, the officials at Irwin forced her to sign a form declaring that she was refusing medical treatment.
But that was not actually the case. It had been 10 months since her miscarriage, and it was urgent that she see a provider she could trust. The delays associated with her medical mistreatment were increasing her risk of future complications, including infertility.
As she endured the pain, she also greatly missed her children. In July 2018, immediately upon her entry to Irwin County, the judge closed her immigration proceedings, leaving her in a state of limbo.
By October 2018, the government was appealing the immigration judge’s decision at the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) to throw out the case against Hidalgo. She had never appealed, nor did she do anything but ask to leave the U.S.
But the government’s appeal meant they could continue to detain Hidalgo while the appeal was reviewed by the board.
SIFI Attorney Elizabeth Matherne filed a motion asking the board to move quickly or expedite their decision because of the grave suffering Hidalgo was facing while being locked up.
In a letter to the BIA that month, Hidalgo wrote in Spanish:
The reason I am sending this letter is because I find myself in a desperate situation . . . Staying in this country is not something I wish to do. The only thing I ask for is my deportation . . . I have two daughters that depend on me, and they need their mother back in their life . . . I beg of you to have compassion and consideration for me, I have a serious medical condition. . . I renounce every and any right so that I can obtain my deportation.
But nothing happened. The appeal would sit at the board for more than six months with no answer, until the BIA found that the judge threw out Hidalgo’s case in error and directed him to go forward on it.
At her first hearing, Matherne asked the immigration judge to allow Hidalgo to return to Mexico. Because Hidalgo had no money to buy a plane ticket and she did not want any further delays, she chose not to seek voluntary departure.
Even though the immigration judge’s removal order is final, it appears there is virtually no end in sight to Hidalgo’s detention. She has no money for phone calls, food or soap, and the intense pain doesn’t allow her to sleep.
Finally, in December 2018, after SIFI repeatedly followed-up with Irwin staff about the need for medical care, she was sent to a new doctor. Hidalgo did, indeed, have an infection in her uterus. She was prescribed medication, and for the first time since her miscarriage, she felt some relief.
An unending nightmare
Locked down at Irwin County Detention Center, Hidalgo is missing out on her youngest daughter’s milestones.
“I’m missing her first tooth, her first words,” she said. “I’m missing everything. I dream of my family. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen my daughters.”
At home in Mexico, Hidalgo’s mother doesn’t know what happened to her. She thinks Hidalgo has done something to deserve her arrest and detention, and is angry with her. Her mother is also getting physically sick – with worry.
“She wonders why I’m not out of here,” Hidalgo said as she wept. “She thinks I’ve done something wrong, something bad.”
In November 2018, Hidalgo’s husband was deported to Mexico. In January 2019 – over a year after Hidalgo entered the U.S. for a vacation on a tourist visa – the judge finally granted her a removal order. But as of mid-January 2019, her deportation was still pending. She was still being held captive at Irwin.
“Nancy has suffered at the hands of the government and the private prison company through lack of the most basic medical care,” Matherne said. “That suffering has only been compounded by the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of the backlogged and bloated immigration court system and immigration appeals process. Nancy has wanted nothing more than to be removed from the United States and, yet, in spite of doing nothing but complying, she is still waiting for the nightmare of her immigration detention to end."
When the day comes that Hidalgo is finally set free from the immigrant prison, she says she’ll never smile a brighter smile.
“I’m going to open my arms to hug the sky,” she said.