For four years after illegally slipping across the U.S. border, Oscar Campos Estrada and his young family had bounced from town to town in Pierce County, following the itinerant lifestyle of a seasonal worker.
A rare hot sun beat down on Tacoma in late August 2011, but Oscar Campos Estrada spent all of his time indoors.By then, Oscar had worn the gray uniform of a Pierce County Jail inmate for nearly four months. But the jail term was the least of his worries.Two decades after he illegally slipped over the U.S. border from Mexico, Oscar’s life as an illegal immigrant finally had caught up to him. A few months earlier, a Tacoma police officer had stopped Oscar on his drive to work for a cracked windshield. The cop quickly discovered Oscar was driving with a suspended license – an offense he’d been busted for several times before. Oscar was arrested and booked.Pierce County Jail officials later contacted federal immigration agents, who interviewed Oscar by phone. The agents told Oscar they’d be coming for him.Nearing the end of his jail term, Oscar tried to prepare himself mentally for a transfer to the Northwest Detention Center on Tacoma’s Tideflats – a transfer into the unknown.“I don’t know what will happen to me,” he said.Oscar put his odds of being deported at 50-50. With idle time in a jail cell, he’d thought long and hard about his situation.“I’m illegal, but I’m allowed to pay taxes and pay child support,” he said. “I’ve been here more than half my life. My children were born and raised here. I’ve tried three times to get a green card, but every time something happened to stop it. I’m Mexican, but I feel like an American. I’ve worked hard to support my family. I love this country and I want to stay, so I’m going to fight it.”What Oscar didn’t know then was that about a year earlier, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs had sent him a letter. It sought to inform him that he was now eligible to apply for a green card under the petition filed for him by his father in 1992.
Read the documents behind our series on the Northwest Detention Center.
Oscar Campos Estrada’s deportation case illustrates some of the complexities of U.S. immigration laws.
Oscar Campos Estrada has legally obtained a Social Security card and a valid permit to work for up to one year in the United States — accoutrements Oscar and his family will need while he fights to stay in the U.S.
Portraits of President Barack Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder hang in a waiting room where families of illegal immigrants wait as their loved ones attend hearings in two immigration courtrooms.Dean J. Koepfler/The News TribuneA narrow passageway separates the interior of the sprawling Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma from a trio of small federal courtrooms where the fate of the majority of men and women in the center will be decided. It is a courtroom of first appearances and, for many, last hopes.The hallway, just off the one they call the “gray mile,” is short by design. It expedites getting people from detention into the court system that, while sagging under sheer numbers of cases, is still set up to speed them out of the country.Speed matters from a cost-saving standpoint: Immigrants are detained at taxpayer expense.The Tacoma court, operated by the U.S. Dept. of Justice’s Executive Office of Immigration Review, is one of 59 immigration courts nationwide that are handling record numbers of deportation cases. It has two full-time judges and last year handled a total of 11,249 hearings. Many detainees have multiple hearings before they are ordered deported, released on bond, or their cases dismissed.On a typical morning, the docket is already packed with 40 cases. In Judge Theresa Scala’s courtroom, men – most appearing to be in their 20s and 30s – fill the half-dozen pew-like benches. Each man wears a uniform that signifies his criminal history or threat: Blue if no criminal history, or only minor charges or convictions; orange for mid-level offenses, such as drug-related crimes; red for those with assault charges or convictions. Women, who make up only about 10 percent of the detention center population, wear yellow. On this day, the courtroom is a sea of mostly navy blue.
Cruz Velasquez served a 60-day sentence for a DUI conviction in the Pierce County Jail in 2011. Held on a immigration detainer, he feared he might be deported.Dean J. Koepfler/The News TribuneHe came to America for a better life, to flee the fallout of a bloody civil war and the gang violence that now infests his native El Salvador.For more than 15 years, Cruz Velasquez says he had found that life here – in Tacoma, in America.He found it in a job as a window installer that, by U.S. standards, pays near poverty levels but earns him more money than he’s ever made.He found it in Juana, a fellow illegal immigrant who bore him a daughter and a son – both American citizens, each delivered in good health at St. Joseph Medical Center.And he found it in the home all of them now share: a modest rambler with a big tree in the front yard in South Tacoma.But last summer as he awaited the end of a two-month term in the Pierce County Jail for driving under the influence – and the arrival of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to escort him to a privately operated detention center on Tacoma’s Tideflats – Velasquez knew the life he built here could vanish.“If it happens, if I get deported, I wouldn’t want my children to go,” Velazquez said through a translator last August. “In El Salvador, there is trouble with gangs and just violence in general. I would prefer my children stay in the United States.”Velasquez wasn’t giving up his family just yet.
When his stint with the Mexican Army ended in 2001, Asael Lopez Carrada opted to retire and fled to America. “I met someone who said things would be better here; that I would be able to find a job and also be more at ease, because I felt very unsafe,” he said.
Both the Northwest Detention Center and the immigrant, Oscar Campos Estrada, are rooted here. Both relocated to Pierce County for renewal. Both grew, flourished and ultimately collided in Tacoma.