(BCN) — Ramon Ruelas challenged a guest to a chess game at 7 a.m. in Mexicali, Mexico, near the border with California, where he’d spent almost a decade in prison.
The 33-year-old Mexican-born father played with pure concentration, until his 5-week-old daughter, Jasmine, started crying in a back room of his house. She was visiting him.
“She’s the reason why I want to go back to California,” Ruelas whispered, holding her. “A kid needs her family together. A broken family has terrible circumstances for a kid. And I know that.”
By broken, Ruelas means separated. Ruelas has been barred from living in the U.S. with his family since 2020 when California officials freed him from prison and handed him to immigration officials, who deported him to the country he left at age 9.
Ruelas is one of more than 5,700 formerly incarcerated immigrants to California who, since 2019, have been delivered to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Twice state lawmakers have voted to halt the practice, but Gov. Gavin Newsom has vetoed the bills.
In August, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California published a report that said staff at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation were “tagging” immigrants, refugees, and others in custody for possible deportation by ICE. The ACLU accused the department of discrimination.
A month later, Newsom vetoed a measure that would have restricted corrections officials from transferring to ICE people like Ruelas, immigrants who had served their sentence and been granted parole or compassionate release. The governor said it would impede the state’s ability to communicate with federal agencies that assess public safety risks.
Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo, the Democrat from Los Angeles who authored the bill, has vowed to keep trying.
“Governor Newsom acknowledged the need to improve the process CDCR currently follows in communicating with ICE regarding the release of justice-impacted immigrants granted parole,” she said in a statement, “but he did not put an end to the dual system of justice that currently subjects them to unequal treatment, a practice I am committed to ending through legislation.”
Before Ruelas’ entered the justice system, he grew up in poverty. When Ruelas’ parents emigrated to California in the 1990s, he said, he and his family lived as they did in Mexico — hungry and on the brink of homelessness.
In seventh grade, Ruelas said, he tried coping with childhood trauma by drinking alcohol and doing drugs, bringing him friends he later wished he’d never met and legal issues he can’t erase to this day.
When he was 20, a woman he used to date accused him of kidnapping, threatening and trying to rob her. He was tried and convicted in Los Angeles County Superior Court and sentenced to life in prison, plus four years, with a possibility of parole.
Since his release and deportation to Mexico, Ruelas said, time away from his family has been tougher than any time behind bars.
“It’s like you’re still ruled by your mistakes. It’s like a cruel joke: I’m not in prison, but I’m not with my family. In my mind, in my heart, I still haven’t come home,” Ruelas said, as his daughter slept on his chest.
Ruelas was born in San Luis Rio Colorado, in the Mexican state of Sonora, in 1990. As a kid, he ate tortillas with salt because that was all his parents could afford.
But poverty was not Ruelas’ most traumatic childhood experience.
“I was sexually abused by some older kids,” Ruelas said. “The abuse molded me to be insecure, to doubt myself.”
Not long after the abuse, Ruelas, his four siblings and his mother followed his father to California in 1999. Ruelas said he thought about revealing his trauma to his parents, but they were busy working day and night.
The next nine years, Ruelas and his family moved around, living in seven cities in southern California. Sometimes they lived in an apartment, other times they spent months sleeping in public parks.
Ruelas couldn’t get jobs like some of his high school friends, because as an undocumented immigrant he did not have a Social Security number. He was embarrassed about being undocumented and resented his fate.
“I never understood why I wanted to hang out with broken kids, the troublemakers,” Ruelas said.
“Drugs allowed me to socialize, to be comfortable with myself. I tried to be healthy but I didn’t know how to cope with my trauma, didn’t know how to address it, didn’t know — until I went to prison.”
‘Something inside’ needed to change
Ruelas was sent to jail and then to prison in 2012, after he was convicted of kidnapping a woman he had been dating and had lived with.
According to an appellate court’s summary of the case, she testified that she and Ruelas argued and he and another man forced her into a van and took her to a Walmart in Pomona, where Ruelas allegedly tried getting her to withdraw money. She said she asked store staff to call 911.
The jury found Ruelas guilty of kidnapping to commit robbery, injuring a partner and making threats. He was sentenced to life plus four years, with the possibility of parole.
“At first I was so angry, but then I told myself I got something inside me that needed to get out, something inside me that needed to change,” Ruelas said.
“I started playing chess and going to groups, hearing people sharing their stories. They were trying to go home, to be at peace with who they were. And that’s what I followed.”
At Centinela State Prison in Imperial County, Ruelas attended Criminal and Gang Members Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, but it was in a group called “Survivors” where he broke his silence at age 28.
All the men shared similar trauma: They had been sexually abused as children. Ruelas, who was raised in a Catholic family, also started attending services. Deacon Marcos Lopez, Centinela’s Catholic chaplain at the time, recalled Ruelas.
“There’s a lot of people that don’t choose to correct themselves while they’re in prison,” said Lopez, who also had been a probation officer for nearly two decades. “I could tell he was going to get released as soon as he did his time. He was doing very well.”
Lopez in 2021 presided over Ruelas’ marriage in Mexicali.
Free but ‘handcuffed’
In 2017, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law extending youthful offender parole hearings to include adults who were under age 23 when they committed offenses. Since Ruelas was 20 when he went to prison, he qualified as a youthful offender.
The California Legislature has since determined that, with few exceptions, offenders who commit crimes before age 26 should have a “meaningful opportunity of parole.”
After a few years in Centinela, Ruelas was transferred to San Quentin State Prison and became eligible for parole. Parole hearings are supposed to determine if an inmate “poses an unreasonable risk of danger to society.”
As Ruelas prepared for his hearing, he attended a program that helps inmates develop parole plans, including obtaining services in their communities after being released. In that program he met Marisol, the volunteer who would later become his wife.
“Every time I saw her I felt a strong connection, but I knew it was inappropriate because there’s a thing called over-familiarity,” Ruelas said. “I couldn’t compromise because I was going to get denied (parole) and I could’ve stayed another 10 years. After she quit volunteering, we started writing each other letters.”
In February 2019, Ruelas was granted parole. At 29, he had been in prison for nearly a decade.
“A few months later, immigration officials came to see me and told me, ‘Don’t tell your family to come pick you up because we’re going to pick you up; don’t make them drive all the way here’,” Ruelas said.
On Jan. 9, 2020, Ruelas woke up anxious, thinking he wouldn’t be returning to his family or Marisol, who by then was his girlfriend living in San Francisco.
A correctional officer took Ruelas to San Quentin’s receiving and release facility, where Ruelas was given a package his sister had sent containing a new pair of sweatpants, shoes and a shirt. His shoelaces and sweatpants strings were taken away.
“Then I was picked up, put in shackles on my feet, one at my waist and in my hands. I never walked out of the main door from San Quentin,” Ruelas recalled.
“They put me in a van. It was the first time I saw out of a window for a long time. But it was very confusing because I was ‘free’ and still handcuffed.”
Ruelas was taken to a holding cell in San Francisco, where he didn’t eat the peanut butter sandwich he was given. Not knowing where he was going exacerbated his anxiety.
The next day, he was dropped off in San Diego, about 500 miles away, where immigration officials escorted him across the border. In Tijuana, he waited hours for Marisol to arrive.
It was the first time in a long while that he had hugged someone with affection. It also was the first time in a decade in which he could make his own decisions.
But Mexico was not the place where he expected to return.
Four years, thousands of ICE transfers
California’s sanctuary law prohibits local law enforcement agencies from using resources to investigate, detain, report or arrest people for immigration violations. It also sets as “safe” such spaces as schools, health facilities, and courthouses.
But the state has said it is bound by other laws to cooperate with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which oversees ICE.
According to the ACLU investigation, emails between state corrections staff and ICE over two months in 2022 reveal that prison officials reported people to ICE based on assumptions about their names, country of birth, and the language they spoke. In some cases, the report said, inmates were held beyond their release dates for ICE and in a few cases U.S. citizens were offered to ICE.
Legislation to ban state corrections from turning over any inmates to ICE has failed, as has the effort to prohibit prison officials from allowing security companies under contract with ICE to take inmates when they’re about to be released.
However, this year the Legislature approved Carillo’s bill, called the HOME Act, in part because it focused on immigrants who had been paroled or given compassionate release. While Newsom vetoed the measure, in 2019 he made headlines by pardoning three formerly incarcerated immigrants so they wouldn’t be deported.
“They are now trusted employees, husbands, fathers to young children and sons to aging parents,” the governor’s office told Politico at the time. “Their deportation would be an unjust collateral consequence that would harm their families and communities.”
From 2019, when Newsom took office, through 2022, state corrections transferred 5,749 noncitizens to ICE, according to state numbers.
How does ICE know when an immigrant is about to be released?
Corrections spokesperson Terri Hardy said when the department staff is unable to ascertain an individual’s citizenship by place of birth, they rely on ICE to make an official determination. The department then puts on hold anyone ICE requests.
ICE officials declined to comment on legislation or on Ruelas’ case, but said that generally, the agency considers in each case whether an arrest and removal is warranted.
A long-distance family
Ruelas walked around his living room, bouncing his daughter in his arms. He said he enjoys child-rearing most mornings when his wife can rest. After a while, Jasmine fell asleep again.
During most of her pregnancy, Marisol Ruelas drove nine hours from San Francisco to Mexicali at least once a month. A manager at the San Francisco Department of Public Health, she had most of her prenatal care check-ups and ultrasound sessions in the Bay Area.
“The difficult part was knowing he wanted to be there, that he deserved to be there.” she said.
“But because of my health insurance, our baby had to be born in the U.S.
“It would be ideal for us to be in California. Me being raised there, him being raised there, Jasmine being born there. It will give us a sense of normalcy, and it will give him a better sense of community.”
Once her maternity leave ends, she said she’ll go back to San Francisco to work. Jasmine will join her because her medical appointments are in the Bay Area. Then they’ll drive once a month to Mexicali to visit Ruelas.
Ruelas, for his part, is still fighting for a chance to live with his family in the U. S.
“There’s going to come a time where my daughter is going to want us both in the same house and it’s going to hurt her feelings,” Ruelas said. “She’s going to be sad, and she’s not going to understand why life is the way it is. But hopefully, we can figure something out.”
Stephani Prieto, from the Oakland-based Nieves Law Firm, is overseeing Ruelas’ efforts to return to the U.S. She said Ruelas has a chance if he’s granted post-conviction relief. She declined to comment on specifics but said in general, the best outcome for any client would be for them to have their case vacated and not be tried again, which would allow them to go through the U.S. immigration process.
Ruelas’ motion to vacate would have to be filed in Los Angeles County, where a jury found him guilty and where county supervisors have lobbied in support of the HOME bill.
In Mexicali, Ruelas changed Jasmine into an orange shirt, and she smiled as her father rubbed his nose on her belly. As his wife breastfed Jasmine, Ruelas resumed the chess game he started hours before.
He moved another pawn forward, freeing space for later attacks by his bishop and queen.
“I do believe that the U.S. does have a right to its own sovereignty, its own safety,” Ruelas said, “but I wish they would take the time to look at individual cases. I wish they would see me and say, ‘This guy grew up here in the U.S., and that’s all he knows; he’s getting deported to a foreign country to him. He didn’t just parole from prison; he earned his right to get out of prison.'”
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