Prison or Deportation: What Choices Are Immigrants Given?

Elizabeth Ruiz was given the choice of incarceration in an immigrant detention center or being sent back to Mexico. Why she chose prison to keep her family together.
Immigrant rally photo courtesy of Colectivo Aliadas 2.0

Immigration rally in New York City. Many immigrant families include both undocumented parents and U.S.-born children, and risk being broken up when some members are deported.

Photo courtesy of Colectivo Aliados 2.0.

I had been living in the United States for 10 years. I was a refugee: I left Oaxaca because of financial trouble. I didn’t have a U.S. visa yet, though my daughter, who was three, was born here. And I had learned English through ESL classes at Clark College. One morning I left home to go to work in Portland and never made it.

I left my driver’s license in my car before boarding the train from Vancouver, Wash., to Portland. I had my bus pass, but I didn’t have any identification to prove that it was mine. There was a Caucasian guy who also didn't have proof of his fare, but the fare inspector allowed him to buy a ticket and continue riding the train.

I told the fare inspector, the security officer, and the two police officers that had arrived that I could buy a new ticket, but they didn’t give me the opportunity. "You are illegal," one of the police officers said, and he arrested me.

In the detention center, they treated us like we were the most dangerous people in the world.

I spent two days in different jails. During this time, my family didn’t know where I was. When I didn’t come home, my husband went to several jails looking for me, and each time he was directed to a different one. On the third day, I was taken to Tacoma in a locked van. There were chains on my hands, feet, and  stomach. I thought, what if we have an accident and die because we are chained and locked in? I wouldn’t see my son and daughter again.

They let me call my husband when I got to Tacoma, but first I had to register his name in a log. Since he wasn't a citizen, I was afraid to give them his phone number.

Spoon Jackson
Voices of Compassion
Personal stories of life beyond bars.

In the detention center, they treated us like we were the most dangerous people in the world. After showering, I wrapped my hair in a towel. I heard a guard yelling, but I didn't think it was directed at me until she screamed, "Take that damn towel off your head!"

I cried. I never imagined someone would yell at me over a towel.

I shared a windowless room the size of a bathroom. We were locked in twice a day to be counted. Usually we would have the same flavorless food for all three meals, but disguised in different sauces. To keep my mind occupied, I took a volunteer job folding laundry for a dollar a day.

There were Mexicans and Central Americans, Chinese, French, Cambodians, Koreans, and Pakistanis. Whenever someone started crying, all of us, no matter what our background, gathered to show support.

Despite all of that hardship, this country is home now for me and my kids.

After one week at the detention center, an immigration official asked me to sign a deportation order. He told me I could leave right away and be on the next plane to Mexico, but I feared I would never see my family again. When I decided to wait to see a judge, he looked upset that I didn’t sign.

While I was in the detention center, my husband and kids had to move out of our apartment and live with friends so they could afford a lawyer. My husband sold some of our possessions, and even now, we live with friends and don’t own much more than our car and the clothes on our backs. Our friends helped raise money by selling tamales and enchiladas and having garage sales.

I was released on bail after two months at the Tacoma detention center, and my case continued until last December when my green card was granted.

Ten years ago, I knew that I had to come to the United States—there was no future for me or my son in Mexico. But during my time in the detention center and the months of immigration hearings, it felt again like I had no future. I couldn’t plan my life; I could only wait.

Despite all of that hardship, this country is home now for me and my kids. My kids come back from school and say they’ve learned the national anthem. They love this country. And I am glad that I fought to stay here with them.


  • How can undocumented workers come out of the shadows into an active work life in the US?

  • Arizona's notorious immigration law is now in effect—but so are strategies for resistance.

  • Video: A mother-daughter interview about one family's immigration to the United States.
No Paywall. No Ads. Just Readers Like You.
You can help fund powerful stories to light the way forward.
Donate Now.