At 6 a.m. on Nov. 19, Aida Carolina Andrade-Amaya walked out of her home, on her way back to work, girding herself for her first full day separated from her 2-month-old baby, Mario Jr.
She had dreaded the day for weeks.
Over the previous two months, Aida, 28, and her partner Mario, 21, had stumbled into a routine: She stayed at home, caring for and bonding with Mario Jr. in between reading books to her 4-year-old daughter, Jade. When Mario would return from his warehouse job at 2 p.m., she would teach him how to bathe the baby and burp him. A first-time father, Mario was learning from Aida how to be a parent.
And because Mario Jr. was born premature, his father seemed tentative, even afraid, when holding him, often dipping his arm too low. Aida watched vigilantly, reminding him to support the baby’s head and often walking over to gently tip his arm back up.
Slowly, over time, she noticed him appearing more comfortable with the baby.
But living in San Bruno, California, located in the heart of one of the country’s most expensive regions, and being undocumented, meant that Aida needed to get back to work and begin earning money so they could survive.
So, in the dark of dawn that day in November, Aida, Jade, and Mario, carrying the baby in a car seat, walked out of their apartment together. Mario was taking the kids to day care in their minivan and Aida walked half a block down the street to her silver Volkswagen to go to clean houses.
As she approached her vehicle, however, she noticed a car parked across the street. Suddenly, the car sped up, its lights flashing and blocked her vehicle. In an instant, she was approached by a man and a woman wearing bulletproof vests, black pants, and black boots.
They handcuffed her.
What Aida had not known as she left for work that morning was that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers had been watching the couple, tracking their routines and confirming her address and likeness, as they do in all of their targeted arrests made in communities. The officers on the scene had in possession what they mistakenly believed was an international arrest warrant in the form of an Interpol Red Notice, part of an effort by the immigration agency to use the opaque process to target certain immigrants.
Her mind racing and her breathing accelerating, Aida told the ICE officers that she was already in immigration court, fighting for asylum after she entered the country without authorization in 2012. She had never been in trouble with the law. “Why were they doing this?” she thought.
Within seconds, more officers approached and she grew tense: She needed to talk to Mario, to tell him what was happening.
Aida panicked: “Mario! Mario! Mario!” she yelled in the direction of their minivan, as he packed the kids in.
As she resisted, the officers pulled her toward the ICE van. “Immigration is taking me! Call my sister!”
Mario was startled by her screams and looked to her, desperate to figure out what was happening. After watching the ICE vehicle leave, he sat quietly in his van, with Mario Jr. and Jade in the backseat, and began to cry.
“Don’t worry. It’s okay, it’s the police. They’ll let my mom go because she didn’t do anything wrong,” Jade said to him.
Mario realized he needed to gather himself so the children wouldn’t worry — he couldn’t have Jade, a 4-year-old, be the one to reassure him.
“Everything will be alright,” he said, knowing that it actually wouldn’t.
The arrest was just the latest setback in Aida’s decadelong odyssey for safety, one that saw her flee years of domestic violence in her home country of El Salvador before arriving in America, where she confronted new obstacles.
The stability she found in recent years with her partner, Mario, however, has dissolved.
Aida remains locked up at a California jail that holds ICE detainees two hours northeast in the Central Valley. In the time since her arrest — half of her youngest child’s life — Aida has seen her infant twice. Mario is too scared to visit regularly.
So, from a cell tucked in a small California county far away from her home, Aida tries to conjure up memories that will make her feel close to her baby again: like the way his face scrunched up every time he’d let out a faint cry.
During the first two months of his life, their connection was strong — when Mario Jr. would cry, Aida could quickly calm him by pressing his tiny body against her skin and wrapping her arms around him. Now, she contemplates her worst fear: that he will not recognize her if she ever gets back home.
“This is one of things I think about the most. That he maybe won’t recognize me because he doesn’t know who I am or he will start crying. These first months are passing and we are going to lose that connection,” she said, through tears. “There’s nothing that replaces a mother.”
ICE has said in court that the agency arrested and kept Aida in detention because of an Interpol “red notice” — an international request to locate and detain an individual, issued at the behest of the country Aida fled, El Salvador. She has been accused there of a 2012 aggravated robbery, burglary, and membership in the infamous gang MS-13.
“ICE arrested Aida Carolina Andrade-Amaya on November 19, 2018 at her residence after discovering she has ties to Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and is also wanted in El Salvador for aggravated robbery and aggravated burglary,” said Richard Rocha, a spokesperson for the agency.
A warrant for her arrest was issued by El Salvador in May of 2018 for the alleged crimes.
Jehan Romero, an immigration attorney at Pangea Legal Services who is representing Aida, said the allegations are unsubstantiated.
“It should worry citizens and noncitizens alike that our government is using vague allegations with no evidence to arrest people,” she said. “Aida is an innocent mother who for the last six plus years, has been living peacefully in the United States and complying with her immigration court obligations before ICE arbitrarily yanked her from her baby.”
Aida’s case combines issues often seen in immigration courts: family separation, vague gang allegations, the phenomenon of women fleeing the Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala — because of a growing domestic violence crisis, and the ballooning number of immigrants in detention.
But it’s also a window into something else: ICE’s utilization of red notices as both a tool to target certain immigrants in the country and evidence to cite in court as a reason to keep individuals in detention and to ultimately deport them. While the Obama administration ramped up efforts to track down those in the county with red notices, immigration attorneys have said that they have seen their use in courts more frequently in the past year.
The Department of Justice states that the US “does not consider a Red Notice alone to be a sufficient basis for the arrest of a subject because it does not meet the requirements for arrest.” That’s because all it takes in most cases is a country essentially requesting a red notice from Interpol for one to be issued, according to Ted Bromund, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, who has closely studied the issue.
Interpol is not an investigative agency, so in almost all cases, red notices are approved and posted no matter how flimsy the evidence, he said. And while ICE states in press releases and reports, like that of Aida’s, that red notices are international police warrants of arrest, Interpol itself says that they are “not an international arrest warrant.”
“A red notice is not proof of anything,” Bromund, who is being used as an expert witness in Aida’s case, said. “The only thing it proves is that the country filling out the request form didn’t make any egregious mistakes in filling it out.”
There’s a difference, he said, with notices that come from robust criminal justice systems, such many Western European countries’, and those that come from systems with problems, like El Salvador’s.
“It is very hard to have any confidence in red notices submitted from a large number of countries in the world because you have no confidence in their police or judicial procedures. It doesn’t mean they’re always defective — probably they’re fine, but which ones? That is a huge part of the problem,” Bromund said.
John Sandweg, former acting director of ICE during the Obama administration, was once sure that red notices were an appropriate means to prioritize the detention of immigrants in the country.
But in the years following his role at ICE, Sandweg has become concerned about their use, even though he still considers many of the notices and subsequent ICE arrests appropriate. The former acting director doesn’t believe that the notices are vetted properly and thinks that they can be abused by countries, such as Russia, to get ICE to detain those who have fled the country.
ICE already is arresting and detaining a large number of undocumented individuals. Enforcement priorities set by the Obama administration that generally limited ICE arrests to people with criminal charges against them were scrapped under President Trump within weeks of his inauguration, and detention numbers have since hit record levels. As of Jan. 1, ICE housed 48,000 individuals in detention, which is 8,000 more than the levels that had been provided for by the now-expired congressional funding.
For her part, Aida crossed the border without authorization in 2012 and applied for asylum. She passed an interview determining she had a “credible fear” of danger in El Salvador and was released. Her attorneys point out that since her entry into the US, she has had no criminal history.
In immigration court, the mere presence of red notices can prove crucial in determining whether immigrants remain in custody.
To that end, Aida will soon be due for a bond hearing in front of an immigration judge. The red notice could have serious consequences right from the start of the hearing, when the judge will determine whether she is a danger to the community. If so, she will be ineligible for bond and will remain in custody.
Often times, the notice can be determinative, according to Sandweg.
“Neither ICE nor the judges are equipped to evaluate the legitimacy of a Red Notice,” Sandweg said. “How do you defend against that? It’s hard if you don’t have money, resources or the evidence.”
The red notice issued against Aida includes vague allegations that on a few occasions in 2012, she was part of a group that robbed pedestrians at gunpoint and stole bags of beans and rice from two local schools, while also claiming that she collaborated with MS-13.
The arrest warrant from El Salvador provides no details, however, other than stating that she is a member of MS-13 and goes by several nicknames. It includes dozens of other individuals, with crimes of varying severity.
One expert, who declined to be named, said that the red notice for Aida did not meet the international agency’s standards because the allegations fail to include specific information, like the date and location of the crimes, or her specific involvement in them. The MS-13 allegation, the expert noted, was even more vague.
El Salvador’s criminal justice system “relies heavily” on witness testimony and often from witnesses who have negotiated a plea bargain, according to Jeanne Rikkers, an expert on police and human rights issues in El Salvador.
“Arrest warrants are frequently issued based on someone said someone was involved and sometimes very far after the fact,” she said. “Sometimes it’s partially true or totally made up, and sometimes the made-up ones end in convictions and the true ones end up going free. It’s a mess,” she said.
Aida’s attorneys believe the allegations are derived from witness testimony, alleging that Aida committed the crimes along with her ex-partner, whom she fled due to extreme domestic violence, at the behest of MS-13.
There are no specific dates for the crimes or additional information on her alleged MS-13 affiliation in the documents from El Salvador that ICE has provided thus far in court. Unlike in criminal proceedings, where the admissibility of evidence must clear a high threshold, most everything is allowed in immigration proceedings, including hearsay.
And gang allegations are often consequential, regardless of the specificity of the connection.
“When the government begins to allege that there is a gang affiliation, it becomes extremely difficult to get out of detention and the individual who remains detained during their asylum proceedings is unlikely to win,” said Denise Gilman, an immigration law professor at the University of Texas School of Law. “It essentially creates a cascading set of issues.”
Aida remembers seeing the gang members by the river, where she would do laundry, in her hometown of Santa Rosa de Lima. To avoid them, she’d wake up at dawn, to go to the river, and do her laundry.
Now, she’s being told that she’s one of them.
Aida consistently denies the criminal allegations and wishes someone could go to El Salvador and disprove them. She tries to be logical with her rejection of the gang charge, pointing out that she has no gang tattoos or any tattoos on her body. Tattoos are the one thing she knows about MS-13.
“I feel strong in myself and who I am. I’m not part of MS-13,” she said. “But I don’t know what to do.”
For Aida, the path to the immigration courts and now to ICE detention is the culmination of a tumultuous journey from El Salvador to America.
She met her ex-partner at the age of 15. He was 19, but soon after their meeting, they moved in together. In 2007, at the age of 16, she had her first child, a girl. It didn’t take long for things to turn in their relationship: After the birth, he began beating her relentlessly, often daily, leaving her with bruises, according to Aida.
Day after day, she said, the violence escalated. She’d beg him to stop but he told her that nothing could ever stop him: She was powerless. She wasn’t the only one: The Central American country has been dealing for years with a crisis of violence against women.
In 2017, more than nine women were killed every week in El Salvador. The country has one of the highest rates of femicide in the world, and domestic violence laws are poorly enforced, according to a 2017 report on the human rights conditions in the country written by the US State Department. Domestic violence is considered a “widespread and serious problem” throughout El Salvador, according to the agency.
Over time, the physical violence against Aida worsened. He started using weapons, like knives and machetes, against her, she said. Her daughter became scared of him and witnessed her father slice Aida’s knee with a kitchen knife at one point. He was mad that she had supposedly been flirting because she had given a man, their neighbor, a mango.
When she was pregnant with her first child, he largely left her alone, but that changed months into her second pregnancy in 2009. She’d come home from doing the laundry when the trouble started.
“He started hitting me with his closed fist,” she wrote in a declaration for her asylum case. “I told him to stop because he was going to hurt our baby. Then he grabbed a large kitchen knife and stabbed me in my lower back near my buttocks. I was so scared that he was going to kill me and the baby.”
The beatings continued and soon extended to her young daughter. Aida moved out of the house and into her mother’s home.
She always had the sense something was off with her partner. Once, he was imprisoned for six months and told Aida that it was only for stealing, getting mad every time she asked for more details. So, she stopped asking.
In 2011, after another beating, Aida decided it was enough and called the police to request a restraining order. She never got a court date, or any document proving the order was issued, and a few days later, her ex-partner came back. This time, he had a warning: “If you call the police again, I will make sure we have a funeral for you.”
During the summer months of 2012, Aida claims she faced her ex-partner’s most ferocious beatings. It’s during this timeframe that the government of El Salvador alleges the crimes occurred. These were months, she said, that she often stayed inside the home, fearful of his reaction to her going out — a trigger point for his attacks.
Then, one day in the fall of 2012, Aida realized her life was in the balance. Her ex came home and began complaining about how her niece was staying with them. The niece needed to leave immediately, he told her. He took a log from their backyard and struck Aida in the head.
She realized that if she stayed much longer in the home, she’d likely not survive. Together, she and her niece, who clutched Aida’s son, ran away from the house. That night, Aida took off to live outdoors in an undeveloped part of the town and her niece left her son with Aida’s mother.
For several weeks following her escape, Aida was homeless. She camped under a tree while she plotted ways to sell some of her family property and flee the country. Her safety felt tenuous, but anything was better than being in a home with him.
“I was basically running for my life,” she said.
Then, one day, as she was lying under a tree, she heard a voice that caused her to panic: “Where have you been?!” he screamed as he approached her. “Did you think you’d be able to hide from me?!”
He began kicking her repeatedly. She cried, begging for mercy, her hands up, pleading for any pause in the abuse. She thought this was it — this was how she was going to die.
But finally, after noticing he had broken her wrist, he stopped and left her. Often, she recalls, the beatings would get to a point that appeared to shock him and he would suddenly stop.
Aida knew he’d be back, he’d find her again somehow. There wasn’t any more time to gather money: She had to flee the country and head for the United States. She decided to leave her two children behind with her mother because she didn’t want them to face the long, treacherous journey she was attempting.
To this day, Aida is racked with guilt over leaving them behind.
After crossing the border in 2012, Aida was apprehended by a Border Patrol agent and immediately claimed asylum. She passed an interview to determine whether she had a “credible fear” of danger in her home country by citing her ex-husband’s beatings.
In the US, Aida worked any job she could to sustain herself, and things started to improve, slowly. She got a job as a janitor and she met Mario in 2016. They formed a stable partnership.
Though he wasn’t her biological father, Mario was the only dad Aida’s daughter Jade knew, and they quickly bonded.
“He treated me really well,” Aida said. “He watched out for me.”
Periodically, however, her past would catch up to her. Her ex-partner would call her from different phone numbers, telling her that sooner or later he’d get her back to El Salvador. She was going to pay, she recalled him saying.
But she tried to forget him, and this year she had something to celebrate: Aida and Mario became parents of Mario Jr. in September.
She pined for her children back in El Salvador, wishing they could reunite someway — maybe, she dreamt, after she won her asylum case. She continued to send money to the cousin in El Salvador who had taken over caring for them after Aida’s mother died.
These days, her mind is focused on more immediate concerns, like Mario. As a single father, working a physical job, he’s struggling. Back home in San Bruno, Mario Jr. has been crying for long periods at night, more than he ever did when Aida was home.
Mario is trying, Aida said, but she can hear in his voice that he’s stressed. He wonders if he’s doing something wrong with the baby or not taking care of him the way he should be. Sometimes, when the baby cries at night, Mario cries too, he’s told Aida. She was the one who could calm Mario Jr. during his crying fits.
“And I can’t do anything about it,” Aida said from her cell. She knows Mario is a good father but she runs through her anxieties daily, like, will he fall? Will he get sick? What will happen then?
For weeks, Mario would call and put the phone close to the baby, so Aida could hear his cries, his babbling. But Aida told him to stop. It was too much to hear Mario Jr. and not be able to see and feel him.
It’s become so painful, she said, that she has recently been prescribed medicine for her depression, insomnia, and lack of appetite.
Jade has been staying with Aida’s sister in San Francisco because Mario can’t take care of the baby and the young girl while he’s working long hours.
This year, she missed Christmas and instead spent it alone in a cell with nearly two dozen other women who gathered toilet paper and empty rolls to create an imitation Christmas tree. To celebrate, each woman had saved food from the commissary, like sardines, chicharones, and rice, to create makeshift sushi.
She tried to remain positive, but Aida spent most of her Christmas Day crying, thinking of what was lost.
“I missed the baby’s first Christmas,” she said.
All the while, Mario Jr. is hitting the milestones he’s supposed to as an infant: He recently rolled over on his own, and he’s beginning to make more noises. His vision is expanding and he’s beginning to see more of the world.
The separation from his mother could have drastic consequences: The American Academy of Pediatrics has said that family separation can disrupt a child’s brain architecture and harm lifelong development.
“I feel like I’m being tested,” she said. “I just want to be with him. I want to see him changing. I want to see those things happen.”
It’s unclear what will happen next for Aida. She has a hearing to determine whether a judge will release her on bond in the coming days. It’ll be there when Aida finds out if she’ll be going home anytime soon to see Jade and Mario Jr. She’ll continue to fight her asylum case, whether she is in detention or not.
She tries not to think about what will happen the day of her bond hearing because she knows a reunion with her family isn’t guaranteed. One woman in her detention center has been jailed for more than a year.
She can’t even fathom the thought of being deported, something that she believes will surely result in her death.
“I’ve been praying,” she said. “‘God, give me the strength to continue in this place. I’m barely hanging on right now.’” ●