In a matter of days, María Pérez and her four children could become homeless.
On Tuesday, she is supposed to turn in the key to the house in Vista her family has rented for the past several years. She doesn’t yet know where she or her four children will live.
“I can’t be without a roof for my children,” said Pérez, 35, in Spanish, as she worried about where she would go and how she would pay for it.
She has used what money her family had to pay rent while her husband, Ancelmo Carrillo-Carrillo, is in immigration custody — and to pay for his attorney.
Her oldest child is 12, and her youngest is less than a year old.
The family is one among many who have struggled to stay housed while loved ones are held in immigration detention. Lilian Serrano, a community organizer in North County and co-director of Universidad Popular, said she’s heard similar stories too many times.
“Often times what we hear from community members is, once there is an arrest by immigration enforcement, definitely there is the emotional impact of having the family separated and everything that it means in terms of facing the reality that this family member most likely will end up being deported,” Serrano said, “but also the financial burden for those that stayed behind.”
Carrillo-Carrillo’s case illustrates the ways in which the immigration and criminal justice systems intersect — what many attorneys refer to as the crimmigration system because of the ways that immigrants’ lives are upended in ways that those of U.S. citizens charged with the same crimes are not.
Carrillo-Carrillo, who is normally the main breadwinner for their family, has been held at Otay Mesa Detention Center since December, though his immigration case has been pending for much longer.
Both he and Pérez are from Guatemala, though they met after each came to the United States more than a decade ago. While Pérez has a green card, Carrillo-Carrillo does not.
In 2015, according to Pérez, a neighbor saw a drunken Carrillo-Carrillo push her when she was pregnant and called the police. He followed the judge-ordered program after the incident, Pérez said, and the two have not had problems since.
Carrillo-Carrillo said he accepted a plea deal in the domestic violence case without realizing how that might affect his ability to remain in the United States.
Depending on the details of a domestic violence case, immigration judges can determine that such a history blocks the people before them from certain programs that might otherwise allow them to stay.
Some months after the incident, Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested Carrillo-Carrillo, and he was detained for a few weeks before being allowed to pay a bond and return to his family. He’s been fighting his immigration case since then. While his case has been pending, he was able to get a work permit to support his family.
“I made a mistake, and I’m hoping that the United States will give me a chance,” he said in Spanish.
Based on records reviewed by the Union-Tribune, Carrillo-Carrillo applied for a program called cancellation of removal. That allows people who have been in the United States for more than 10 years to stay if their deportations would cause “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” on their U.S.-citizen children.
Any deportation of a parent is likely to cause hardship for their children, but this legal standard means that applicants have to prove the hardship it would cause goes far beyond that. An example might be where one of the children has a major health condition that requires one of the parents to be a full-time caregiver.
An immigration judge denied Carrillo-Carrillo’s request for cancellation of removal and ordered him deported. He appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals.
In December 2021, while that appeal was still pending, Carrillo-Carrillo and Pérez said they were driving home somewhere between Arizona and San Diego when he was detained again.
According to both husband and wife, they stopped at a gas station, and while they were there a family asked them for a ride.
Border Patrol had a checkpoint set up along the highway they were traveling. When agents saw the family, who did not have permission to be in the United States, in the car, they detained Carrillo-Carrillo and Pérez and accused them of smuggling.
Pérez still cries when she remembers the moment. She said agents took her baby, who was a couple of months old at the time, away from her and told her she was going to jail.
Eventually, the agents freed Pérez and her baby and dropped them off somewhere in San Diego without telling her where she was, she said. They did not return her phone.
Lost and unable to contact anyone or walk far enough with her baby and diaper bag to find help, she sat where they left her, terrified.
A police officer found her there, and she told him what happened. He helped her communicate with family members to come get her and waited to be sure they found her.
Meanwhile, Carrillo-Carrillo was sent back to immigration custody at the Otay Mesa facility. He was never criminally charged with smuggling. If he were a U.S. citizen, that would mean that he would be free to go. But, he said, immigration officials have used the incident as a reason to deny him bond.
Immigration cases are considered civil matters, not criminal ones, so immigration detention is not supposed to be used as punishment. Officials are only supposed to hold people who they believe are flight risks or dangerous to the community.
Border Patrol confirmed that Carrillo-Carrillo was taken into custody because of the suspected smuggling incident. ICE did not respond to a request for comment.
Since he returned to the detention center, Carrillo-Carrillo received a denial from the Board of Immigration Appeals. Now his case is on appeal with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in what may be his last chance to avoid deportation.
Pérez said she believes the system discriminates against people like her family.
“We didn’t hurt anyone. We didn’t kill anyone. We didn’t hit anyone,” she said. “My God, we’re not doing anything.”
Carrillo-Carrillo’s absence has been hard on his children. His sons miss playing outside and watching soccer and basketball with him. Carrillo-Carrillo gets free 10-minute calls to talk with his family. Most of the time, the 10 minutes end, and the phone cuts off while they’re still in mid conversation, said Brian, the oldest child.
Being unable to help as his family faces eviction is excruciating for Carrillo-Carrillo.
“It’s my family. I want to do everything possible for them,” he said. “They need me.”
Brian has to help his mother navigate the complex systems the family finds itself in.
The situation is especially complicated for Pérez because Spanish is not her first language. She grew up speaking Mam, a language used in indigenous communities in parts of Guatemala. She only learned Spanish after she came to the United States a little over a decade ago.
Navigating the U.S. legal systems for immigration and for housing can be especially tough for people facing additional language barriers, Serrano said, and it makes them vulnerable to having people take advantage of them.
Pérez still doesn’t understand why she was asked to leave her home. When she received a 60-day notice at the end of March that she would have to move out, she was current on her rent despite her husband’s absence.
In May, for the first time since her husband had been detained and knowing that she was already about to be forced out, she didn’t pay rent. She received another notice in mid May, this time giving her three days to pay or leave.
Pérez said she has been repeatedly pressured over the phone by a representative of property management company Arrow Real Estate, who she says threatened to bring the police to her door to force her to go.
“She scares me,” Pérez said.
Pérez tried to negotiate for more time to see if the new attorney she hired can get her husband out of custody so he can help her move their belongings. She said the property management representative told her she didn’t care what the family’s situation was, that she needed to leave.
Arrow Real Estate did not respond to a request for comment left via voicemail, and the representative did not respond to emailed questions about the situation.
Pérez is trying to comply with the firm’s demand to turn over the key by the end of May. She found a nearby storage unit where she can place the family’s belongings that will cost her more than $400 per month.
But she still doesn’t know where her children will sleep the night she hands in the key.