Sentenced to 30 Days in Jail For Illegally Crossing the Border

by Lauren Gambino

Operation Streamline

Explore this topic:

FLORENCE, Ariz. — Gerardo Morales-Perez knew crossing la frontera wasn’t going to be easy.

The 22-year-old knew about the Sonoran Desert wasteland and the risks that came with traversing it. He knew if he could get to North Carolina he might find the job his friends promised existed. And he knew if he was caught he would end up where he began: in Siltepec, Chiapas, Mexico, with no job and no money.

What Morales-Perez didn’t know: He could end up serving 30 days in federal detention for entering the U.S. without documentation.

And on this day, Morales-Perez, is telling his story from the Central Arizona Detention Center, a federal prison in Florence, 62 miles south of Phoenix and 140 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Morales-Perez first attempted to enter the United States through El Paso, Texas in 2009. Not long into his journey norte, Morales-Perez was apprehended by a U.S. Border Patrol agent on July 31, 2009 and immediately deported to Nuevo Laredo.

From there he traveled to Monterrey, where he worked until he earned enough money to return to home to his family in Siltepec, a town at the southern tip of Mexico near the Guatemala border.

In Siltepec, Morales-Perez worked on his family’s milpa (field) alongside his mother, father and older brother. After a year of farming maize, squash and beans and earning no money, the yearning to head north to the U.S. and escape his poverty-stricken hometown returned.

He heard whispers of a job opportunity in North Carolina. Without confirmation or certainty, Morales-Perez departed for the U.S. by way of Tucson, Ariz., in July 2010. He said he didn’t know how far North Carolina was from Arizona or how he would get there once he arrived in the United States. Still, the possibility of a better life outweighed the alternative: poverty and no hope for the future.

Morales-Perez hitched a ride from his home to Comitan, Chiapas. He then boarded a bus to Altar, Sonora, which cost him 1,100 pesos ($86) and took four days. In Altar he hired a coyote to help him cross. Morales-Perez, along with 26 other migrants, followed the coyote into Sonoran desert.

At some point during the first night, the coyote fled. The migrants were awakened before dawn by a Border Patrol agent. The agent loaded the migrants into cars and transferred them from Lukeville to a detention center in Tucson on July 7.

Morales-Perez said they were processed immediately and given cold hamburgers for breakfast. That afternoon an agent informed him that he would be going to court the following day.

At 5 a.m. on July 8, Morales-Perez was brought in shackles to the Evo A. DeConcini U.S. Courthouse in Tucson. He and the 69 other Streamline defendants were put in holding cells until it was time to meet with the lawyers at 9 a.m. They were given hamburgers while they waited.

Morales-Perez met with Richard Bacal, an attorney from Tucson under contract to the federal courts. Bacal explained that he would represent Morales-Perez that afternoon and told him what the charges were: a misdemeanor for entering the U.S. illegally and a felony for re-entering after his previous former deportation.

Bacal briefed him on the Streamline process and told him that this was different than an immigration court. Bacal advised him to plead guilty to the charges because if he did the felony would be dropped. The lawyer said Morales-Perez could plead not guilty and he would be entitled to trial, but he would spend more time fighting the charges than it would take him to serve a misdemeanor sentence. And regardless of the sentencing, the end result would be the same: deportation. After his 30-minute session with Bacal, Morales-Perez returned to the holding cell to be re-processed by the federal marshals and to await the afternoon hearing.

That afternoon Morales-Perez pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to 30 days in the Central Arizona Detention Center federal prison in Florence. Morales-Perez said he believed that he was the only one from his group apprehended in the desert to go through Streamline.

On July 10, Bacal sits with Morales-Perez in the visitation room at the prison. It has only been two days in lock up but Morales-Perez said he is convinced that he will not try to cross illegally again. He said the 30 days in prison will work as a deterrent because he cannot afford to be out of work for a month.

“It’s better to be making a little money then to be here in jail,” Morales-Perez said in Spanish.

When he is released, he will have to do the same thing he did before – work until he can make enough money to afford a bus ticket back to Chiapas.

He knows what awaits him in Chiapas: He’ll be forced to take whatever job he can find just to get by. But the threat of a longer prison sentence if he is caught is enough to keep him from trying again to cross the border again —for now, anyway.