Read: With incarcerated Californians, we're suing the state prison system for illegal discrimination.

Maricela Santos Hernández: ‘We need real change and we need it to come from people that really know the pain we experience.’

January 12, 2023 Perspective

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For years, Maricela Santos Hernández has been a powerful advocate for immigrant families throughout the Bay Area. In San Mateo County, where she has lived for 23 years, Maricela has led a movement to hold local officials accountable to their constituents, including organizing TRUTH Act forums where shared the story of how ICE and California’s prison system have ripped apart her family. As a result of her and many others’ advocacy, the San Mateo County Sheriff committed to ending the practice of ICE transfers. With United We Dream, she has also urged President Biden to reunite families like hers and advocated for statewide bills to end this cruel practice.

Maricela explains, “I want my community to lose their fear that keeps them in the dark. I want them to speak up and to know that every dollar they pay in taxes gives them the right to have a voice.”

In 1998, Maricela migrated to the U.S. to build a better future for her two kids. For two years, she worked and saved money until her kids were able to come too. Maricela shares that her older son Angel “was my support, a father figure for my youngest child. I’m a single mom so he had the responsibility of looking after his brother.”

Maricela and her kids sought out trauma therapy to help them heal from what they had experienced in Mexico and as new immigrants to the U.S. She shared, “those wounds are difficult to heal and, even when they do, the scars remain.”

Maricela stands in front of her home, looks into the distance with her hands behind her back.

Maricela Santos Hernández has been an immigrant justice advocate in San Mateo County for years, where she has lived for 23 years.

But the trauma persisted, and Angel struggled with a drug addiction. “As a mother it was really hard, everytime I heard an ambulance or any siren I would jump in my car and drive around Redwood City looking for him, to see if I could find him in the street.”

One day, armed police came to her house, threw furniture, and emptied drawers, while Angel’s children watched. She remembers the officers pointing their firearms at the children and laughing. They told her that Angel was already arrested and they were searching for evidence.

Angel spent his first two months incarcerated in the infirmary taking medications to get through his abstinence to the drugs. “What makes me more upset is the way they label us,” says Maricela. “There were many things they didn't even take into account. Number one was his mental health, number two was all the community work he had done in the past, like beach clean ups, reading books to children in schools to promote reading… No lawyer or detective came to ask me about Angel, about his life.”

After serving his time, California’s prison system transferred Angel to ICE detention. The state prison system and ICE chose to double punish Angel, even though he was a DACA recipient. For three years Angel sat in ICE detention, until he was abruptly deported to Mexico in March 2021.

Photo shows Maricela's hands holding a family photo including her son and grandkids.

“[The picture of Angel and his two kids] was taken at San Quentin. I asked him if it would be appropriate to bring the kids and he was so happy. He said, ‘Mom, bring them and we can take a picture!’”

“He did his sentence. Why didn't he get a second chance to come back to the community? It is only because he wasn't born here. That's the only reason they deported him.”

Maricela has since been organizing for legislation that would put an end to the prison-to-deportation pipeline in California and keep thousands of families like hers together.

“There are a lot of people I would like to spare the pain I went through. None of the senators or the governor or the president understand what a family goes through. They don't even know what we as immigrants go through to even put food on our table."

"I want legislators to understand that nobody needs to be punished twice and that when an individual gets punished, they are punishing the rest of the family.”

Maricela stands in her kitchen and stirs a pot of food, smiling back.

"What keeps me fighting is the hope that lawmakers will change without Angel's story having to repeat itself for them to take action and change what needs to be changed.”

“Family is everything to me. My grandkids and my sons are my world. They are what keep me moving forward, thinking about the day I can sit at the table at home, to eat anything I have, even if it's only rice and beans, but having my kids with me. That's my biggest hope.”

In 2022, fearing for his safety and desperate to reunite with his loved ones, Angel made the decision to cross the Mexico-U.S. border again. As a result, he was detained at the Otay Immigration Center in San Diego. Under U.S. laws, people who re-enter the U.S. are subject to both civil and criminal sanctions. Today, people across the country are challenging these laws, known as Sections 1325 and 1326, as unconstitutional.

With the support of community organizations, Maricela is advocating for her son’s freedom, and his return home as a father, son, and community member with deep ties throughout San Mateo.

“People in detention centers, state prisons or federal prisons have been silenced and labeled. But we are outside, we are the echo for their voices. What keeps me fighting is the hope that lawmakers will [act] without Angel's story having to repeat itself… and change what needs to be changed.”

Maricela and Silicon Valley De-Bug are raising funds to continue their legal fight and reunite Angel and his family. If you can, please support with a donation or by sharing their fundraiser.

Photos by Justin Katigbak | Survival Media Agency

A drawing of 2 kids hugging, illustrated by Angel.

“Angel always liked drawing. He sent [the drawing of the two kids kissing] to me. He said, ‘Mom, I wish I could give you something more, but I am locked up.’”