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Life On ICE: Marcial Morales is Still Fighting to Stay Here

Issue 287

Small business owner and father of three on the verge of deportation three years after leading epic hunger strike against immigrant detention.

Amba Guerguerian May 20

Marcial Morales explains that before his first encounter with the law nearly six years ago, he didn’t grasp how “illegal” his existence in the United States really was as an undocumented migrant. 

“To be honest, I didn’t even know that was something you could go to jail for,” he tells me. “I was free! I could buy a car; I could decide in a moment, ‘Hey, I’m gonna go drive to a different state to visit someone in my family.’”

“I was just a regular guy,” says Morales. “You know, I liked cars; I liked to hang out with my family; I didn’t know really anything about the law.”

After two years fighting deportation from the outside, you can see in Morales’ hardened expressions the hellscape he’s been navigating. But he’s still fighting.

Much has changed. Morales, like so many of the migrants facing deportation I have met over the years, knows the details of the immigration system. They learn it, usually, through a combination of inadequate private attorneys and having to navigate things pro se, for they don’t have the right to representation in immigration court.

Morales takes time to walk me step-by-step through updates on the legal web he’s been navigating for years. He understands the system better and in a much more personal way than I do as an immigration reporter.  

We first met in the fall of 2020 when he led dozens of other detained migrants in solitary confinement on hunger strike. He eventually won humanitarian parole after a nine-day hunger strike brought him to the brink of death. 

Morales and I catch up at Annabella Italian ­Restaurant, the pizzeria he co-owns with his brother near Hackettstown in North Jersey. He had murals of pastoral Tuscany, a place he can only dream of visiting, painted on the walls. The restaurant gets a call for an order of 300 slices. I scold Morales for offering the client to pay when they pick up. “Hey, this is a family restaurant; we all believe in God,” he laughs.  

As we talk I notice a set of fine lines on his arm. They look out of place on a middle-aged man like Morales. 

“Did you cut yourself?” I ask him.

“Yes, once when I was on the hunger strike in lock-up,” he says, referring to solitary confinement. “I just needed to know if things were real.”

Detention scarred Morales in other ways too. He can hardly sleep, still too panicked. His house is just a place where he stores things. “I probably only spent like three nights at my house last month,” he tells me, pointing to a booth across the restaurant and saying, “I have back pain because I slept over there.” ­Between Annabella’s and crashing with various friends and family members, he’s able to avoid the house that haunts him. That’s where he’s mentally at his worst. “At night, I see shadows and I’ll think it’s a guard passing by.” It also doesn’t help that it’s at that house where his ICE check-ins occur. 

LOCKED UP

Morales’ legal ordeal began in July 2018 when his ­former mother-in-law called the cops on him. He sorely remembers never arriving to pick up his son the day he was booked. “Are you coming?” the child wrote in a text Morales still has saved on his phone today. 

Morales was placed in the notoriously violent Essex County Jail in ­Newark, N.J., and due to his immigrant status, was deemed a flight risk and denied bail. After two years behind bars, the charges were dismissed. But instead of going home a free man, Morales was transferred to ICE detention at Bergen County Correctional Facility because of his undocumented status dating back to when he entered the country as a teenager. 

At that time, Bergen was one of three North Jersey ­counties that had lucrative contracts with ICE where the agency rented out jail beds to use as immigration detention for people in deportation proceedings. When COVID-19 hit those facilities hard, the migrants, left in conditions of squalor, began to stage hunger strikes demanding their release on humanitarian parole, as there is no U.S. law requiring migrants to be incarcerated during deportation proceedings.  

Morales became a leader in the movement, organizing a strike of over forty fellow detainees. He taught himself about the legal rights people in detention have — you have the right to refuse meals; they’re not allowed to force feed you; if you consume anything other than water, you break your strike; don’t believe them when they say everyone else stopped striking; they’re not supposed to put you in lock-up as retaliation for hunger striking, but they will — and disseminated the information to dozens of other detainees that hunger struck together as a part of a national movement.

While he was in jail and detention, Morales also made drawings depicting his experiences: “It helped me process what was going on, and I had to record it somehow,” he says. One shows guards beating a detained person; another shows the isolation of solitary; a third depicts him holding a handmade card from his son with a broken heart on it that reads, “For the best father. Happy father’s day. I miss you dad. When are you coming home?” 

These days Morales plays the guitar now as his creative outlet. He’s also been teaching his friend’s teenage son, who dreams of becoming a musician. 

After winning parole, Morales worked tirelessly to support his friends and comrades still on the inside. He sent (often out of his own pocket) whatever money he could to their commissary accounts, gave them words of encouragement and advice if they wanted to do direct action in detention, and organized networks of people on the outside that were willing to do the same. He helped us get hunger-strikers on the phone so we could talk to them through a megaphone when we rallied in front of detention centers demanding the migrants be released at the height of COVID. 

Morales was the first of 11 hunger strikers to be released on humanitarian parole, but “basically everyone else who got released is also in the same situation as me right now” — fighting imminent deportation. Morales is now making his final appeal to the Board of Immigration to have his case re-reviewed by an immigration judge. He is arguing he should remain in the United States because his deportation will cause irreparable harm to his children (ages 10, 12 and 18) and because he is an active member of his community in Hackettstown, where he has lived for 25 years. 

“I can’t make any plans right now,” Morales says, “not for the future — for the restaurant, the kids; I wanted to buy a house — I don’t know where I’ll be in a couple months.” 

GUATEMALA

“Does it matter that the charges against me were dismissed? That I was a DACA recipient? That it wasn’t ever my choice to come here? No,” says Morales.

Morales taught himself about the legal rights people in detention have and disseminated the information to dozens of other detainees that hunger struck together as a part of a national movement.

He exists in a limbo — accepted neither as American nor Guatemalan. 

When Morales was 15, his father sent for him to come to New Jersey to take his place washing dishes in Italian restaurants. The eldest of nine children, he would now be the family breadwinner. His father returned home. 

He never got a high-school degree, but made up for it by being a fast learner and dedicated worker. Over the years he had steady jobs in the restaurant business, got married and had three kids, and has helped all but one of his siblings come to the United States. 

“People ask us why my [one remaining] brother doesn’t come,” jokes ­Morales. “We’re all working like crazy up here! We send money home, and he doesn’t have to work at all! Why would he leave?” he laughs. 

“We were so poor there was a point where my clothes were all rags,” ­Morales tells me when I ask why his dad left for the States. 

It hadn’t always been that way; his father was a farmer; they had some land and were getting by. Then two of his brothers were seriously injured, and the medical fees wrecked the family’s finances. 

Morales said, “When I first came here, I always planned on moving back,” but now he’s not so sure. 

He returned to Guatemala for the first time not long before his 2018 arrest. Initially planning to stay for a month, but he left sooner, feeling disconnected from his childhood home.  

“The way I spoke Spanish was different; my haircut was different. I was from the village, but everyone saw me as a foreigner,” explained Morales. 

Still, he remains proud of his native land. “My kids say they’re Guatemalan, you know, that makes me feel good.” 

OUT OF DETENTION, NOT FREE

For now, home for Morales is Annabella’s in Parsippany, N.J., It’s the only place where he feels he has agency. Being under ICE’s Intensive Supervision Appearance Program (ISAP) is taking its toll. He’s under constant surveillance by a software called BI SmartLINK. ICE has the right to track him or listen in on him whenever they want. He’s not allowed to travel outside a 200-mile radius without putting in a request two weeks ahead of time. And even though ICE can access his location anytime they want, he still has to do regular check-ins. Sometimes he has to go to the local ICE  office, sometimes an ICE agent comes to him, but often he has to do an at-home check in. This entails taking the day off work and staying home for an eight-hour period during which an ICE agent will videochat him at any point just to show he’s in his apartment. 

“Taking multiple days off a month is hard,” Morales explains, “because I just make enough money each month to pay for rent and the $20,000 in legal fees I have to pay off.” 

The combination of his uncertain future and the trauma he experienced behind bars has caused Morales to struggle with his mental health for the first time. 

“I used to be able to work around any problem that did come up,” he says. “Now, the smallest things can throw me off.” For anyone experiencing anxiety, it’s a familiar story. 

When Morales and I first met, he still couldn’t eat regular meals because his body was readjusting from hunger strike. He almost never slept. But shortly thereafter, he had a little more pep in his step. He and his brother bought ­Annabella’s from their old boss; he was coordinating a network of people that had committed themselves to ending ICE detention in North Jersey. In ways he felt more liberated. He had just — after being told by countless jail and ICE staff he would fail — freed himself from behind bars through direct action. 

Now, after two years fighting deportation from the outside, you can see in Morales’ hardened expressions the hellscape he’s been navigating. But he’s still fighting.

“I’m free — I mean, I’m walking here, but I basically — I still have a jail cell. I have fencing around me, so I still am not completely free. I cannot say, ‘Alright, today is Wednesday, I want to spend the weekend in Ohio.’ They’re tracking me. So I don’t have my freedom back yet.” 

WHAT HAPPENED WHEN ICE LEFT JERSEY JAILS?

Through organizing efforts led by migrants, advocacy work done by migrant solidarity groups and social journalism, and a wave of solidarity protests in front of county jails housing people detained by ICE; Hudson, Essex and Bergen County Jails pulled out of contracts with ICE to house their detainees.

The conditions in those jails were about as bad as you can imagine. The Indypendent received a testimony from a migrant, Wilson Peña, of being gang raped by guards at Essex. We heard stories of rampant physical and mental abuse across the board. Migrants could be swarmed by SWAT teams fof the most minor of infractions; they were refused their medications; they were denied mandatory outdoor time for weeks on end and unlawfully CK placed in solitary confinement as retribution for hunger strikes and other forms of organizing and protest. 

When these contracts were ended, we felt a slight sense of relief and hope. It didn’t last. 

Immigration law doesn’t actually require the detention of individuals facing deportation, so we fought for detained migrants to be released on humanitarian parole. But ICE refused. 

The agency responded brutally. Over the course of the summer of 2021 CK, it transferred migrants out of North Jersey jails by a means resembling torture. ICE guards would wake up men early in the morning, while it wasn’t yet light — sometimes by attacking them en masse in their jail dorms — giving them no time to grab their belongings, shackling them and forcing them to sign their own transfer papers (a legal requirement). They were transferred to deportation centers places like Arizona, Louisiana, Georgia. 

“When you’re so far away from the people and things you know, it’s a lot harder to maintain your deportation case. A lot of guys decide to just take [the deportation],” says Morales.  

We hoped they could be monitored by ISAP like Morales, but we forgot that since 2009, the federal budget has financed an “immigration bed mandate” of 34,000 to 40,520 beds a year to detain immigrants in the United States. Transferring migrants out on humanitarian parole would mean less deportation-center beds full, less cash flow to the private companies that run the — for lack of a better word — migrant jails. 

“It’s all about the money for them,” Morales says. He laughs. Sometimes it’s really all you can do in situations like these. 

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