Originally Published in The Guardian
Vivian Ho - March 23, 2021
Carolina Ramírez Pérez was eligible for a US visa, but was forced to use dangerous methods to cross the border to safety, her family says
Weeks before Carolina Ramírez Pérez died in a packed SUV on a desolate California highway 15 miles from the Mexican border, her husband had begun bringing a machete to bed.
Ramírez Pérez, 32, and her husband, Martín Ruiz López, had gotten together in an arranged marriage when she was still in middle school, her brother told the Guardian. For more than half her life, she had lived with abuse, violence, threats and drunken outbursts, he said.
Earlier this year, her husband had started talking to his machete, her brother said. “‘Should I kill her? Should I kill her today?’” Ramírez Pérez told her brother she heard her husband wonder. She started plotting her escape.
She begged family and friends for the money to send her children over the border safely. Then she gathered three of her four children and traveled three days by bus from her home in La Mixteca, in the state of Oaxaca, to the Mexican border.
With the kids safely across, she got into a maroon 1997 Ford Expedition in the early hours of 2 March. Inside the SUV, 23 migrants were packed body-to-body in the back, authorities latersaid, with all the seats except those of the driver and front passenger removed to create optimal space. Including the driver and front passenger, the car carried more than three times the number of people meant to safely ride in the vehicle.
In the dusty farming town of Holtville, California, a semi-truck hauling two trailers slammed into the left side of the SUV just as the first rays of the sun began to break. Ramírez Pérez was one of 13 who died in the crash.
Heartbroken, her family and immigration advocates lament a US immigration system thatcould force a woman in a desperate search for safety to seek such dangerous avenues to cross the border. “She wasn’t coming here to live an American dream,” Cynthia Santiago, an attorney for the family, said in an interview. “She was coming here to live safely and to start a chapter where her kids could live safely. She just wanted to live.”
“Carolina shouldn’t have had to die,” said Odilia Romero, the executive director of the Comunidades Indígenas en Liderazgo, a not-for-profit for the Indigenous community.
The Ford Expedition had driven through a 10-ft gap in the border fence between Mexico and the US just minutes before the crash, according to USborder patrol. For Ramírez Pérez, it had been a decades-long journey to get to that point.
Ramírez Pérez dropped out of school after her arranged marriage, said her brother, who lives in the US andasked not to be named out of fear of retribution from Ramírez Pérez’s husband. She was a couple months away from graduating middle school.
She was a serious girl, dedicated to her family, her brother said. The violence started soon after she got married, he added.
Ramírez Pérez gave birth to her first daughterin her late teens, her brother said, and shortly after left her daughter to go to the US and earn more money for the family.
The couple had a son while they were in the US. They moved around, and in 2012, they moved in with Ramírez Pérez’s older sister. After witnessing the abuse, however, her sister called the police, according to the brother. Ruiz López was charged with spousal battery, criminal threat with intent to terrorize, and trying to dissuade a witness by threat, according to court records in Santa Barbara county, California. He pleaded no contest to dissuading a witness and was deported.
The Guardian was unable to reach Ruiz López for comment.
Back in La Mixteca, Ruiz López called Ramírez Pérez and threatened to harm their daughter, who had stayed behind in Mexico, if she didn’t come back to him, said Xiomara Corpeño, a board member for Comunidades Indígenas en Liderazgo.
She returned, and the violence got worse. “He wasn’t just violent toward her,” her brother said. “He was violent toward the kids. He’d hit them with whatever was available, with cables, with cords. It wasn’t like a push or a punch or a pulling of hair or ears. He wanted to kill her and the only thing he was missing was the final courage to do it.”
Ramírez Pérez fled to her mother’s home, but her husband would send his friends around to intimidate her, according to the family. Finally, she knew what she had to do to keep her family safe, her brother said.
She left her 14-year-old daughter with her mother, having just enough money to take her 10-year-old and two-year-old sons and five-year-old daughter with her on the three-day bus ride from the pueblo, her brother said. They arrived in the border town of Tijuana about a month before she died.
There was a sense of urgency and fear in her every move, according to her family. “She didn’t want to be stuck at the border for that long because she didn’t know if he would find her,” her brother said. “She wanted to get to where we were, where we could protect her and the kids. She didn’t know what he would do if he would find her and the kids.”
The first step was to make sure the kids would be safe. “Her plan was to then find someone to help her cross through the mountains and through the desert,” her brother said. “She didn’t want them to have to walk across the desert with her.” By borrowing $14,000 from family and friends, she got her three young children over the border to her brother and sister before her without any problems.
She then learned of a way that she could cross by car, her brother said, believing it to be much safer than the desert trek.The night before her departure, the guide who Ramírez Pérez paid $12,000 to get her over the border kept moving her. Every few hours, she would message her brother to let him know where she was.
At 1am, she messaged him that she was getting into the car. “I responded, ‘Sister, please take care of yourself. I’ll see you soon’,” he said.
The crash that killed Ramírez Pérez drew national attention because of the high number of fatalities, but immigration advocates say similarincidents have happened repeatedly near the border in recent years. In Texas last week, eight migrants were killed in a high-speed chase that began about 25 miles from the Mexican border.
The SUV that Ramírez Pérez rode in was one of two that entered the hole in the fence that day – California highway patrol found a red Suburban up in flames about 10 miles from the crash site, with 19 migrants hiding in the brush nearby.
“My family, my friends, we’ve been in those situations,” said Dulce Garcia, the executive director of the not-for-profit Border Angels. “‘Duck down. Make yourself small so the border patrol doesn’t see you’. In those little tiny cars, I remember those old Honda Hatchbacks, you can fit so many people stacked up. It’s so dangerous. For all of us that crossed that border without paperwork, it’s painful to think it could have been our parents, it could have been us, it could have been our siblings, our own family members.”
The number of people seeking to enter the US has risen in recent months. Joe Biden has kept in place a restrictive Trump-era public health order that barred entry to migrants arriving at the border without prior authorization, essentially ensuring that no new asylum claims have been processed at points of entry for more than a year. But the pandemic, cartels and extreme climate events have created conditions so desperate that many migrants are willing to take grave risks.
“Our border policy is set to create really dangerous situations for people to deter people from migrating,” said Erika Pinheiro, the litigation and policy director at the immigrant legal aid organization Al Otro Lado. “But it doesn’t deter migration, it just leads to more deaths, whether it’s an overheated tractor trailer or an SUV crash.”
Ramírez Pérez thought she would be going through the line at the border, not through a hole in the fence, said Corpeño, the Comunidades Indígenas en Liderazgo board member. She may have misunderstood the guides. Spanish was her second language – she primarily spoke Mixtec, an Indigenous language.
Because of her husband’s arrest for spousal abuse in the US in 2012,Ramírez Pérez could have qualified for a U visa – a visa for crime victims, immigration advocates said.
It was unclear how much Ramírez Pérez understood about what was available to her in terms of her rights at the time of her husband’s arrest. What little paperwork she received was in Spanish, said Cynthia Santiago, the family attorney.
The immigration system is difficult enough to understand for anybody, let alone a woman who was forced to drop out of school in middle school and had language barriers, Santiago said. “The system is so much more complex, especially when you add the layers of her education and language,” she said.
And even if she had pursued the visa,the wait time for a U visa in 2012 was about two to three years, said Santiago. Now, it’s about five to six years.
“The amount of time for a U visa to go through the system was something that Carolina didn’t have,” Santiago said. “She didn’t have the privilege to just wait it out. She was in a situation where he was threatening to hurt her and her children.”
Ramírez Pérez’s brother hopes that people can understand that “we take this risk because people are in danger”, he said. “It’s not because we want to.”
He gets choked up when he thinks about how close he was to reuniting with the sister he had not seen in seven years, to bringing her together with her children, to showing her what a safe life could be.
“It would be so different if [the government] actually listened to people who needed help,” he said.