A protester stands outside Otay Mesa Detention Center during a "Vigil for Carlos" rally on May 9, 2020 in Otay Mesa, California. - The vigil was held to commemorate Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, the first undocumented immigrant who died of COVID-19 related symptoms while being held at the detention Center. (Photo by SANDY HUFFAKER/AFP via Getty Images)

When Erik Mercado was 4 years old, his mother brought him and his older siblings to the U.S. from Mexico in search of better opportunities. But by 2001, Mercado’s green card application was denied after he landed in juvenile hall. The following year, when Mercado was just 18 years old, he was sentenced to four years in prison for burglary charges, which he calls his “worst mistake.” After he was released, he was deported to Tijuana for the first time. Mercado has since spent the last 18 years in and out of immigration detention centers and deportation proceedings, trying to find his way back to his family in the U.S. Over the years, Mercado has become vocal in detailing the abuses and neglect he experienced in Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, where he has been detained on and off for almost two years. Now, he’s told Prism that he is the victim of retaliation for his outspokenness, with immigration officials subjecting him to solitary confinement, unexplained detention center transfers, and the revocation of his $30,000 bond that would guarantee his release pending his asylum hearings.

“They gave me the bond in December [2021] and took it from me in January [2022],” Mercado said. “That’s retaliation all because I’ve been working with Freedom for Immigrants and letting them know how the conditions are in here.”

Mercado first called the Freedom for Immigrants (FFI) abuse hotline for immigrants in detention centers in August 2020 to report COVID-19 negligence issues and medical neglect, and to request support in finding a lawyer. Since then, he has become an avid caller to the free and unmonitored hotline, and has filed multiple Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) complaints with the Department of Homeland Security. 

“Erik has been a frequent caller of ours and has been such an instrumental monitoring advocate inside of detention,” said Amanda Díaz, the national hotline manager for FFI. “He calls us frequently to report abuse and neglect and informs others around him about our hotline and ways to talk about the abuse. Over the years, he’s become a dear friend to FFI staff and many hotline volunteers who are always so happy to receive his call on the hotline.”

Mercado arrived at Otay Mesa in January 2020 when he sought asylum from Mexico at the border. Mercado’s decision to cross the border and seek asylum was an act of desperation. He and his girlfriend, a U.S. citizen, had been living in Tijuana at the time, and on one of their visits to the border they were targeted by a drug cartel who wanted them to act as mules. They refused, and days later, police apprehended Mercado and took him to jail where he was nearly attacked with a “shank” and then was assaulted by an officer.

“[The office] told me the cartel had paid him a lot of money for me to die,” Mercado said. 

When he was released from the police station, he immediately ran straight to the border and asked for asylum. He was processed and taken to Otay Mesa Detention Center, where he then spent 15 months in solitary confinement.  

While he was in solitary, he began filing complaints with FFI related to the abuse he faced from the staff psychologist. Mercado’s first official complaint was filed in January 2021, detailing medical neglect and COVID-19 negligence. According to the complaint, medical staff dismissed and refused to believe Mercado’s reported symptoms of anxiety and depression. He said she continuously told him that he was making up stories to advance his legal case, and at one point called him “a drug addict.”

The following month, he reported the excessive use of solitary confinement.

“It’s horrible here,” Mercado said. 

In March 2021, the month following the consecutive complaints, Mercado was transferred without explanation to Imperial Regional Detention Facility in Calexico, California, two and a half hours west of his original location. Mercado spent four out of the six months in solitary confinement while at the facility. While there, he filed another complaint recounting the horrible conditions. 

“Imperial was a form of punishment,” Mercado said. “I was stuck in the ‘hole.’”

According to Mercado, he was classified as a “high level” detainee despite not having a violent criminal record and was taken into solitary confinement.

“They forcefully had to put me down, handcuff me, and take me to the ‘hole’ because of my classification,” Mercado said.

After six months, Mercado was finally returned to Otay Mesa Detention Center. In December, FFI helped Mercado raise $30,000 to post a bond approved by ICE, but a month later in January 2022, it was revoked due to the “possible existence of an outstanding warrant in Mexico.” While Mercado was subject to a warrant for a non-political crime in Mexico, that bar to his asylum claim has already been withdrawn because evidence proved Mercado wasn’t in Mexico on the date of the crime of which he was accused. Mercado and FFI advocates say the revocation of his bond based on an issue that’s already been resolved is a direct retaliation against Mercado’s outspokenness.

“Retaliation is a really common tactic that is used against people in detention, especially when they speak out,” Díaz said. “ICE thrives in secrecy. Whenever anyone is exposing the truth, they want to try and hide it as much as possible, and that’s also how they build power over people by using fear and retaliation to prevent people from speaking out.”

“It seems evident that ICE staff made the decision to revoke Mr. Mercado Arechiga’s $30,000 bond in retaliation for his longstanding advocacy efforts in collaboration with FFI, a decision that potentially was even made on the day that FFI staff first attempted to post Mr. Mercado Arechiga’s bond,” FFI wrote in a statement.

ICE agents have not responded to a request for a statement regarding Mercado’s complaints. 

FFI advocates say this is not the first time that ICE staff has hindered their efforts to post bonds for people who they have supported at Otay Mesa. In February 2021, FFI filed a CRCL complaint for ICE’S refusal to permit them from posting a $10,000 bond for a Nigerian refugee who is no longer in ICE custody. According to FFI, they attempted posting Okunlola Oluwaseun’s bond 10 times before ICE finally reinstated his bond, four days after the complaint was filed.  

After finding out that Mercado’s bond was revoked and that he would not be returning home, Mercado’s mother, Berta Mercado, suffered a stroke and had to be taken to the emergency room. Berta said she has not seen her youngest son in five years. 

“I just want to see him again,” Berta said. “I know he has made mistakes, but I think he has already paid for them over time.”

Now, Mercado is waiting for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to review his opening briefs and determine whether he has a credible fear of persecution in returning to Mexico.

“I just hope that they decide to release me here in the U.S.,” Mercado said. “I hope people see how biased the immigration courts are toward detainees even with evidence. Even when it’s so clear that people’s lives are in danger in their countries, they’ll still order you deported.”

UPDATE 4/19/22: ICE has responded to the detention of Erik Mercado, saying in a statement, “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will not tolerate the mistreatment of those it detains or substandard detention conditions. ICE is committed to continually enhancing civil detention operations to ensure people detained by ICE are treated humanely, protected from harm, provided appropriate medical and mental health care, and receive the rights and protections to which they are entitled.”

The agency also adds that Mercado’s bond was revoked “for being a danger to public safety and a flight risk.”

Alexandra Martinez

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...