The last time Erasto Merino Najera sat down at his mother’s dinner table, he was 17 years old. Her mole and tamales were his favorite. She made dozens at a time, a daylong cooking ritual—wrapping the dough and chicken in dried-out corn husks, steaming them in a pot. Those tamales still haunt him 14 years later, every time he digs into the soy meat at the Northwest Detention Center. The felonies he committed in 2003, and his gang affiliation, sealed his fate.
A green card holder, Najera was tried as an adult, sentenced to 12 years in prison, and finished his sentence two years ago. He could leave. But Najera doesn’t want out. Getting out means deportation, a one-way ticket to a country he’s never called home—Mexico.
So he stays in a cell by choice, an asylum seeker missing his mother’s meals and playing a waiting game.
Najera is one of about 1,300 detainees, more than 600 Mexican nationals, contained at the detention center that holds both felons and undocumented immigrants. The center, privately owned and operated by GEO Group and contracted through the federal government, is the only one in the Pacific Northwest (and one of the largest in the country).
Since president Donald Trump took office, there’s been a lingering question of the center’s future—especially since the Department of Homeland Security has said it wants more detention space. For Tacoma officials, the Northwest Detention Center has been a source of frustration; they want Tacoma to be a welcoming city. In March, Tacoma City Council voted to temporarily prevent new or expanded detention centers.
At the Northwest Detention Center, at least, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say they don’t plan to expand. Detentions have actually decreased in the first few months of this year, says ICE acting office field director Bryan Wilcox. In June 2016, Najera and 1,468 other detainees were held at Tacoma’s 1,575-bed center. By April of this year, that number shrank by 161.
The chances for someone like Najera—“priority one,” high security, deemed a threat to public safety—to succeed in appealing a removal order is slim. Homeland Security deported 451,000 immigrants in its 2016 fiscal year, and 91 percent of those who faced enforcement actions were priority one detainees. An immigration judge ordered Najera’s removal from the country in March; his only hope is for the Board of Immigration Appeals to reverse that decision. He’s had three hearings to appeal for a bond—which would allow him to be released while he applies for asylum—and has been denied every time. At this point, his only chance at freedom is to choose, as others have, to stop trying, to settle for deportation from the only country he’s ever known.
Najera’s not innocent. He knows that. President Trump would likely call him a “bad hombre.” When Najera read that phrase in USA Today in prison he laughed.
He was four years old when his mother brought him from Guerrero, in southeastern Mexico, to California. After a series of moves from school to school—where there were few Latino children, where he was called the N-word—he found a Hispanic community at a high school in Springfield, Oregon. When he was 15 a friend invited him over to his home, and that’s how he was introduced to the Hang Out BoyZ. He got “jumped in” (beat up) as initiation. To pass the time they drank Coronas and smoked meth.
On the night of October 28, 2003, 17-year-old Najera-—drunk, high, and armed with a gun—accompanied an older friend and robbed three convenience stores. He was convicted of four counts of first-degree robbery with a firearm in Lane County, Oregon.
His parents blame themselves for the trouble he got into; they were too busy working to be there for him, they tell him. Najera disagrees.
He holds only himself responsible for having to grow up in prison, held in the confines of various cells and, when he got in prison fights, in solitary confinement. Although he says he’s done with crime, his ties to the Hang Out BoyZ are etched into his skin: “HOBZ” on his knuckles, “Sureños” on his right eyebrow. Other tattoos appear on his arms, neck, chest, legs, and face. That could be a death sentence in Mexico, where rival gangs may see the tattoos.
Worse, in Mexico it would be obvious to those gang members that he’s not one of them. He’s told he has the mannerisms of someone from the U.S., the stiff Spanish language skills of a Chicano who’s far more American than Mexican. He’s unwanted on both sides, he says. “Society rejects.”
Had he not gone to prison, he would’ve been a naturalized citizen by now, like his parents.
Among the gang tattoos, Najera had “Hasta la muerte” inked on his arm. And until death he’ll make the most of his experiences, he told me on May Day, as we sat in a small, white-walled room in the detention center. Things happen for a reason. If he hadn’t been sent to prison, he never would have corrected his ways. He likely would’ve died from an overdose.
And yet: “That’s a hell of a blessing, 12 years in prison,” Najera told me after our first meeting, as we continued our conversation by phone over the next several weeks; he often called me at night from a detention center phone. In November 2016, when the immigration judge denied his bond appeal, Najera returned to his cell at the detention center, and his patience boiled over. He threw his immigration paperwork against the wall, kicked his box of belongings, cursing until his cellmates came to check on him. He had gotten his hopes up. He was tired of waiting.
In a few months, Najera will hear back about his asylum appeal. He expects to get denied. If so, maybe he’ll give up, agree to deportation, and, with that, sign away his right to stay in the country.
“I know I could do better. I know I can succeed out there,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I’m in here fighting, I want that chance. I won’t take it for granted.”
Najera has designed many of his own tattoos, and he told me he dreams of opening his own tattoo shop. He wants to be there for his dad, who’s been battling cancer for years. His younger sister’s engaged, and he wants to be at her wedding. He wants a family. It’s both a blessing and a curse, he says, that he doesn’t have kids to think about in prison.
He’s a felon, but he’s not that guy anymore. You could argue he never really was; just a kid who found the wrong friends. One night, during our third conversation, he told me he hadn’t spoken to a stranger in a long time, and he was embarrassed. He felt vulnerable. By the end of a fourth or fifth phone call, I finally admitted that when I first met him—for the first few seconds—I was afraid of him, a thick, five-foot-five, 200-pound high--level offender covered in tattoos. He seemed more than a little surprised.
“What, you thought I was like some kind of thug or something?” he asked repeatedly with a laugh. “I think I was a lot more afraid of you than you were of me.”