Karla Lopez, 32, currently lives in Stockton with her friend Lilian Marquez. The two met at the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Facility in Bakersfield nine months ago and have been friends since then. But Lopez’ journey to get here started way back in November of 2018.
That’s when a caravan of thousands of migrants made national news walking from Central America to the United States. Lopez decided to join the second wave of people heading to this country.
“I had seen on Facebook that there was going to be a second caravan and I thought to myself that would be a good opportunity to escape my situation,” Lopez said.
She was in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend. When he threatened her life, she began the month-long trek from her home country of El Salvador.
“We walked for days, hours at a time looking for places to sleep. Sometimes it was a church, other times it was a park,” Lopez said.
Once she arrived at the border she says ICE put her in a room commonly referred to as the “hielera” or freezer. Then, she was transferred to a detention facility in Arizona.
“There they told us nothing. I was there for 20 days without knowing what was going on, until they transferred me to Mesa Verde,” Lopez said.
While at Mesa Verde, Lopez filed for bond and asylum entirely on her own. A judge denied both of her requests.
“They denied me of everything. I didn’t have a lawyer or legal representation so I had to represent myself,” Lopez said.
Eventually, she did get a lawyer, after someone from a local church connected her to a law firm, Bean and Lloyd, in Oakland. Attorney Zulma Munoz reviewed her case and said Lopez was denied due process.
“In reading the transcript I was just like, she had absolutely had no fair opportunity to present her case,” Munoz said.
Munoz filed to appeal the judge's decision in July 2019. Meanwhile, Lopez remained in Mesa Verde. Her mental health suffered severely, according to Munoz. At one point, she was put on suicide watch.
“Karla was once in isolation because she was really extremely depressed and had suicidal tendencies,” Munoz said.
But Lopez did meet a friend while in the detention center and that was Lilian Marquez, the woman she’s living with now. Marquez even helped Munoz get a better sense of how Lopez was faring inside.
“She was just an amazing friend and was just like ‘look this is how she’s really doing’,” Munoz said.
Lilian Marquez says her friendship with Lopez was cemented when Lopez helped her recover from surgery after an emergency hysterectomy.
“I was not doing good. I was sick. I wouldn’t do very much. She approached me to try to help me because I would try to lift stuff,” Marquez said.
From then on, they continued to look out for each other. But on May 7, Marquez was released from Mesa Verde. Lawyers think it had to do with a class action lawsuit against the detention center that demanded the release of people at risk of getting COVID-19. When asked if this was why Marquez was released, ICE said it can’t comment on pending litigation.
One day later, Lopez was also released. Marquez said she was the first person Lopez contacted.
“She called and told me ‘Lili they just let us out, they're telling us we’re all released’ and I said ‘what?!’ I told Karla ‘you have my address, you know where I will be, whatever happens just get yourself to that address,’” Marquez said.
With help from local organizations, Lopez took a bus to Marquez’s home in Stockton.
After a year and four months in detention, Lopez still awaits a decision from the 9th Circuit court where her appeals case will be considered for oral argument. Until then, she is quarantining in Marquez’s home where they keep each other company and tend to a small vegetable garden to pass the time.