by Carlos Alexander Hidalgo

This is the first of a series of essays written by Carlos Hidalgo, a member of Freedom for Immigrants’ Leadership Council. Here, he writes about coming to the US from El Salvador at age 14, his life in the US - and entering immigration detention.  

I was born in El Salvador on September 27, 1967 and I am the oldest of three; I have a brother Douglas and a sister, Lorena.

Up until I was 7 years old I recall my childhood being a happy one. My father went to America in search of a better life for us. Then the economy in El Salvador got worse, and so did the war, which forced my mother to leave for America to help my father. My parents knew things would get worse before they got better, and if both were working in America they could raise money a lot quicker and be able to send for us.

Carlos (far right) with his aunt and other family members, including his aunt Ceci

My aunt Ceci and uncle Carlos took care of us while my parents were in America. During that time I had to grow up fast while still being a child. I had to stop dreaming and learn how to become a man – at least that’s what my uncle used to tell me. He would show me how to clean and use his guns during my country’s civil war. I didn’t know why we were fighting or against who. All I knew was that if I heard shots on my way to school I was to duck and run away. My uncle used to tell me to never skip school, and I remember before going to class a lady would wash the blood off the faces and school uniforms of those who were unlucky.

I was almost drafted by the military at the age of 10. The military was taking all the 11 year-olds so they wouldn’t join the guerillas. My teacher showed my file to prove I was only 10; I remember being so scared that I wet my pants. A soldier standing beside me said, “You lucky motherfucker” and hit me in the back of my neck with his rifle. When I came to, I was glad to find myself on the ground in the schoolyard.

My mother came for us two years after she had left. After 7 long weeks walking on the road, traveling on smelly buses and trains, and many sleepless nights we finally reached the Mexican border. I was 11 years old when I entered the US. It was night and I was holding my 3 year-old sister in my arms. I pushed the fence aside to allow my mother to cross and pulled my 6 year-old brother along. No sooner had we crossed than the Border Patrol shined lights on us. My mother told me to say “political asylum” if we were stopped, so I did, at the top of my lungs. A tall white man said to me in Spanish “Bas estar muy bien muchacho,” meaning “You are going to be okay, young man.” I felt welcomed, and safe. Sixteen days later we were granted political asylum and united with my father. We all seemed to adjust; I made new friends and still to this day play American football.

My brother once told me we were blessed that we had attended high school here in the United States, to have a childhood and act like kids, to dream again, play sports, get an education and put aside the nightmare we lived in El Salvador and the torture of the journey to get here.

I was no stranger to work, and when I was sixteen I got a job frying taco shells at Taco Quickie. I became a dad at age 20 and got a job in auto finance, moved up to personal finance and finally into mortgage finance before ending up working in real estate. I was living the American Dream. Unfortunately my 21-year-old marriage came to an end but by then I had 3 wonderful kids and even after the divorce I kept a close relationship with them.

Then, in January 2013, I was given a check from someone that owed me money. When I went to cash it, the clerk told me it was a washed check and the bank called the police and I was arrested. I took a plea deal to a misdemeanor 7 months later, but instead of being released, I was detained an additional 12 days and ICE came to the county jail and picked up all the immigrants being released. ICE never bothered to check our court papers and their discretionary rules made us all look guilty, even those of us with misdemeanor charges.

Once in custody we were transferred to Adelanto Detention Center. GEO policies were the same as the county jail, or worse. I was shackled hand and foot and treated like a criminal when I was not.

Immediately, I felt like a prisoner again.

Carlos Hidalgo is an outspoken immigrant rights advocate. Originally from El Salvador, Carlos has lived in the United States since the early 1980s. He spent over a year and a half at the Adelanto Detention Facility and the Theo Lacy Facility in California, where he helped organize a multi-week hunger strike of over 400 people.

Since his detention, Carlos has advocated for California's Dignity Not Detention Act, lobbied Congressional representatives like Judy Chu (D-CA) to shine a light on the system, and started a petition with over 20,000 signatures calling on news agencies to use the term "immigrant prisons."

Carlos speaks frequently on immigration detention issues, and his work has been featured in major news outlets such as the Los Angeles Times and Rolling Stone Magazine.  In 2017, he was featured in Grammy-winning artist Miguel's music video, "Now."