Trials and tribulations of a Bolivian migrant living in Spain

When Bolivian IT worker Ramiro Perales moved to Spain, he was excited at the possibility of improving his career and making a new life for himself and his wife, despite lacking the correct residency papers. When the police caught him, he was charged as an illegal immigrant, taken to an detention centre and locked up with hardened criminals. He rarely got to see his wife and baby daughter in the centre, where theft and stabbings were frequent. Eventually, a high-profile media campaign led to his release. Here, Perales describes his experience and why he still fears he might not see his wife and daughter again

Friday May 22nd 2009

I grew up in Cochabama in Bolivia. My family didn’t have any money so I had to work to save up to go to university, to study IT. I got a job after university but the money was terrible and there wasn’t any way to progress in my career. I am the youngest in my family but I was also the main breadwinner. I really wanted to earn more money to support my family and get ahead and I knew that the only way for me to do this would be to move to Spain.

I had thought about it for a long time, but then a family tragedy forced me to make a decision. My brother died of a brain tumour and I couldn’t help feeling that if we had only had some money, we might have been able to save his life.

A friend of mine from university was already living and working in Barcelona and he encouraged me to go. Through him I got a job offer in the IT sector and with this I applied for residency papers to go to Spain. But the process was so slow that eventually the company backed out and withdrew the offer. I felt really disappointed and I didn’t want to wait any longer so I decided to take the risk and go to Spain anyway, with my wife Leidy.

It wasn’t difficult to get a job that paid cash. Things were going well, I was earning a decent wage and I was able to send money home to my parents. A year after we arrived in Barcelona we had a baby girl, Veronica. We got a Spanish passport for her and we used to joke about our little Spanish daughter.

Everything was going well until one day the police stopped me as I was coming out of the metro station on my way to work one morning. They asked me for my residency papers but, of course, I didn’t have any.

They took me to the police station and explained that they were starting proceedings to deport me. I phoned Leidy and she was terrified and started crying. At this stage Veronica was 11 months old and I felt sick thinking about what might happen to her if I was deported. The lawyer on duty told me not to worry and that they would send my daughter to Bolivia after me. It was as though he talking about sending a package in the post and not a baby.

Unfortunately there is a legal grey area when it comes to the children of undocumented immigrants. Some judges will protect the rights of a Spanish-born child and let the parents stay, but others will simply order the deportation of the parents if they don't have the correct papers.

After spending a night in the cells, I was allowed to go home pending my deportation order. In case I got stopped by the police again, they gave me some papers to show that deportation proceedings had already started so that I wouldn’t be arrested again. But one month later, again as I was coming out of the metro station, two police officers stopped me and asked for my papers. I showed them the deportation order that I had been given but they didn’t take any notice. They handcuffed me outside the station. I felt so ashamed, people were looking at me wondering what crime I had committed.

This time I was taken directly to an internment centre in Zona Franca in the outskirts of Barcelona and put in a 4m squared cell with five other men. The government calls these places “centros de acogida”, which means a kind of shelter or refuge but the reality is that they are prisons.

I was terrified on my first night. The sensation of being locked behind bars made me panic, I think it’s the closest thing to hell that I’ve experienced. I didn’t sleep all night, listening to men screaming, howling and banging until dawn. Some men were clearly mentally ill but they weren’t receiving any special treatment. We were all awaiting deportation as “illegal immigrants” but there were some men who really were criminals. The centre received immigrants who had served sentences in prison for criminal offences. People who had committed violent crimes were thrown in with people whose only crime was to search for a better life for their families.

There was a really strict routine in the centre. We were up at 7am, we had 10 minutes to wash and make our beds before we had to go down for breakfast. Then we were kept in the courtyard until lunch, with siesta from 2-4pm. Then at 4pm it was back down to the courtyard until 7pm when we had dinner. We’d go back to the courtyard until 10pm when we had to go back up to our cells, then it was lights out at midnight. Everything was regimented, if you didn’t go to the toilet at the right time it was tough luck.

When my wife came to visit with the baby it awful to see her on the other side of a thick pane of glass. Veronica was touching the glass and crying, she didn’t understand why she couldn't be with her dad. Then the police threatened to arrest Leidy if she came back to visit me because she didn’t have residency papers either. I felt really angry that they had threatened her like that while she was carrying the baby, but there was nothing I could do.

Being kept in such close confinement meant that I made a few friends during my time in the centre. One of the guys sharing my cell was from Uruguay and he also had two children with his girlfriend who was Spanish. When his deportation order came through and he was given the date that he would leave the country, he cried all night long. I felt awful for him. He left a few days after that, and I never found out what happened to him.

The centre was also really dangerous. People managed to smuggle knives in and there were a number of stabbings during the 35 days I spent there. There was also a lot of stealing between the inmates – once I saw a man wearing my jumper but I knew that if I said anything I’d be asking for trouble. We were kept in such tiny spaces that fighting was inevitable. The stress of being locked up, worrying about family on the outside and the fear of deportation made some men explode. There were only a few telephones to share between hundreds of us and this is where the fights usually started. When things would turn violent, the guards would just stand and watch, letting men beat the hell out of each other.

But the threat of violence wasn’t only from the other inmates, the guards themselves kept us afraid and intimidated. I remember once, one of my cellmates (who was also from Bolivia) answered back to one of the guards who was inspecting our cell. The guard was shouting and pushing us around and my cellmate simply said that there was no need to shout and that we could all hear him perfectly.

The guard turned around and hit him over the head with his truncheon, splitting his eyebrow in two. There was blood everywhere. He was taken down to the medical room but the nurse on duty said it was a serious wound and that he needed to go to hospital. They must have been worried about people asking questions at the hospital because they refused to take him. In the end, they stuck a piece of gaffer tape across the wound; the poor man wasn’t even given stitches. Meanwhile somebody came to clean up the blood to make sure there was no trace of the incident.

After 20 days of being in the centre my deportation order came through. I didn’t realise it at the time but I had a lot of support from people on the outside and the Latino community. Since my arrival in Barcelona, I had been an active member of Fedelatina (the Latin American Federation in Catalonia) and some people from the organisation came to visit me. A group of Latin American journalists in Barcelona started a media campaign for my release and it wasn’t until one of the guards handed me a newspaper with my picture in it that I realised that people on the outside were trying to help me.

While I was locked up, Veronica had her first birthday. I felt so sad at missing her birthday but the media campaign used this as a way to put the spotlight on my case and a large birthday party for Veronica was organised in Plaça Universitat, one of the main squares in the city. Lots of media went to cover the story and a picture of Veronica blowing out her birthday candle appeared in the national newspapers.

Then a couple of days later, one of the guards said that a fax had been received from the court to say that my deportation order had been cancelled and that I just needed to pay a fine – but that I still had to leave Spain. After 35 days I was freed and able to go home to my wife and daughter. But what I saw inside the centre has stayed with me.

Every time I see the police or anyone in uniform on the street, I panic and worry that I’m going to be arrested again. Every morning when I leave for work I give my wife and daughter a kiss – I can’t help fearing that I might not see them again.

Ramiro Perales was speaking to journalist Cheryl Gallagher. Republished from Guardian Weekly

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