One of the great experiences of living in the United States is the road tripa leisurely drive across state borders pausing to take in the often breathtaking magnificence of the country's geography.
In most cases, such journeys do not require a passport.
The two co-founders of Trans LifelineGreta Gustava Martela and Nina Chaubalalong with their two roommates, who are also trans, had decided to spend the holidays on a road trip to California in order to scout out possible new headquarters in San Diego for their nonprofit which, for more than two years, has provided critically needed peer support for thousands of transgender people in crisis across the United States and Canada.
Trans Lifeline was a labor of love for both Martela and Chaubal, who met in 2013 and are now married. Martela ditched a successful career as a software engineer in order to devote herself to the relentlessly long hours needed to meet a rapidly growing demand for the help Trans Lifeline provides.
Originally born in Mumbai, India, Chaubal similarly left her job at Google and joined Martela in keeping Trans Lifeline, not only above water but in a continual state of growth. Chaubal was the driving force behind the software platform used by the organization.
By Dec. 28, Martela, Chaubal and their roommates had set out on the return trip from San Diego. Both Martela and Chaubal had valid driver's licenses. Since their journey was not taking them out of the country, it was all they thought were needed.
"We were taking the Southern route to avoid bad weather," Martela told Windy City Times. "We thought we'd shoot some pictures of cactuses and beautiful places."
They had just crossed the border between California and Arizona and were driving up to the town of Wellton along Interstate 8 when the travelers came across something none of them were expecting.
"We ran into a border patrol checkpoint," Martela said. "We pulled up and border patrol agents asked us if everyone in the car was a citizen. Nina was sitting in the front seat. I answered truthfully and said, 'No. Nina is applying for her green card.'"
Martela said Chabaul was in the United States on an H1B visa valid through 2017. An H1B is a nonimmigrant visa for foreign workers employed in the country. Such workers can, if they choose, apply for a green card while in H1B status.
"Nina came in [to the U.S.] as a student, then she got her H1B" Martela explained. "When she left Google, we got married. We did everything we were supposed to do. As soon as we got married, we initiated the process to apply for a green card and started gathering documents."
One of the stumbling blocks was finding a divorce decree from Martela's marriage to a now-deceased individual.
"The lawyers I originally retained were telling me that we had to have that divorce decree in order to get the green card application in," Martela said.
Martela and Chaubal tried to explain the situation to the border patrol agents to no avail. According to Martela, they pulled Chaubal from the van they had been driving and took her in for questioning.
The others waited.
"They kept us for about an hour-and-a-half," Martela said. "We were sitting in the van terrified."
Martela watched other drivers go through the checkpoint.
"It seemed like every car that had a brown person got stopped," she said. "Every car that had all white people was waved through."
Meanwhile, Martela and her roommates began to reach out to friends in Chicago.
"We asked them to go into our apartment to go in and take pictures of our marriage certificate and passports," she said. "Our thought was that, because Nina was married to a citizen and in the process of applying for a green card, that's not a violation for which she would end up in jail."
They were wrong.
"Nina was taken into custody and we had to drive away from the checkpoint without her," Martela recalled. "She spent the first 24 hours without anywhere to lay down. She was basically sitting in a chair in a cell with no bed. Border patrol officers were asking her about her genitals."
Martela and her roommates got a motel room in Wellton and took to social media in order to rally support for Chaubal.
"We were just waiting to hear something," Martela said. "Eventually ICE [Immigration Customs Enforcement] came to pick Nina up and took her to the Eloy facility."
The ICE Detention Center in Eloy is a privately-run, for-profit prison about a two hour drive from Wellton.
Its reputation for abuse of the detainees there has received national press attention. According to the Arizona Republic, 15 individuals have died in the facility since 2003. The most recent was a Guatemalan woman, Raquel Calderon de Hildago, who died on Nov. 27, 2016 after suffering what ICE called "seizures."
The prison is currently under federal review to determine whether to end its operation by Corrections Corporation of America ( CCA ).
"It's set up so that once your loved one goes into that system, there's no information about them," Martela said. "We had to get hold of an agency number for Nina. Nothing could be done on her behalf without it. I had to wait until I could visit her and then copy it down from her [prison] ID. We were lucky that we were able to hook up with some local activists like Marcos AndrÃ©s Williamson."
Martela added that Williamson and activists across the country provided her with critical information.
"We really were not prepared to deal with this," Martela said. "We didn't understand what was happening or just how hard it is to get someone out of one of these facilities."
Martela credited the massive response on social media and subsequent outcry over Chaubal's detention in helping to move the system much faster than usual. They even received support from a congressman.
"Bond was set for Nina at $4,500," Martela said. "The guard told Nina that he had never seen a bond that low so I do think the activism helped get her out of there. But we had all these advantages. I can't help but think what it must be like when you are not a famous activist, just a regular person out of status. These are people who are not criminals and yet we are putting them into a for-profit prison."
Chaubal told Martela that she was being housed in the women's unit and was being treated properly.
"She's doing surprisingly well," Martela said. "But she's a fierce woman. In a lot of ways, for a trans woman going into a detention facility is her biggest fear but she is not being abused. She's got a book and locked up like an animal but it is as good as can be expected."
Martela believes that one of the reasons Chaubal is faring better than others is due to the media and federal spotlight under which the CCA has been placed. However, she added that the entire system seems to be set up to extract money.
"I was asking Nina if she wanted me to put some money on her commissary account," Martela said. "But everything costs more than it should. You can't just buy a packet of Ramon Noodles. You have to buy the bowl and the spoon too. It's a profit center for somebody and I just have to wonder how rotten of a human being you have to be in order to profit off families being separated and off someone's misery."
Chaubal had to wait until Jan. 3 before she could post bond. After being released, the couple intend to return to Chicago and, with the help of an accomplished immigration attorney, begin the process of securing Chaubal's green card.
Even though they will be in the familiar surroundings of home, they will face a great number of unknowns. Chaubal may need to exit the United States first and apply for reentry as an asylum seeker.
"We're going to come up with some strategies and see what we can work out," Martela said. "One way or the other this is going to get resolved and we'll see what happens. I think that it's important that we all pay attention to immigration issues. We owe it to our fellow humans to take these issues seriously. It seems like the system has been taken over by a punitive way of dealing people. It's just wrong. I know it's going to be on the forefront of my mind as I continue my activism."