Malerie Corona wakes up at noon. It’s not her way – she’s normally a morning person. But lately she hasn’t been sleeping so well. She spent last night staring at the ceiling, crying and worrying for Alexis.
She walks to the kitchen and pours a bowl of cereal. She isn’t really hungry. She hasn’t had an appetite for weeks now. But she must eat for the baby.
Will Alexis be there when the baby comes? This question haunts her. It sends her into a depression. She retreats to her bedroom, where she will spend hours locked into a psychic darkness, ignoring her mother’s pleas to come out.
“I know I shouldn’t cry, but it’s all I can do,” she said. “Especially being pregnant. I can’t control my emotions.”
Since the pandemic arrived, the life of 22-year-old Malerie has been seismically upended. It started on March 9, as the first Minnesotans tested positive for COVID-19, when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested her fiance, Alexis Gomez-Galeana. Then came the governor’s order to stay at home, sending Malerie into self-quarantine. She is now eight months pregnant, staying with her mother in Prior Lake, 50 miles away from Alexis.
Alexis, 24, is a professional boxer who has lived most of his life in Minneapolis. He came here from Acapulco, Mexico, 20 years ago, when he was 5 years old. His legal immigration status under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, commonly known as DACA, expired in 2017. He applied for a U visa in 2015, which could provide a path to permanent legal status, but the backlog is so long he’s still waiting. He and Malerie say they planned to marry this summer, which would have allowed Alexis to apply for a green card.
At least that was the plan before all this changed.
Now Alexis is part of the “Sherburne 62,” a group of immigrant detainees in Sherburne County jail fighting for release before COVID-19 reaches the detention facility. In federal court documents, they argue that jails are “perfect incubators” for the deadly virus and ask to be placed on home monitoring pending their court dates. ICE would not comment for this story. But in a telephonic court hearing last week, Homeland Security attorney David Fuller said the Sherburne jail is going beyond what’s necessary to keep inmates safe, isolating detainees in single cells to allow for social distancing, providing them masks and bringing in extra cleaners to sanitize the facility. “The details of what has been done here are really unlike any facilities that I’ve seen,” Fuller said.
A federal magistrate is likely to make a decision on the case early this week.
Across the country, the pandemic has brought new urgency to civil rights battles over immigrant rights and mass incarceration.
Since the virus hit New York City’s Rikers Island in mid-March, it has infected more than 365 currently incarcerated inmates, along with more than 900 corrections and medical staff, according to jail data from April 20. “That rate of explosive growth is what we’ll see in many – if not all – cases when corona gets behind bars,” said Homer Venters, former chief medical officer for New York City’s jail system. “It’s not something that can be stopped.”
Such grave forecasts prompted immigration judges to call for the closing of their courts earlier this month. “Meeting in person, under crowded conditions, is completely unacceptable,” said U.S. Judge Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges. “The open Immigration Courts are an example of what not to do.”
For Malerie, whose due date is just weeks away, the problem is less complicated and not political.
“This is just very stressful and hard, being in quarantine and not having your loved ones near so you know they’re safe,” she said. “He’s locked up, and God knows what’s going on in that place.”
‘Is this for real?’
Malerie was born 2,000 miles from Alexis, in a Southern California town called Downey, just outside Long Beach. When she was 11, her family moved to Savage, Minn., in search of a more affordable place to live. Her stepdad worked as a tire technician; her mom worked at a gas station.
She met Alexis through mutual friends, an addition to group hangouts at Valleyfair and the Mall of America. Malerie remembers seeing him in the high summer sun, his light brown eyes shining. “His smile just made me smile.”
Alexis liked that Malerie was shy like him. She also understood his passion for boxing, and the time commitment his training required. Alexis was getting ready to turn pro at the time. Malerie tagged along to watch him train at the Circle of Discipline gym on E. Lake Street in Minneapolis.
Alexis talked about marriage, but Malerie never knew if he was serious. The first pseudo proposal came while watching a romantic movie, and she thought perhaps he’d just been wrapped up in the story line.
But Alexis was elated when Malerie’s stomach ache turned out to be morning sickness.
“You’re playin’, right?” Alexis recalled asking the doctor. “‘Is this for real?'”
“I was pinching myself,” he said in a phone interview.
The baby brought new purpose for Alexis and Malerie. Alexis had a 2-0 record since going pro, and he was planning to open a landscaping business. One day he knelt down and proposed to Malerie, promising he’d buy her a ring when he could save enough money.
In March, Alexis went to the Scott County courthouse for a hearing on charges of driving without a license. Malerie came along. When they walked into the building, a group of men were waiting. They grabbed Alexis and forced him back out the door and into a car, according to Malerie.
“I was crying,” she said. “They were telling me to shut up. I said … That’s my fiance. I need to know what’s going on.’?”
“I could just remember his voice saying, ‘Malerie, help me!’?”
Quarantine and jail
When Alexis arrived in Sherburne jail, he learned he’d been charged with unlawful presence in the United States and on suspicion of trafficking narcotics. The latter charge was based on an incident in February 2018. A police officer found Alexis and his cousin parked in a van that smelled like marijuana. The officer discovered a gun and two digital scales with marijuana residue in Alexis’ backpack.
His cousin later stated in a sworn affidavit that the contraband wasn’t Alexis’. They’d been at a hotel party the night before, he said, and a friend meant to put the items in the cousin’s bag for “safekeeping,” but made a mistake and picked Alexis’ bag instead.
In July 2018, prosecutors dropped the drug and gun charges, and Alexis pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct.
But now the allegation had come back to haunt him. This time, it could cost him witnessing the birth of his child. It could deport him back to a dangerous region of Mexico he says is completely foreign to him.
“I was basically raised in south-side Minneapolis, Minnesota. I take pride in that,” he said.
Malerie couldn’t visit Alexis in jail because Sherburne County cut off in-person visitation due to the pandemic. She and Alexis started talking by phone every day. She told him the baby kicks when she hears his voice.
One day, Malerie’s stomach started to hurt.
She called the hospital, worried that something might be wrong with the baby. The nurse said it was probably stress due to all the COVID-19 news – a lot of pregnant women were experiencing it – and advised her to drink a cold glass of water and lie on her side. Malerie didn’t tell the nurse that the real reason she’s stressed is because the father of the baby is in jail.
“It’s like every day I feel like I can’t breathe,” she said. “I don’t know what to do.”
On April 1, Alexis’ lawyer, Jason A. Nielson, argued that the government lacked evidence to support the narcotic trafficking charge, which was based on the dismissed 2018 case.
“He was getting his life together,” said Nielson. “He was maybe a little immature at times with past decisions, but he’s got structure in his life now. He’s got a baby coming. … He’s really not El Chapo the second.”
The judge agreed to dismiss the drug charge. Alexis is being held without bail for the second charge and will appear in court Wednesday.
In the meantime, Nielson said he plans to reapply for Alexis’ DACA status. Nielson has also tried to arrange for a wedding while Alexis is in custody. Usually it’s a simple procedure performed in Fort Snelling. But since ICE has suspended prisoner transport due to the virus, his requests have been denied.
If Alexis and the Sherburne 62’s civil petition is granted this week, he and Malerie plan to get married immediately.
In the meantime, Malerie lies in her room and waits.