Rosa, a 63-year-old grandmother, fled her home in Cortés, Honduras with her 14-year-old granddaughter in 2016 after an MS-13 gang member tried to take the granddaughter as his wife. When Rosa initially said no to what would have been a forced marriage akin to sex slavery, gang members came to her home and threatened to burn it down, burn her alive, and kidnap her granddaughter. Rosa knew to take the threats seriously: Three years earlier, in 2013, her grandson had been disappeared by the same gang. When I asked her—we were speaking together in a frigid, echoey, two-way-mirrored private visiting room in the El Paso Processing Center (EPPC)—if she had considered going to the police, she laughed. “You can’t try to talk to them or they’ll disappear you. If you see something [she zipped her lips with a finger] you have to keep quiet.”
The day after the standoff with the gangmembers, Rosa and her granddaughter fled. Fifteen days later, on November 18, 2016, they presented themselves at the Port of Entry in El Paso and asked for asylum. The granddaughter was released to her mother (who was living in the Houston area). Rosa, meanwhile, has been in Immigrations and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) EPPC detention center ever since—18 months and counting. (Rosa is not her real name—she recently contacted me through her lawyer, worried about being targeted upon return to Honduras, and asked that I remove any mention of her real name. Her lawyer told me that she was so nervous when he last spoke with her that she was shaking.)
During her time behind bars, Rosa passed her Credible Fear Interview, the first step in the asylum process, and was granted protective status under the Convention Against Torture by an immigration judge—but three days later the same judge changed his mind and revoked her status. She was eventually denied asylum, and she has appealed her case. In her year and a half behind bars, her health has seriously deteriorated: she has lost significant weight, developed high blood pressure, tachycardia, and severe heartburn, among a host of other medical issues. “Why are they keeping me?” Rosa asked me. “They’re keeping me like a criminal. I don’t want to be here. I want to feel the warmth of my grandchildren.”
When I asked Rosa’s attorney, Eduardo Beckett, why he thought ICE was continuing to hold her, he told me, “Cruel and unusual punishment.… I think she’s a prime example of the deterrence.” Despite mixed messaging from the Trump administration, the last year has seen the implementation of a barrage of hard-line immigration policies that, especially when taken collectively, send a stark message to potential asylum seekers: Stay away. If asylum seekers do not heed that message (many of them, like Rosa, have no other choice), they face prolonged detention, separation from their children, and humiliating, denigrating, and even inhumane conditions as they make their case for protective status.
By all national and international legal standards, seeking asylum is a lawful act, and asylum seekers should not be punished or detained for doing so. According to an analysis conducted by Yale Law School’s Human Rights Clinic, “administrative detention of asylum seekers beyond the time necessary to establish identity is an impermissible penalty under the Refugee Convention, except in the rare situations in which there are compelling reasons of safety or flight risk.”