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.”
US regulations stipulate that asylum seekers can be paroled out of detention after passing a Credible Fear Interview if they “present neither a security risk nor a risk of absconding,” according to a 2009 ICE directive, which is still in effect. Rosa, however, along with tens of thousands of other asylum seekers, while checking neither of those boxes, languishes in detention.
I interviewed Rosa and four other men and women currently or recently detained in ICE’s El Paso Processing Center. All of them reported emotional suffering and serious physical stress. All of them questioned why they were being held for nothing more than seeking asylum.
In March the ACLU and others filed a federal lawsuit challenging the arbitrary detention of asylum seekers, asking the government to follow its own established policy guidelines. From February to September of 2017, 96 percent of asylum seekers at five ICE field offices, according to the lawsuit, were denied parole to let them make their case outside of detention. (Asylum seekers in detention are much less likely to secure attorneys, which translates to a vertiginous decline in asylum-grant rates.) In the El Paso sector during the same time period, 349 requests for release from detention were made, and all 349 of them were denied. Michael Tan, an ACLU attorney with the Immigrants’ Rights Project, described the “sweeping crackdown on parole” as a “mass deterrence policy.”
Though the incidence rate of detaining and mistreating asylum seekers is notable under Trump, the methods are not novel to this administration. What is new is the policy of separating children from their parents. On May 7, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the administration would separate asylum-seeking parents apprehended while crossing the border from their children. This was, in effect, a “formalizing of the zero-tolerance policy” that has been in place for months, Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrant Rights Project, told me. In April, The New York Times documented over 700 cases of children being separated from their parents. More recently, in just a 13-day span this month, 658 minor children were separated from their parents after they had crossed the border together. With a zero-tolerance policy in effect, as Deputy Chief of Operations Program of CBP Richard Hudson testified before a Senate Judiciary hearing, these are the sorts of numbers we may continue to see—hundreds of children separated from their parents every week. Despite Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s inference in his announcement of the policy that only families crossing the border would face separation, even asylum-seeking family members presenting at a Port of Entry have been separated from one another.
Gelernt described a young child screaming frantically, “Don’t take me away from my mommy,” as ICE separated her from her asylum-seeking mother. The mother was taken into ICE custody in San Diego; the child was sent to Chicago in custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The case now forms the basis for a lawsuit, Ms. L v. ICE, which challenges the practice of family separation: terrorizing parents and using young children as shock advertising for other potential asylum seekers.
In March of 2017, the Trump administration tested the waters in threatening a formal policy change of separating children from their parents. After quick backlash against what would amount to inflicting “lifelong psychological trauma,” as the National Immigration Law Center’s Marielena Hincapié told Reuters, the administration softened its rhetoric. But the administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy announced this April (though applied previously)—in which it attempts to prosecute all border crossers—is, as Lomi Kriel put it in the Houston Chronicle, “tantamount to a de-facto policy of family separation.” Criminalizing adults who cross the border (even if they do so in order to ask for asylum, they can be charged with a federal misdemeanor) leads to a possible prison sentence and separation from their young children. On May 15, The Washington Post reported that the government is preparing military bases as holding centers for immigrant children taken from their parents who have crossed the border. The same day, Senator Kamala Harris and Representative Pramila Jayapal introduced a bill that would impose a moratorium on the expansion of immigration detention facilities.
The ACLU documented multiple cases in which asylum-seeking parents were separated from their children after presenting at a Port of Entry to make their initial request for asylum, despite breaking no laws. A Guatemalan woman identified as Ms. M.M.A.L. in an affidavit in the Ms. L. case presented at the San Ysidro Port of Entry (between Tijuana and San Diego) with her son. They were promptly separated and sent to different facilities. After a month away from her child, Ms. M.M.A.L. writes, “I worry about [my son] constantly and don’t know when I will see him. We have talked on the phone only once. I was given a number to call, but no one answers the phone.”
Another asylum-seeking father from Kyrgyzstan, who also presented at the San Ysidro Port of Entry with his son and asked for asylum, recalls the moment he was informed he was going to be separated from him: “I suffer from high blood pressure and felt as though I was having a heart attack.… I feel like I was in shock and do not remember what happened next or even how I got to the detention center after that. All I can remember is how much my son and I were both crying as they took him away.”
Though the government has sent mixed messages as to whether this is a policy with the specific intent to deter future asylum seekers, it “lacks any other rationale that would justify [family] separation,” the ACLU’s Gelernt told me. At the May 4 hearing of the Ms. L. case in the San Diego court, Gelernt argued before the judge, “When the government tries to take a child away, especially a child of tender age, from their parent, they have to have a reason.” Gelernt continued: “When you have little kids being separated, 18 months old, and they are sitting there screaming and crying, Please don’t let me be taken away, I think something needs to be done nationally.”
In El Paso, I spoke with Mariana Ibarra Moran, a young woman from Juárez who, in February of 2016, was kidnapped into a prison by her abusive boyfriend and the father of her child. After severely beating Ibarra in his prison cell, the man himself got scared when Ibarra started spitting up blood, and let her call her mother—who alerted the media. After Ibarra was released, she was further harassed by prison officials and local police who, she claimed, were working alongside the cartels running the prison. After being released from the police station where she was being held—with the help of a local reporter—she presented herself at a Port of Entry in El Paso, hoping to be able to find refuge for herself and her 6-month-old son. After spending an anxious night in a processing center, DHS slapped a GPS ankle bracelet on her and set her free to fight her case. A month later, however, at her ICE check-in, she was taken into custody and separated from her child, who she was still breast-feeding. She remained in custody for eight months, only able to have contact visits with her baby once every two weeks. Her child (who was being looked after by Ibarra’s sister) started not recognizing Ibarra as his mother, and was nervous entering the visitation room.
“At first,” Ibarra told me, weeping, “I didn’t want to see [my son] because it was too hard. And then he didn’t recognize me anymore, and he wouldn’t hug me. He only wanted to be with his aunt, and he started calling her Mama. I would go back to the barracks crying, and I just wanted to sign for my deportation, but the others were saying, ‘No, don’t do it.’ But I would rather be in Juárez, no matter what happens, than stay there locked up. It was so hard.… I mean, I’m here now, but with everything that happened to me in Juárez, it didn’t hurt as much as what happened to me [in detention]. I mean, [in Juárez] they were punches, threats—but threats against me. And here the hurt was against me and against my child. And here it was…psychological damage.”
Though Ibarra wasn’t granted asylum—the court cited not lack of credibility but lack of corroboration of her testimony—she was ultimately afforded temporary protection under the Convention Against Torture.
Alan Shapiro, pediatrician and cofounder of Terra Firma, a medical-legal program that offers medical, mental-health, and legal help to undocumented children, writes in an affidavit to the Ms. L case, family separation may not only lead to “irreparable harm and trauma” to the children, but has a “doubly harmful” effect, first traumatizing the child and then depriving them of their primary source of stress mitigation: their parent.
José Enrique Henríquez López, a 21-year-old gay man from El Salvador, loves Bachata, a popular type of dance music originally from the Dominican Republic. When he finds a rare free moment alone in the El Paso Processing Center, where he has been locked up for six months, he dances a few steps in the facility’s laundry room. These are scarce moments of reprieve in what has been a lifetime of ongoing violence and discrimination: He was raped by one uncle as a boy, witnessed the murder of another uncle, as well as the murder of three cousins, and, throughout his teenage years, was mocked and abused for being gay by schoolteachers and gang members alike. After he and his partner received increasing extortion demands and death threats, they fled to Mexico, where they were met with continued persecution. Upon arriving in the United States, they have been detained for months and face ongoing discrimination from both guards and fellow detainees. “They’ve discriminated against me my whole life for being gay,” Henríquez told me. “I couldn’t study what I wanted to study. I couldn’t do anything I wanted to do in my life, just for being gay.”
Henríquez said that ICE officials didn’t allow him to work at first because they were concerned other detainees would feel uncomfortable working alongside someone who was gay. ICE has a history of discrimination and abuse against LGBTQ detainees in their custody.
“There are days when I don’t even want to get out of bed,” Henríquez said. “I can’t handle it anymore, being locked up. I can’t take off my shirt, I can’t put my hair in a bun, I can’t do anything. Because the guards get mad at me if I take off my shirt, because they know I’m gay. But other guys go around without their shirts and they don’t say anything. So, I can’t do anything, I can’t even sit on someone’s bed to talk because they call me out. Just because I’m gay.”
The desperation, frustration, and humiliation are not unique to Henríquez. Nellie Alvarado, who spoke to me about her husband, Oscar (after presenting himself at the Port of Entry the same day he was shot, he was detained for 16 months in the El Paso sector) described the psychological toll prolonged detention took on her husband and on his entire family. “I was very uneasy, and anxious,” Alvarado said, “not knowing if he was okay.” After hearing about another detainee suicide in the same “camp,” as she referred to the detention center, she worried that her husband would kill himself.
As multiple attorneys I spoke with explained to me, it’s hard to rationalize the abuse, the fear, the isolation, and the sickness other than as an attempt to deter future asylum seekers.
New quotas that the Department of Justice has placed on immigration judges—requiring them to complete 700 cases a year—may also have a trickle-down deterrent effect, as Lenni Benson, New York Law School professor and director of Safe Passage Project, explained to me. With judges giving short shrift to asylum seekers and hurrying witnesses—“Sessions cracking the whip at judges,” as Benson put it—more claimants are likely to be denied. Forcing judges to hear up to three cases in a day would only allow them a couple of hours on each asylum case, which can have files hundreds of pages long and complex backstories. Retired immigration judge Paul Schmidt described the immigration courts as “a totally coercive system meant to deny [asylum] claims and discourage [people] from making claims in the first place.”
Another effort that fits into a de facto deterrence agenda includes asylum officers’ combing for possible gang affiliation of minors, and even prying into the immigration status of minor applicants’ family members who accompany them to their interviews, sometimes referring them for possible arrest to ICE. Camille Mackler, of the New York Immigration Coalition, told me of a couple occasions when ICE actually made arrests at asylum offices. These kinds of stories, Benson explained, are quickly disseminated along immigrant-group grapevines, and could have a chilling effect on people searching for safety. I spoke with Jason Dzubow, a private immigration attorney who writes a blog about asylum, who described the “bureaucratic obstacles” asylum seekers face, such as a new and increased difficulty of scheduling appointments or renewing work visas. Dzubow wondered whether it was incompetence or a deliberate imposition of red tape to slow down the asylum process. Either way, he acknowledged, “The hostility [towards asylum seekers] is obvious.” ACLU attorney Tan told me: “The administration has made very clear their policy is one of deterring people.”
US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement is, by all accounts, using today’s asylum seekers to send a message to deter future asylum seekers. Instead of processing individual claims on their own merits or releasing asylum seekers on parole as they fight their cases—respecting their humanity and upholding international and national laws—instead of offering them protection, ICE is using asylum seekers as a billboard: the United States is no place of refuge.
“I hope that God forgives the United States,” Rosa told me. “We are people. We are old women. We can’t be here. I don’t know why they don’t let us go. I don’t know why…” I asked her what would happen if she were deported to Honduras. “I would die,” Rosa said. “Just to think about it…” She folded her arms and, for the first time in our hour-long talk, tears came to her eyes. “I can’t go back there.”
On May 2, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) denied Rosa’s appeal. Unless she can take her case to the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, or files a motion to reconsider before BIA, after 18 months of excruciating detention, she will be deported, alone, to Honduras.
Even with these cruel examples to serve as deterrence, the asylum seekers will continue to come. As Judge Schmidt put it, “We can diminish ourselves as a nation, but we can’t stop human migration.”