Analysis Human Rights

Asylum-Seeking Women and Children Are Treated Like Dangerous Criminals When They Arrive

Andrea Grimes

Thousands of women and children fleeing violence or abuse will soon be detained in American facilities run by profit-driven private prison companies—at the instruction of the Obama administration.

A private prison company could be making hundreds of dollars each day keeping 7-year-old Nayely Beltran under lock and key.

Instead, on one warm October morning, Nayely is zooming around a home in East Austin, Texas, showing off her new braids and handing out hugs to anyone who’ll take one. She’s finding a lot of takers at Posada Esperanza, a nonprofit shelter for immigrant moms and kids—currently about 20 people—who are seeking asylum in the United States.

“She’s learning more positive patterns,” Nayely’s mom, Sara Beltran, told Rewire. Beltran speaks only Spanish for now, though she’s learning English at Posada Esperanza. A staffer helps translate her story to Rewire.

Beltran says that seeing her daughter happy and healthy is why the two of them spent weeks taking buses, trains, and, eventually, a floating rubber tube across the Rio Grande to the United States. They did it all in the hopes of escaping from their dangerous and troubled home in El Salvador, where they faced both domestic abuse and drug cartel violence.

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But Beltran’s arrival in late July coincided with a new federal push to incarcerate immigrants escaping violence in Central and Latin America. When Beltran sought asylum from officials after reaching McAllen, Texas, she and her daughter were placed in a cold, sparse holding cell—”like jail,” she said—with no beds, for five days. Then, authorities transferred them to a central Texas prison-turned-detention facility, the Karnes County Residential Center, where they were held with more than 500 other immigrants for two months without the opportunity to seek bond.

The treatment Sara and Nayely received at the hands of government officials is reportedly far from uncommon. According to a new report from an Austin-based immigrant justice group Grassroots Leadership and the research organization Justice Strategies, thousands of asylum-seekers will soon be detained in American facilities run by profit-driven private prison companies—at the instruction of the Obama administration.

A Move Toward Incarceration

Beltran’s lawyer, Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch, who works for a private immigration law firm, says that from the moment Beltran arrived on American soil, she did everything right in seeking legal asylum. She’d presented herself to authorities and made a solid case for her reasons to flee, explaining the extreme perils she and her daughter faced back in El Salvador. And yet, immigration officials treated Sara and Nayely like dangerous criminals for months. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) leadership has said that it expressly intends this kind of behavior to act as a deterrent to people fleeing into the United States.

The latest push toward immigrant and family detention began in the summer of 2014, as people from Central America—many of them unaccompanied minors—crossed the Rio Grande into South Texas, seeking refuge from increasing violence in their home countries. Texas politicians took the opportunity to be seen on patrol with border agents and called for increased militarization along the United States-Mexico border; humanitarian and religious groups worked to house and feed minors and families in their own communities.

According to data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, more than 36,000 people—about 30 percent of all unauthorized immigrants—sought asylum in the 2013 fiscal year by requesting “credible fear” interviews in the United States. The majority of those asylum-seekers came from the “triangle” of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala; U.S. authorities found those immigrants’ claims of danger to be legitimate in 85, 86, and 75 percent of cases, respectively. Those numbers have only increased since then: From October 2013 to July 2014, more than 52,000 unauthorized Central American children were taken into Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody.

Lincoln-Goldfinch told Rewire that immigrants who do not make asylum claims—usually caught within two weeks of their arrival—are placed in “expedited removal,” with little access to legal representation. If unauthorized immigrants want to stay in the United States, asylum is their best option.

Asylum-seekers need to show that they fall into one of five protected categories in order to stay; for decades, immigrants fleeing domestic violence have argued, often with little success, that their abuse qualified as persecution. In August of this year, a landmark ruling from the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) finally confirmed that domestic abuse survivors can be eligible for asylum, a move that could give thousands of women like Sara Beltran firmer legal footing in their own cases. Many women, like Beltran, fear both domestic violence and cartel threats.

“Almost everyone in those triangle countries are fleeing cartel violence,” explained Lincoln-Goldfinch. “They’re all afraid of gangs. Even the domestic violence cases I’ve seen also have a gang violence component.” When it comes to abuse cases, Lincoln-Goldfinch said, “Now we have a real firm court decision that backs us up.”

However, thanks to stricter government policies, women and children could now face weeks or months in detention before getting the opportunity to make their asylum cases. From 2009—when the Obama administration stopped holding families at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Central Texas—until this summer, the general protocol for most immigrants seeking asylum was to give them court dates, then release them into the wider community.

This strategy was largely effective: Data shows that 74 percent of immigrants who aren’t detained do appear for legal hearings. When they are given access to legal representation—something often difficult to find in crowded detention facilities—those numbers rise even higher. Even now that the government is moving toward incarceration, single immigrant men without criminal records are still often allowed to walk free.

Immigrant women and children, however, are a different story. They’ll likely be detained in a privately run facility, sometimes for up to six months, while they go through the asylum process and attempt to obtain legal representation through pro-bono lawyers like Lincoln-Goldfinch or, if they have enough money, private attorneys.

The ostensible reasoning for the shift back to detention? Immigrants who come to the United States with their children are part of what DHS calls “active migration networks,” which some officials believe can act as a smoke screen for drug cartels.

Grassroots Leadership’s Cristina Parker, however, called that “network” terminology just “government speak” for “families.”

“It’s all cloaked in ‘national security,'” said Parker, but “these are vulnerable women and children.”

And the women and children detained in these facilities have little to do with themselves during the waking hours they spend behind locked doors. Sara Beltran said she was “depressed” during her two-month stay in Karnes, and that her daughter would cry “all the time,” and hide under the covers in her bed.

“[Immigration officials] see detention as a deterrent, and they mean for it to be punitive,” said Parker. “They want people to know that if you come here, you’ll be locked up.”

Lincoln-Goldfinch, who is one of about three dozen lawyers who are working pro bono for the 532 immigrants currently detained in Karnes, pointed out that the incarceration model won’t stop people from running for their lives; it’ll just make things harder for them once they arrive. “They’re fleeing murder,” Lincoln-Goldfinch argued. “That’s not going to stop them from coming here.”

It didn’t stop Beltran from traveling thousands of miles with Nayely, after all, even though the 7-year-old had a growing brain tumor—a condition for which she wasn’t able to get treatment when officials placed both of them in Karnes. After Lincoln-Goldfinch and Grassroots Leadership contacted local media and implored their supporter base to make repeated calls to ICE, the Beltrans were released to Posada Esperanza in late September; Nayely was able to have surgery to slow the growth of her tumor.

Lincoln-Goldfinch credits public outrage over Nayely’s incarceration as the main reason for Nayely and her mom’s release. Nayely’s medical condition alone wasn’t enough for officials to take action, she maintains: She reports that law enforcement had access to Nayely’s MRI scans from El Salvador before she even got the Beltrans’ case. “Nothing was done,” she said, until more people got wind of the story and put pressure on ICE.

“It wasn’t until the media campaign started, and the phone campaign started, that the deportation officer called me,” she said. “Literally after it went public.”

But Nayely and Sara were lucky, in a sense—often, people are left in detention for months, with little outside support and for no crime beyond trying to save themselves and their children.

And the number of those people is likely to increase. At the beginning of the year, Parker estimates that fewer than 100 people were in family detention; by the end of 2014, advocacy groups forecast that number will have skyrocketed to around 4,000. ICE will fill beds—they must keep 34,000 full at any given time—and the private companies tasked with operating these centers will see their profits swell.

“At every level, their bosses are shareholders,” said Parker about the corporations. “The only thing they really have to do at the end of the day is be profitable.”

Putting a Price on Detention

The two most powerful prison operators, GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) both have a sordid, documented history of abusing the people in their care. Immigrants—mostly men—detained in GEO facilities in Texas and Washington went on hunger strikes earlier this year to protest prison conditions.

The last time the federal government detained families seeking asylum at anything close to present numbers, it was at the CCA-run T. Don Hutto Residential Center outside of Austin, a facility that stayed open for family detention until September 2009. The ACLU reports that CCA received $2.8 million a month from ICE to detain immigrant families there.

The facility, which opened in 2006, echoed norms established at other privately run detention facilities. Sexual violence, refusal of medical care, and limited access to legal representation had reportedly become the status quo, prompting numerous lawsuits and investigations from human rights groups. According to these organizations, Hutto had hundreds of families packed in cells with open toilets, forced to eat and bathe in 15- and 30-minute blocks; children were given little access to toys or education. An ACLU counsel told Grassroots Leadership and Justice Strategies that she had spoken to children there who had not been outside in four weeks.

The ACLU and the University of Texas Immigration Clinic filed suit against Hutto and settled with DHS in 2007. As part of the settlement, Hutto operators pledged to improve conditions, removing requirements that immigrant children wear prison uniforms, and increasing the amount of time immigrants could spend outside and the kinds of toys children could keep. They also promised to serve more nutritional food. Guards were “instructed not to discipline children by threatening to separate them from their parents.”

External groups continued to monitor conditions at Hutto, and human rights organizations organized daily protests and opposition events during Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office in 2009. Even after the last family was released in September of last year, officials have still used the facility to house women detainees.

Despite the litigation and controversy, the government has continued to contract with major corporations to run their facilities. It is unclear just how much private prison companies stand to make, in total, off of immigrant detention, though just two family detention facilities—one in New Mexico, and another in Pennsylvania—are currently operated by the federal government. The Grassroots Leadership report credits GEO Group CEO George Zoley with telling shareholders on an August 2014 “earnings call” that his company projected annual revenues of around $26 million after taking on the family detention contract at Karnes—up from the $15 million it received when the institution only housed men.

And soon, CCA will open a 2,400-bed facility in Dilley, Texas, remodeling an area used for a state prison and a “man camp” intended to house oil and gas workers into a detainment center for women and children escaping violence south of the border.

Grassroots Leadership has called the Dilley facility “the largest family detention project in the U.S. since Japanese internment.”

This doesn’t bode well for those seeking asylum. In these privately run facilities, said Parker, “We see sexual abuse as such a recurring thing, and abuse and violence seem to happen all the time.” Indeed, just weeks after Karnes began to detain families, allegations of assault began to crop up.

This mistreatment and abuse is a consequence, Parker suggested, of management companies “cutting services, cutting corners when they need to,” and paying lower wages to guards than those earned by peers in government-run facilities.

In addition to the safety and well-being of those in detention, Lincoln-Goldfinch said she worries, too, about “the precedent we’re setting, and also the history we’re writing” by returning to a detention model.

“We’re doing something shameful that’s going to haunt us for years in our memories,” she says. “That our response as a nation is to detain people, the children who come here, seeking help, is really shameful.”

Beltran told Rewire that she brought Nayely to the United States so that her daughter could “learn that violence is not okay.” But living in a prison—albeit one with a few cartoon characters painted on the walls in common areas, an attempt to liven up a facility previously used to house detained men—only caused her to act out in frustration.

Now that they’re both living at Posada Esperanza, Beltran says that they’re drawing strength from the other immigrant women that surround them and learning skills to help them build what they hope will be a new life here in the United States.

Beltran enjoys working with her hands. In addition to wanting to find work as a hairdresser, she said, she wants to help “other people like me” who’ve come to the United States seeking asylum. Her eyes welled up with tears when she thought about being deported—something that she still fears, even though her lawyer has told her she has a good case.

“I don’t want to go back,” she said. “No puedo.”

Analysis Human Rights

Family Separation, A Natural Byproduct of the U.S. Immigration System

Tina Vasquez

There are millions of children in the United States born into households where one or more of their parents are undocumented—and thousands of these parents are deported each year.

To honor migrant mothers in detention this Mother’s Day, the immigrant rights organization CultureStrike has partnered with Presente.org, NWDC Resistance, and Strong Families. Visitors to MamasDay.org can pick out a card and write a message to a detained mother, and members of CultureStrike will deliver printed cards to detention centers nationwide.

A card from a stranger on the internet is a small gesture, but one that could have been meaningful to Monica Morales’ mother when she was detained at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center late last year. Morales told Rewire her mother, usually a fighter, was depressed and that her morale was at an all-time low. She’d been picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the border while attempting to escape her abusive ex-husband in Mexico and the gang violence that plagued her neighborhood in Chihuahua. After being deported in 2010, she was trying to reenter the United States and reunite with her family in Amarillo, Texas, but the reunion would never happen.

As an adult, Morales is somewhat able to make sense of what occurred, but she worries about what she will tell her three young children about what has happened to their family. These are hard conversations happening all over the country, as there are millions of children in the United States born into households where one or more of their parents are undocumentedand thousands of these parents are deported each year. And, advocates say, there are few, if any, programs available to help immigrant children cope with their trauma.

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“There’s Literally Nothing We Can Do”

On any given day, there are 34,000 people in immigration detention. Prior to the “border crisis” that brought thousands of Central American women to the United States seeking asylum, the Women’s Refugee Commission reported that 10 percent of those in detention were women. Since 2009, that figure has likely increased, but the exact number is unknown.

Morales’ mother was one of them.

Though they were both located in Texas at the time, Morales said getting her mom’s phone calls from Hutto was heartbreaking and that she couldn’t have felt further away or more helpless. Morales hit her breaking point when one day, her mom called sobbing, saying she and seven other women were forced to spend the day in a room covered in urine, blood, and excrement. It was shortly after that Morales’ mom decided to participate in the hunger strike Rewire reported on earlier this year.

“My mom would always tell me that dogs at the pound are treated better than they are in Hutto and other detention centers,” Morales said. “At least at the pound, they try to help the dogs and they want them to get adopted. At places like Hutto, they don’t care what happens to you, they don’t care if you’ll get killed if you get deported. If someone is sick, they don’t care. If someone is suffering, they don’t care.”

Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s oldest and largest for-profit private prison corporation, runs Hutto. The company has come under fire many times for human rights violations, including at Hutto, which was once used to detain immigrant families, including children. The Obama administration removed families from the facility in 2009 after numerous allegations of human rights abuses, including, according to the Texas Observer, “accounts of children suffering psychological trauma.” In 2010, there were also multiple allegations of sexual assault at the detention center.

Morales’ mother was not aware of Hutto’s history of abuse cases, but Morales told Rewire that after the hunger strike, her mother and other women who participated believed they were being retaliated against by Hutto officers because they had brought more bad publicity to the facility. Morales’ mom was deemed by detention officers a “dangerous detainee” and had to wear a different color uniform to identify her as such, Morales said. She was also placed in solitary confinement for over a month before she was transferred to another detention facility.

Six weeks ago, Morales’ mother was deported back to Chihuahua where she must remain for 20 years, because those who have been deported once before and then attempt to reenter the United States within a period of “inadmissibility” automatically trigger a longer ban.

Advocates have told Rewire that transfers to other facilities and solitary confinement are common tactics used by both detention and ICE officers to retaliate against those who go on strike.

During the time of the hunger strike, ICE denied allegations that it was retaliating against detainees in the form of transfers and solitary confinement. A spokesperson said in a statement to Rewire that it “routinely transfers detainees to other facilities for various reasons, including bed-space availability or to provide greater access to specialized services needed by particular detainees.” The spokesperson added that Hutto “does not have solitary confinement areas.”

As Mother’s Day approaches, Morales told Rewire that her head is heavy with thoughts of her mother. The chance they will be able to see each other anytime soon is slim. If her mom attempts to reenter the United States a third time and is caught, she will be permanently barred. Morales is a DACA recipient, which means she qualified for an immigration policy put into place by President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who entered the country before their 16th birthday and before June 2007 to receive a work permit and exemption from deportation renewable every two years (but for only as long as the DACA program is in place). It also means Morales is unable to travel outside of the United States unless there is an emergency, and for obvious reasons, those are not the conditions under which she wants to see her mother.

“We can’t see my mom for 20 years and there’s literally nothing we can do,” Morales told Rewire. “I can’t go to Mexico. The only way I can go is if something were to happen to my mom, and I pray I don’t have to go in that situation. And honestly, I would worry if the [Border Patrol] would let me return to the U.S. even though I’d have my paperwork in order. I’ve heard that happens. If you’re in my situation, everything is so risky and I can’t take those risks. I have three children. My youngest child has health issues and he needs medication. My second child suffers from tumors and he needs yearly check-ups. I can’t risk my status in the U.S. to go back.”

Like her mother, Morales is a domestic abuse survivor and she is upset by how immigration laws have impacted her family and offer little recourse to women who are attempting to escape violence. If nothing else, she said, this anger has moved her to be more politically active. Not only has she started a campaign to get Hutto shut down, but she is doing interviews and other activities to shine a light on how the U.S. immigration system further traumatizes survivors of domestic violence, the mental health issues that arise when being forced to navigate such a “horrible” system, and the family separation that has become a natural byproduct of it all.

“I don’t think Americans know what this does to our families or our communities,” Morales said. “I wonder a lot that if people knew what happened to our families, if they would even care. Moms [are] in detention for years just for trying to give their kids a better life. Parents [are] being deported and killed and their children have to be raised by other people. Do people even care?”

The Morales Family

Morales and her sister are working together to pay for bi-weekly psychiatrist sessions in Mexico for their mom, who is struggling with being separated from her only support system and who Morales strongly believes was severely traumatized by her experiences at Hutto.

“She can’t work; she can’t reintegrate herself into society. She can’t leave the house by herself; she can’t be in the house by herself. After being detained, my mom was treated so bad that that I think she started to believe she deserved it. My grandma says my mom can’t sleep at night, she paces. My grandpa asks her what’s wrong and she just says she feels like she’s suffocating. She can’t calm down. She has a lot of anxiety, a lot of depression. She’s different than she used to be,” Morales said.

The Impact of Immigration Policies on Families

Wendy Cervantes is vice president of immigration and child rights at First Focus, one of the few children’s advocacy organizations in the country to focus on immigrant families. Cervantes told Rewire that if adults, much like Morales’ mom, struggle mightily with family separation and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from trauma experienced in their countries of origin and exacerbated by navigating the U.S. immigration system, what must it be like for children?

While it’s certainly true that all immigrant families fear family separation, the challenges faced by mixed-status families like Morales’ are unique. “Mixed status” is in reference to a family comprised of people with different citizenship statuses. A parent, for example, may be undocumented, but their children are American citizens or are “DACA-mented.”

A report from Human Impact Partners, Family Unity, Family Health, found that “nationwide, an estimated 4.5 million children who are U.S. citizens by birth live in families where one or more of their parents are undocumented.” And when deportations occur on the scale that they have under the Obama administration, not only do they separate families, but they have overwhelming an effect on the health and well-being of children. Besides being more apt to suffer poverty, diminished access to food and health care, and limited educational opportunities, children suffer from fear and anxiety about the possible detainment or deportation of their family members. This leads to poor health, behavioral, and educational outcomes, and sometimes results in shorter lifespans, according to Family Unity, Family Health.

In 2012, Colorlines reported that about 90,000 undocumented parents of American citizen children were deported each year. The number has declined since then. In 2013, government data showed it was 72,410, but the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) only documents the number of parents with children who are citizens, not cases in which parents with undocumented children are deported.

“If a kid has to go back to a violent country they’ve never been with their deported parent or if they have to stay behind without a parent or go into the child welfare system, none of it is ideal,” Cervantes told Rewire. “The constant fear your parent will be detained or deported has very large consequences on children, who are showing signs of PTSD at younger and younger ages. The immigration system can really take a kid’s childhood away from them.”

Who Will Address Their Trauma?

The American citizen or DACA-mented children of undocumented parents suffer from things like anxiety and depression because of fears their parents will be detained or deported, Cervantes told Rewire. Furthermore, there are well over one million undocumented children in the United States and to her knowledge, there are no services provided for these children to cope with their trauma.

According to the American Psychological Association, “research indicates that unaccompanied refugee minors experience greater risk of mental illness than general populations.” Based on work she’s done with unaccompanied minors from Central America, Cervantes said the levels of PTSD in these children is “on another level,” which is part of the reason why she said she’s so appalled by the administration’s aggressive approach to the Central American asylum-seeking population, which she said is greatly lacking in empathy.

“I’ve met unaccompanied kids who have told me horrendous stories. They witness horrible things on their journey here, but they were also escaping horrible things in their country of origin. An 8-year-old witnessing a girl he knew from his neighborhood getting gang-raped as part of a gang initiation and seeing his best friend getting beheaded by a gang on his way to school,” Cervantes told Rewire. “How many years of serious counseling and professional help would it take for an adult to be OK after seeing such violence? Now consider we’re talking about a child. It’s so disturbing, and then these same kids get placed in facilities that are like jails. How are they expected to function?”

While counseling is offered in detention, those services have been highly criticized by pediatricians, therapists, and advocates as inadequate at best, especially considering that the counselors in the facilities often only speak English. It’s also important to note, Cervantes said, that these services are only offered while the child or parent is detained. Once they’re released, there isn’t a clear federal program that offer assistance to directly address their trauma.

Rather than sitting around and hoping a program will eventually be created, advocates are currently working on gathering a team of psychiatrists to visit detention centers and assess the mental health services offered. Next week, First Focus will also be launching a TV and radio campaign about family separation spanning eight states, using donated airtime valued at $1 million.

Over the years as she’s worked in immigration, Cervantes is routinely surprised by how little most Americans seem to know about how the immigration system actually works and the very real ways things like detainment and deportation rip families apart, traumatizing people of all ages. She told Rewire that she hopes the upcoming campaign humanizes the issue and helps people understand that family separation isn’t a rarity and that it happens in every community in every state.

“I’m actually very disturbed by so much of the immigration process, especially how we treat families who are seeking asylum and who have risked their lives. I have to believe that if Americans came to understand this, they’d be disturbed too,” Cervantes said. “I just wish I knew why we can’t be compassionate to people who really need our compassion.”

UPDATE: This piece has been updated to include new details about the First Focus program, including that the campaign will span eight states, up from three.

Analysis Human Rights

The Troubling Case of a ‘Fortunate’ Immigrant Seeking Asylum

Tina Vasquez

To her immigration attorney, Nicole Ramos, M’s case is troubling because like many of her clients, M did exactly what she was supposed to do in accordance with U.S. law. But still, her rights were trampled on.

“M” is deeply familiar with the brutal nature of the U.S. immigration system. After waiting in line for more than 30 hours at the San Ysidro Port of Entry to enter the United States from Tijuana, and being held at an immigration facility for almost two weeks, she was released from San Diego’s Otay Mesa Detention Center on April 11.

To her immigration attorney, Nicole Ramos, M’s case is troubling because like many of her clients, M did exactly what she was supposed to do in accordance with U.S. law. But still, Ramos noted, her rights were trampled on.

M, whose name is being withheld to protect her privacy, is considered one of the “lucky ones” (when compared to other immigrants’ cases) for having an attorney who can advocate on her behalf. But even having an attorney couldn’t protect her from inappropriate and abusive behavior that her legal advocates say she experienced while attempting to return to the United States, where she had lived for over two and a half decades before leaving for Mexico to visit a fatally ill parent.

M’s case echoes findings in a new Human Rights Watch report about trans women in detention that suggested the U.S. immigration system often further traumatizes an already vulnerable population.

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Multiple Traumas

Though Rewire was unable to speak to M directly, her attorney explained in an interview last month that M was smuggled by traffickers into the United States from Mexico 25 years ago. As a transgender teenager, M was the victim of multiple sexual assaults, but she was able to escape her traffickers and build a life in San Diego and, eventually, in Los Angeles.

According to Ramos, M received word last year from relatives in Mexico that her mother was gravely ill and dying. Despite being undocumented and unsure of how she would return to the United States, M sold her belongings to pay for her trip to say goodbye to her mother.

M knew it would be a difficult trip, her attorney explained to Rewire, but what she didn’t anticipate was the response from her own family concerning her gender identity. M’s appearance had changed a great deal during her years in the United States, something her family and those in the local community did not respond well to. According to Ramos, M was “pretty much chased out of town.”

“It was not a safe environment for her,” Ramos, who is based in Tijuana, told Rewire. M’s family “basically disowned her, with some family members becoming physically aggressive toward her. She tried to stay at a niece’s and later at a sister’s, but M began receiving threats from men in the area who were known in the neighborhood for targeting members of the LGBTQ community, and trans women in particular.”

To escape from her relatives after an unexpectedly short visit, M left her mother’s town in the middle of the night, hiding under a blanket in a borrowed truck, according to Ramos. A family member drove her to the nearest bus station so M could take a bus to Tijuana.

While staying in Tijuana, M faced more violence and transphobia, Ramos told Rewire. She was repeatedly turned down for housing, she was verbally abused by a therapist from whom she sought treatment, and she was threatened with assault by a bus driver.

“She was in Mexico since last May and she came to me for help at the end of December because it just became too much for her,” Ramos said. “Every time she left her house, she was harassed or threatened. Her bus driver threatening her was the last straw.”

Ramos agreed to help M apply for asylum status in the United States, which would allow her to stay in the country until her claim could be fully evaluated by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, since she would potentially face persecution should she return to her country of origin.

There are two ways to request asylum: Migrants can apply within a year of being in the United States, though one in five fail to file their application within that timeframe due to language barriers or lack of legal information or resources, among other reasons. Failure to do so puts them at risk for deportation. For those outside the United States, migrants fleeing violence can present themselves at the border or a port of entry and request asylum. There are more than 300 land, air, and sea ports where people and goods can enter the country, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

However, there are many challenges to getting an asylum claim approved. For asylum seekers whose claims aren’t deemed legitimate, because for example, they can’t prove their identity, they are deported. But even if the process goes smoothly, an asylum seeker will spend an average of 111 days in a detention center. After a “credible fear” interview with an asylum officer, in which they share personal details about their case and why they will be in danger if they are forced to return to their country of origin, they will be held in detention while they await their hearing in immigration court.

Parole” can be requested, allowing the asylum seeker to avoid a detention center stay, but only if they can verify their identify; if they have family or other contacts in the area; and if they can post a bond, which ranges from $1,500 to $10,000, depending on various factors.

Before accompanying her to the San Ysidro Port of Entry, where M would present herself and request asylum, Ramos explained all of this to M, as she explains it to all of her clients. What Ramos couldn’t prepare M for, she said, was the verbal abuse from CBP officers and their refusal to provide M with food for more than 30 hours. Upon being presented with a letter from Ramos that detailed M’s disabilities and special needs, a CBP officer at the port told M she “wasted her money on an attorney” and that “the letter doesn’t mean shit,” Ramos explained to Rewire.

“I highlighted [in her letter] that [M] has mental health issues, cognitive disabilities; that she has a seizure disorder. She is entitled to special protections because of her mental health issues. I made all of this known, according to [CBP’s] policies, but none of that mattered,” said Ramos: M was still met with disdain and verbal abuse by CBP officers.

M’s experience at the port led Ramos to contact Mitra Ebadolahi, staff attorney of the San Diego ACLU’s Border Litigation Project, which works to “document, investigate, and litigate” human and civil rights abuses in an effort to hold CBP more accountable.

In a complaint filed by the Border Litigation Project to CBP on March 23, Ebadolahi outlined the “unprofessional and abusive comments made” by an officer to M and how officers did not offer M food for 34 hours while she waited in line for processing, something the staff attorney said is unconstitutional and a violation of CBP’s own policies.

Ebadolahi wrote that asylum seekers must wait in line to present their claims for many hours—and sometimes even days. However, a CBP supervisor had assured Ramos that “CBP officers fed individuals awaiting asylum processing three times per day.”

Ramos visited M nearly 24 hours after she had escorted her to the port of entry. She spoke to port staff again about why her client wasn’t being fed and received different responses. One officer said it was M’s own responsibility to bring food to the port. Later in the day, a CBP supervisor named Chief Knox told Ramos that CBP “was not obligated to feed people on the Mexican side,” which Ebadolahi wrote is a “nonsensical” statement “given the fact that CBP officers line up asylum seekers awaiting processing in the U.S.-controlled area of the port.”

This conflicting information indicates CBP officers are not properly trained, wrote Ebadolahi, “or worse—that there is an intentional practice of obfuscating what is required of the agency so that members of the public are confused and can’t assert their rights. Either one of those things is unacceptable.”

This is not the first time the ACLU has filed a complaint against CBP. In 2012, the ACLU Southern Border Affiliates, along with other ACLU programs, demanded a federal investigation into abuse allegations of individuals, including U.S. citizens and legal residents, by CBP agents at ports of entry along the United States-Mexico border. The complaint highlighted 11 cases in which CBP appeared to disregard the civil and human rights of individuals crossing the border in violation of the U.S. Constitution, international law, and agency guidelines. Ebadolahi told Rewire no investigation has taken place.

San Diego’s ACLU Border Litigation Project also hasn’t received a response from local CBP authorities regarding the complaint they filed on behalf of M. The organization is now working on escalating the complaint to national CBP authorities.

In a statement to Rewire post-publication, a CBP spokesperson said that the federal agency “intends to respond to the ACLU this week.” The spokesperson added: “CBP is committed to providing appropriate care for those in our custody, and takes allegations that we have not met those standards of care seriously.”

Ramos has accompanied multiple clients to the port and each time, she said, she has been shocked by the behavior of CBP officers and what appears to be either a complete lack of understanding of laws and regulations, or outright attempts to dissuade migrants from seeking asylum. Once, while helping an unaccompanied minor fleeing violence in Central America, Ramos said an officer was incredulous that the child was presenting himself as an asylum seeker, saying, “You don’t apply for asylum here.” But asylum seekers can present themselves at the border or ports of entry and request a credible fear interview.

M had her paperwork in order, had an attorney, and lawfully presented herself at the port to request asylum. Still, CBP officials violated her rights, according to her attorney.

One of the “Fortunate” Ones

After 34 hours of waiting to be processed, M was then held in San Ysidro in CBP custody for three days. While there, Ramos said M was subjected to verbal abuse from officers who mocked her transgender identity, with one officer passing her cell and saying, “What’s the story with this one,” according to M’s attorney. Eventually, M was transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody at San Diego’s Otay Mesa Detention Center, where M says the trauma continued, explained Ramos.

M was held in a cell with men for 12 hours as she was processed into Otay Mesa, with one detainee staring at her aggressively for the entire 12 hours, according to her attorney. After processing, M was placed in medical isolation for reasons Ramos said she could not share out of respect for M’s privacy. Later, M was brought into the shower area with men. Though she was given her own private stall, male detainees showered nearby, Ramos said.

“She began experiencing flashbacks and felt like she was going to be raped again,” Ramos said. “She felt helpless because the officers were not taking her concerns seriously. It was incredibly traumatizing.”

Ramos’ biggest concern was that once released from medical isolation, M would be placed with men in detention.

“I made numerous pleas to ICE via email and via telephone saying this woman cannot be placed with men. She’s the survivor of multiple sexual assaults at the hands of men because she’s transgender,” Ramos told Rewire. “I literally said, ‘Please give me assurance that she will not be placed with men.’”

An employee at Otay Mesa told Ramos the facility doesn’t have a unit for transgender people, which ICE confirmed in an email statement to Rewire, so once out of isolation, if she wasn’t released from detention, M would be placed with male detainees or in “protective custody.” According to Solitary Watch, involuntary protective custody is “especially common” for LGBTQ individuals and other “at-risk prisoners who live in indefinite isolation despite having done nothing wrong.”

And yet, according to ICE’s own policies, detaining trans women with men should not be a standard practice. In July 2015, ICE released the Transgender Care Memorandum, new guidelines pertaining to transgender detainees in detention, including how officials should assign individuals to facilities based on their gender identity. But Ramos has heard from a trans woman in Otay Mesa that trans women are still detained alongside men.

“It doesn’t appear ICE’s new policies are being followed,” Ramos said. “When I called the facility and spoke with a supervisor, he explained that if [M] still has male genitalia, then she will be placed with male detainees and any special, protective custody would have to come through ICE. Trans detainees shouldn’t have to choose between going into protective custody and being on lockdown for 23 hours a day or being placed in a shark’s tank.”

Human Rights Watch’s report, Do You See How Much I’m Suffering Here?: Abuse Against Transgender Women in US Immigration Detention, sheds light on how M’s experience is not unusual for undocumented transgender immigrants. Based on 28 interviews with transgender women held or being held in U.S. immigration detention between 2011 and 2015, the report details the abuses that transgender women suffer in immigration detention and the U.S. government’s inadequate efforts to address this abuse.

According to the report, it appears as if ICE isn’t prioritizing the needs of trans women in detention despite the fact that, by its own count, there are approximately 65 transgender women in its custody on any given day.

From the report:

In early 2016, the US government appeared to move away from holding transgender women in men’s facilities and began transferring many of them to a segregated unit at the Santa Ana City Jail that exclusively houses transgender women. However, at time of writing, ICE officials were unable to state whether the agency had abandoned the practice of housing transgender women with men, and they had not announced any concrete plans to do so. Under ICE policy, immigration officials may still elect to house transgender women in men’s facilities—placing them at exceptionally high risk of sexual assault and other kinds of trauma and abuse. Others may be kept indefinitely in conditions of isolation simply because authorities cannot or will not devise any safe and humane way to keep them in detention.

Even within the segregated detention unit, trans women are not safe, according to the report. Several who were detained inside Santa Ana City Jail told Human Rights Watch that they were “regularly subjected to humiliating and abusive strip searches by male guards; have not been able to access necessary medical services, including hormone replacement therapy, or have faced harmful interruptions to or restrictions to that care; and have endured unreasonable use of solitary confinement.”

Ebadolahi told Rewire current U.S. immigration policies only subject traumatized, vulnerable asylum seekers to more trauma—and M is one of the more “fortunate” ones. After successfully passing her credible fear interview, M was released from detention on April 11.

“We’re talking about a transgender woman who is a survivor of multiple rapes, who has post-traumatic stress disorder, who has disabilities, including a seizure disorder, who has gone through a lifetime of hurt, and for who the simple act of appearing at the port of entry and applying for asylum took an enormous effort—and despite all of these things, she is considered one of the fortunate ones because she has a pro-bono lawyer working on her behalf,” Ebadolahi said.

“How M and her attorney were treated at the port of entry and … in detention, is unconstitutional, unethical, and outrageous. We shouldn’t tolerate it. This treatment serves absolutely no legitimate, government purpose and only serves to further traumatize and marginalize very vulnerable people. No one should be subject to this kind of abuse. This has to stop.”

UPDATE: This piece has been updated to include a statement from CBP’s spokesperson.