When she arrived in El Paso on February 10, 2016, Mariana Ibarra-Morán had just endured a harrowing ordeal. She’d fled Mexico after she was beaten and held against her will in a Juarez prison cell for two days at the hands of her abusive boyfriend, a Sinaloa cartel member. Ibarra-Morán was only released, bloodied and bruised, after her family went to the press. The prosecutors she turned to for help erased evidence and interrogated her for nearly 12 hours without food or water, her attorney said in court, according to documents obtained by the Observer.
Thirty minutes after she was released by prosecutors, Ibarra-Morán and her 6-month-old son went to the international bridge connecting Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, seeking asylum. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released Ibarra-Morán on parole, then detained her during her first check-in. Ibarra-Morán was separated from her son and detained at the El Paso Processing Center for six months. Her requests for parole were repeatedly denied, despite the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) office finding that her asylum claim was credible. In the end, the country where Ibarra-Morán sought refuge from cartel violence and state corruption turned out to be a place of more suffering.
“I’m confronted with the same abuse I was fleeing,” Ibarra-Morán told the Observer.
Ibarra-Morán’s experience is not an isolated incident. A new report published Wednesday by the Borderland Immigration Council (BIC) highlights more than 120 cases of asylum-seekers and other immigrants who were split from their families, detained despite a credible fear of persecution or torture and denied their legal rights to due process and access to an attorney. Immigration authorities rely on a broad legal principle called “prosecutorial discretion” to decide whether to detain asylum-seekers. The report illuminates how ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials in West Texas misuse this discretion to flout agency policy and violate basic human rights.
“Time and again, people said that they are deterred and dissuaded from seeking asylum,” said Theodora Simon, associate director for advocacy and leadership development with Hope Border Institute, an organization that helped form the BIC and oversaw the report. “All of these roadblocks are put up in front of them.”
According to the report, border agents employ intimidation and humiliation tactics to deter migrants at ports of entry, fail to screen for credible fear, detain asylum-seekers for prolonged periods and often deny parole requests. The BIC also found that asylum-seekers in the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector, which has the country’s lowest asylum approval rate at about 3 percent, are frequently placed in expedited removal proceedings and deported without a court appearance or an opportunity to present their claim.
Ibarra-Morán said she was humiliated and abused by guards during her time in detention. Linda Rivas, executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, said that’s a common experience among detainees. Immigrants in prolonged detention are often dehumanized and mistreated by officials, which leads to mental health issues that aren’t properly treated by staff. Detained asylum-seekers also face barriers to legal aid, she said, and find it far more difficult to pursue their cases than if they were on parole.
Prolonged detention “break[s] the spirit of the asylum-seeker,” Rivas said. “Many attorneys can share those sentiments where you see an asylum-seeker who would rather go back to certain death than be degraded in such a way.”
Ibarra-Morán’s asylum claim was denied and she was released in October on a temporary basis. She and her now-1-year-old son live in the El Paso region under ICE’s watchful eye. She’s outfitted with an ankle monitor and is subject to home visits and telephone check-ins until her deportation officer determines it is “safe” for her to return to Mexico.
She feels isolated, afraid to leave the house. “I can’t have a normal life,” she said.
Advocates say the abuses of discretion escalated in January 2016, after leadership turned over at the ICE El Paso field office. Before the end of 2015, ICE officials there would largely follow the 2009 U.S. Department of Homeland Security asylum parole guidance, which directed agents to release individuals who’ve been found to have a credible fear of persecution or torture. That means women fleeing physical and sexual violence, as Ibarra-Morán did, would be paroled.
“In January, that just stopped,” said BIC member Jessie Miles, an El Paso-based immigration attorney and adviser on the report.
ICE began to detain more asylum-seekers on the Western border and reject more parole requests. It’s a pattern that first emerged in South Texas: In April 2015, more than 40 women held at the Karnes County Residential Center outside of San Antonio went on a hunger strike to protest ICE’s accelerated detention of asylum-seekers.
Miles said her clients in detention “learn very quickly that everybody stays.”
The BIC developed a list of recommendations for ICE in order to repair what the coalition sees as a culture of disregard for human dignity. They want leadership to address the lack of transparency and accountability, and utilize discretion in order to advance humanitarian claims.
ICE did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
President Donald Trump has signed executive orders ramping up detentions and greatly expanding the pool of migrants who can be deported without a court hearing. Immigration officials are directed under Trump’s order to reduce the number of credible fear grants to asylum-seekers and limit the number of immigrants paroled out of detention while their cases progress. Recent ICE raids in at least nine states, including Texas, suggest that more asylum-seekers will be deported back to violence.