Nearly nine thousand asylum seekers sit in immigration prisons, despite having shown credible or reasonable fear of persecution: the initial immigration decision that allows them to proceed with their asylum cases in court. They sit in prison for months or years, generating enormous profits for the private prison systems that hold most of them. They sit, separated from families and often far removed from the courts where their cases will be held, from family members in the United States, and from lawyers who might help them prepare their cases—because the Trump administration policy is to punish them for asking for asylum.
Asylum seekers who cross the southern border between checkpoints and look for a Border Patrol officer to ask for help are put in prison. Administration policy is that making asylum seekers miserable will deter others from seeking asylum, and making them miserable enough may induce them to abandon their claim for asylum and risk the dangers back home rather than remaining indefinitely imprisoned here.
Asylum seekers who wait in Mexico for months for one of the few-and-far-between opportunities to “do it the right way” by asking for help at a border checkpoint are questioned and then sent back to Mexico to wait months for their U.S. immigration court hearing. As bad as immigration prisons can be, many asylum seekers plead to go to a U.S. prison rather than back to the dangers facing them in Mexico.
Keeping asylum seekers in prison for years is as unjust as sending them back to the violence they fled or forcing them to wait in Mexico between U.S. court dates.
Danger Back Home
Reports of deaths of asylum seekers who return home include young men killed in El Salvador and Camila Díaz Córdova, a trans woman deportee who was killed in El Salvador in February. Laura was deported back to Mexico and then murdered by the violent ex-partner she had fled. Juan Coronilla-Guerrero was kidnapped and killed after being deported back to Mexico. Jimmy Aldaoud was deported to Iraq, a country where he had never lived and where he feared persecution as a member of a small Christian minority. He died 63 days later, not from persecution, but because he could not get the insulin he needed as a diabetic.
These cases are unusual because they have been reported. Most of the time, we hear nothing at all of the fate of asylum seekers who are forced back to the countries and dangers they fled.
Maureen Meyer, the Washington Office on Latin America’s (WOLA) senior associate for Mexico and migrant rights, told Rewire that “There are reported cases of people being deported back to Central American and murdered, but there’s no reason to think this doesn’t routinely happen with Mexican deportees as well.“
Danger in Mexico
One news report after another tells of asylum seekers’ fear of waiting in Mexico and of those who have been attacked or kidnapped. Victor and Maria and their two sons were kidnapped immediately after being dropped off in Mexico after their first U.S. court date. They were held by their kidnappers with up to 10 other victims, including a Nicaraguan family that also had two small children.
Apart from the criminal threats facing them, asylum seekers sent back to Mexico face life on the streets unless they are lucky enough to get a spot in overcrowded shelters.
In a stark illustration of the dangers asylum seekers face in Mexico, a priest who directed a migrant shelter was himself kidnapped August 3 and has not been heard from since then.
Prison in the United States
More than two dozen adults have died while in custody of one or another of the branches of U.S. immigration under the Trump administration. Others, like the asylum-seeker identified by Voice of San Diego as C.O., suffer from medical neglect in immigration prisons. C.O. fled Guatemala after an incident that left him suffering from severe headaches and sporadic bleeding from his eyes and ears as a result of a gunshot wound. At Otay Mesa immigration prison, his “medical” care was ibuprofen and solitary confinement for five weeks. His attorney says C.O. has no criminal history and did everything right, crossing at a border checkpoint. He is still in prison, denied bond and told to just wait for a hearing.
U.S. (mis)treatment of asylum seekers poses a Catch-22 of the deadliest kind: danger back home, danger in Mexico, or prison in the United States.