Report after report—and court case after court case—show the U.S. government’s inhumane treatment of asylum seekers from around the world. That includes detention without bond, denial of medical care, and abuse by guards, especially in private prisons. Read Alejandra Barrera and Ajay Kumar’s stories and then take action to demand human rights protection for asylum seekers.
Alejandra Barrera, a transgender woman seeking asylum in the United States, was held in the “trans pod” of the Cibola detention center for more than a year and a half, the longest detention of anyone in the pod. During her time there, she became a leader in pointing out abuses by guards and denial of medical care to transgender immigrants in detention.
“In late June, twenty-nine detainees in the pod sent an open letter to a Phoenix-based advocacy group, Trans Queer Pueblo, reporting deficient medical care in the facility and abuse by its staff. The letter, which was written in Spanish, said that the medical staff did not provide proper treatment to individuals who are H.I.V.-positive, disabled, or in need of routine medical treatment….
“During Barrera’s initial asylum interview, a Department of Homeland Security official determined her to have a “credible fear” of persecution were she to return to her home country, El Salvador. Barrera also had a worsening medical condition, which was diagnosed when she arrived in detention….
“Before fleeing to the U.S., Barrera was sexually assaulted by members of the Salvadoran military and the transnational gang MS-13—which has roots in El Salvador—who targeted her based on her transgender identity and outspoken activism. Between 2013 and 2016, MS-13 members beat her five times, leaving scars on her face, scalp, and one of her legs. She told me that she loved her activist work, but, amid constant danger, and unable to find protection in local law enforcement, she feared for her life.”
Despite her medical condition and despite the judge’s finding, ICE refused to release Barrera and immigration judges five times turned down her request for bond and parole to a waiting sponsor. Finally, after her lawyers filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court, Barrera was released on parole September 6.
While transgender asylum seekers face longer detention and worse medical care, immigration detention abuses affect other immigrants as well.
Ajay Kumar, a farmer and political activist, fled threats in his native India, embarking on a two-month odyssey that took him from India to Ecuador and then through Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Honduras, and Mexico. Crossing into the United States, he asked for asylum, and was put into immigration detention, where he met with disrespect, ridicule, and immigration officials who spoke to him and other Hindi speakers only in English and Spanish. After punitive stints in solitary confinement, a hunger strike, painful force-feeding, and medical neglect, he was near death when ICE finally agreed to release him on bond, with an ankle monitor.
“In September, the Board of Immigration Appeals agreed to remand Kumar’s asylum case back to the immigration judge, concluding that the initial ruling, which judged Kumar’s testimony to be not credible, was “clearly erroneous.” Kumar’s case will be heard again, in December, by the same judge. His odds are not great—more than forty-one per cent of Indian asylum seekers were ordered to be deported from the United States last year, and the percentage is likely to be even higher this year. Still, he remains hopeful. When I asked him to reflect on how he had managed to last two months without food or water, he became thoughtful, noting that he had never considered the length of his strike before. He added, ‘I only thought, freedom or death—I’ll get one of the two.’”
Barrera and Kumar’s stories highlight two abuses in the immigration system: private prisons that deny medical care and allow abuse of immigrant prisoners and illegal government policies of denying parole or bond to all asylum seekers. Since July, the federal government is under court order to provide bond hearings to all asylum seekers.
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