After her husband was murdered, María Elena de Loera feared she would be next. She brought her daughter, who was 5 at the time, to the El Paso port of entry and requested asylum. It was granted, though only for a year.
An immigration court did not renew their asylum status. But, thanks to timely legal counsel, Ms. De Loera applied and received humanitarian parole and avoided deportation. Her daughter, 8-year-old Alía, is hospitalized with cancer.
“For many years, María was able to benefit from the humanity of individuals within the immigration system. But that is gone now.”
Six months ago, Ms. De Loera had to face a judge again as her humanitarian parole reached its expiration date. If immigrants are not granted a stay of deportation in court, they may be taken into custody immediately until they are deported. Ms. De Loera was afraid to leave her daughter alone in the United States. Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Tex., stood in her place during the hearing last August and her humanitarian parole was extended until Feb. 7.
“The doctors have told me that, in her current state, my daughter cannot handle additional stress,” Ms. De Loera said in Spanish, through tears. “I don’t know how to tell her that we are going to have to go through this process again.”
Ms. De Loera shared her story Jan. 18 before a crowded room at the University of Texas at El Paso. They had gathered for the release of the Hope Border Institute’s report on human rights violations by immigration agencies and officials in El Paso and southern New Mexico.
“For many years, María was able to benefit from the humanity of individuals within the immigration system. But that is gone now,” said Jessica Miles, an immigration lawyer working in El Paso, noting that Ms. De Loera case would have likely received a stay under the Obama administration. “Her family is a casualty of our immigration system.... When someone comes to us and says, ‘Please help me,’ and we throw them into prison, we’re criminalizing the innocent.”
“When someone comes to us and says, ‘Please help me,’ and we throw them into prison, we’re criminalizing the innocent.”
The Hope Border Institute, in partnership with the Borderland Immigration Council, reported on Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection and the immigration court practices in the region. Their findings are based on in-depth interviews with legal representatives of asylum seekers and observations made in the El Paso sector’s immigration courts. Researchers documented an increase in the use of family separation, the detention of pregnant women and the detention of asylum seekers.
Dylan Corbett, director of the Hope Border Institute, called such practices an “iron triangle of deterrence,” where asylum seekers are forced to choose between being separated from their family in detention or returning to face violence and persecution in their home countries. “It’s ugly, it’s un-American, and it needs to stop,” Mr. Corbett said.
“Separating fathers from families has been going on for a while,” according to Josiah Heyman, the director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso. “But now, even mothers are being separated from their children.”
Asylum seekers are forced to choose between being separated from their family in detention or returning to face violence in their home countries.
Mr. Heyman said such tactics seek to discourage individuals from making legal claims to enter the United States. It has become more challenging for individuals to articulate a credible fear of persecution, which is part of the asylum process. The El Paso court rarely grants asylum.
A Customs and Border Protection official responding to the report said the agency “has not changed any policies affecting asylum procedures.” U.S. Customs and Border Protection policies are based on U.S. and international law, which “allow people to seek asylum on the grounds that they are being persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, political beliefs or other factors,” he said in a statement to America.
“Every individual encountered who is a candidate for removal is asked if they have a fear of returning to their country,” the spokesperson said, adding that officers refer such individuals to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for an interview. In 2017, they referred nearly 55,000 for such interviews.
“Separating fathers from families has been going on for a while. But now, even mothers are being separated from their children.”
The agency “does not tolerate abuse of these policies,” he said. “Specific allegations that these policies have not been followed are thoroughly examined where sufficient information is provided to conduct a review.”
Yet according to Helen Kerwin, a lawyer with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the issues documented in the Hope Border Institute report are not uncommon in other parts of the country. President Trump’s executive orders on border security include expanding the use of detention and limits on asylum, according to the Center for Migration Studies. The courts, already saddled with a backlog of cases, are overwhelmed by the increase in interior enforcement. According to theTransaction Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, there are nearly 670,000 pending cases in immigration court.
Ms. Kerwin also said the enforcement measures have benefited organized crime: “Migration is big business. When we criminalize migration, we make it more profitable for traffickers.”
“Migration is big business. When we criminalize migration, we make it more profitable for traffickers.”
Migration will continue to be an issue, regardless of U.S. immigration enforcement, Mr. Heyman said. Last year, murders in Mexico hit a 20-year high, topping 23,000 in the first 11 months. The government in Guatemala is about to collapse, he said, noting that even their postal system shut down.
Yet the focus of U.S. policy is not on helping these countries; instead, “we are trying to dissuade people from migrating legally,” according to Mr. Heyman. He added that about half of those who arrive at the border are trying to enter legally through the ports of entry.
“It’s a fundamental question of our values,” Mr. Heyman said. “Are people who are fleeing threats to their lives welcomed into our country?”
Ms. De Loera, facing possible deportation on Feb. 7, believes that the answer will ultimately be “yes.” She remains hopeful there will be a solution for her and her daughter.
“I believe that God and that good people will help us,” she said. “I just want to stay until my daughter is well.”