In late February, a group of Cameroonian women held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the T. Don Hutto Residential Facility, a women’s center in Texas run by private prison company CoreCivic, staged a sit-in in front of the facility’s clinic to protest their prolonged detention and lack of medical care.
Jasmine, a Cameroonian asylum-seeker who had been held at the facility since September of last year, said there were “no health services.”
“You’ll be sick, but people will say you are pretending,” she said. (Like other detained women interviewed for this story, she is identified by a pseudonym to protect her from retaliation from ICE.) Sarah, another Cameroonian asylum-seeker, said she had developed anemia while in detention and was given nondescript drugs that didn’t help. “It’s not changed. They have done no checks to see what’s the problem, and I’ve been living with that for three months, four months,” she said.
The women decided they’d had enough. Some of them drafted an open letter, and a group of more than 40 joined the sit-in. “The Cameroonians protested, saying, ‘We don’t want to live here any longer. The suffering is too much,’” said Jasmine.
A month later, the women have been separated, scattered by ICE to detention centers in the South where they are cut off from lawyers, support networks, and the group that had joined together in protest. And ICE is still refusing to consider their release — even in the midst of a global pandemic that could have deadly ramifications if it spreads in detention.
Jasmine said that if she’s going to be deported, she wishes that ICE would at least speed up the process, rather than leave her in detention.
“You don’t want to give us parole, let us go home. Give us court dates so that we can attend our court proceedings,” she told The Intercept by phone from the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center in Basile, Louisiana, where she is now being held.
Earlier this month, The Intercept reported that migrants in various detention centers in South Texas were being denied parole as a result of the “transit bar,” a Trump administration policy that says migrants cannot access asylum if they did not try to first obtain it in any of the countries they crossed on their way to the U.S. Critics have dubbed it an asylum ban, due to its wide application. By default, it makes most non-Mexican asylum-seekers ineligible and forces them to apply for lesser forms of protection, such as withholding of removal or protections under the Convention Against Torture.
In denying parole to anyone subject to the transit bar, ICE seems to be relying on the logic that they are no longer asylum-seekers, who generally qualify for humanitarian release. Immigration lawyers have argued that such blanket denials are illegal since parole decisions are supposed to be made on a case-by-case basis.
Hutto was one of the detention centers where migrants were subjected to the blanket denials. The facility was holding a group of over 100 women from Cameroon, a country which has recently seen an exodus of refugees escaping an internecine conflict partially set off by U.S. intervention.
After the protest on February 24, in apparent retaliation, ICE transferred more than 160 Cameroonian women to separate detention centers in Texas and Louisiana (including some who had not been part of the protest.) The transfers began shortly after the sit-in, beginning with 47 women sent to Laredo Detention Center in Laredo, Texas, on February 27. Sarah was among this first group and said that the agents who moved her “didn’t say anything, they just chained us and transferred us,” in vans with their hands, feet, and stomach chained together.
About a week later, 120 more women were divided into three groups and sent to South Louisiana, Jackson Parish Correctional Center (also in Louisiana), and Adams County Correctional Center in Mississippi. Such a transfer is more than a geographic move — it forces a change of venue for the detainees’ removal proceedings, canceling already-scheduled hearing dates, and putting them in areas where the courts are actually tougher and legal representation is harder to come by.
Women who were transferred, as well as attorneys and other representatives, told The Intercept that parole is still not being granted and that the transfers have plunged them into greater uncertainty about the state of their legal cases and future in the United States.
Marcel, a Cameroonian who arrived in the U.S. in 2016 and was granted asylum, has been trying to get his cousin Sophie released from Jackson Parish. “All the rape and killing in Cameroon — that caused a lot of people to be displaced, both internally and externally. She happened to be one of those people displaced externally,” he said.
“We would be done with this all. And now she’s in Louisiana, away from her counsel … so she really is being denied the right to have an attorney.”
Sophie arrived in Ecuador and made her way north through Central America and Mexico before arriving at the U.S. border around December. Marcel and other members of Sophie’s family live in Indiana and unsuccessfully attempted to get her paroled while she was still in Hutto. “So far, we have been able to establish the fact that we can accommodate her and give her some financial assistance and establish her identity. I don’t know why [ICE] is holding them,” he said. If Sophie was able to leave detention and start working, it would help her family afford a lawyer and make a stronger case for her to stay, he added.
“To raise five, six, seven thousand dollars for a lawyer is not easy. … I need to pay my bills, I can’t really put in a lot,” he said.
Jasmine had a hearing date to plead her case for protections set for April 21, at which point she would have been in detention for seven months. But since the move, she hasn’t received a new court date. “It has been postponed, but it’s indefinite. We don’t even have any information yet about the hearing. … They’re saying our documents have to be transferred here [from Hutto],” she said. She has not been able to get an attorney. “I tried some pro bonos, to no avail. I don’t have any. I’ve been trying to have one, I struggle to have one, but I don’t have any.”
Denise Gilman, director of the Immigration Clinic at University of Texas School of Law, is having an inverse problem. She has a client who was moved from Texas to Louisiana and is unsure whether her team will be able to keep representing her. The client had a final hearing scheduled for March 25. “We would be done with this all,” Gilman said. “And now she’s in Louisiana, away from her counsel. We cannot, given the communication difficulties, prepare her for a final hearing … so she really is being denied the right to have an attorney.” Gilman is hoping to submit a new parole request but hasn’t even been told who to send it to.
Deborah Alemu, a community organizer who has been in touch with a number of women transferred from Hutto, said that “some of the women in Laredo have resubmitted for parole and been denied a second time,” adding that ICE had been asking detainees to prove they had close family in the U.S. in order to be considered. Jasmine also said that she had heard “if you don’t have a direct family member here, like brother, sister, father, mother, you cannot be eligible for parole.” In fact, while ICE may take into account whether a detainee has financial support or somewhere to go if paroled, there’s no statutory or regulatory requirement that they must have a nuclear family member in the U.S.
An ICE spokesperson told The Intercept that “in general, parole requests are evaluated on a case-by-case basis based on the totality of the circumstances.”
Access to humanitarian release has taken on added significance as the world grapples with the pandemic caused by the new coronavirus, an aggressive pathogen that is especially deadly for those with preexisting conditions, like Sarah and others in detention. ICE ramped up arrests earlier this year just as the virus was spreading and last week confirmed the first case of Covid-19 — the disease caused by the virus — among its detainee population. Advocates have been calling for ICE to release all detainees it is not required to hold by law, which is the majority of the roughly 37,000 people in custody.
“All these people have the prerequisites for parole release, and they should be released because the government has no ability to keep them safe right now.”
The ICE New Orleans office was the subject of a lawsuit, Mons v. McAleenan, which resulted in a judge ordering that ICE evaluate parole requests on a case-by-case basis (for the second time, as he had already issued a similar order in a prior lawsuit). Victoria Mesa, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said her team is getting ready to file a preliminary injunction request seeking to force ICE to release all of the detainees it can from its Louisiana detention centers.
“Our argument is very straightforward. All these people have the prerequisites for parole release, and they should be released because the government has no ability to keep them safe right now,” she said, pointing to the fact that Louisiana detention centers have dealt with various outbreaks of infectious disease recently. “The flu moves from dorm to dorm and then they go back to the same dorm again. So imagine that — they don’t even have control over the spread of the flu. What can we expect with Covid-19?”
Jasmine said that she and other detainees “are being provided with clothes and face masks, and being quarantined by dormitory. … We stayed inside, got our food inside,” said Jasmine.
Mesa’s team has been taking declarations from other women in the same dorms. According to her, they have described guards coming into the facilities straight from outside, with no special controls, at-risk women with health conditions not moved away, and difficulty in accessing legal counsel on account of strict limitations on movement.
The ICE spokesperson said that “ICE has taken extensive precautions to limit the potential spread of COVID-19,” including testing and screening of detainees, visitors, and staff at all facilities.