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Haitian Asylum-Seekers Are Being Mistreated in ICE Detention

As the media moves on from the horrors of Del Rio, Haitian asylum-seekers allege brutal conditions in an ICE facility in New Mexico.

Protest at ICE Newark field office
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Haitian community leaders, immigrant advocates, and supporters gather at the Newark ICE field office in October.

It’s been over two months since as many as 15,000 Haitian asylum-seekers were forced to take shelter in an encampment underneath the international bridge in the borderlands of Del Rio, Texas. In September, harrowing images of Border Patrol agents on horseback, corralling and whipping a group of asylum-seekers as they waded across the Rio Grande, triggered widespread condemnation. Since then, advocates estimate the Biden administration has deported some 9,200 people who stayed at the Del Rio camp to Haiti. Others were forced back across the border into Mexico, where they are vulnerable to abuse by Mexican authorities and organized crime. A much smaller number were allowed into the United States to pursue their asylum claims.

As media attention has moved on from the spectacle at Del Rio, dozens of those Haitian asylum-seekers remain jailed in grueling conditions at the Torrance County Detention Facility in Estancia, New Mexico, about an hour southeast of Albuquerque. In November, several immigrant justice organizations (including the Haitian Bridge Alliance, the American Immigration Council, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, and Innovation Law Lab) filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties at the Department of Homeland Security over concerns of severe human rights and due process violations at Torrance.

Asylum-seekers say they have endured rampant medical neglect, were denied medication, served uncooked meat and inedible food, and subjected to other unsafe conditions that have contributed to their deteriorating physical and mental health. Many have heart, respiratory, and kidney issues. Some asylum-seekers have also reported getting skin rashes with a tingling and stinging sensation after taking showers and stomach aches after drinking the water provided in the facility. Many are experiencing depression, anxiety, and insomnia, according to Allegra Love, a pro-bono immigration attorney currently representing 43 of an estimated 80 Haitian asylum-seekers from the Del Rio camp now detained at Torrance. Love is with the El Paso Immigration Collaborative, which has done extensive legal work at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement jail.

“I feel very weak and hopeless,” one asylum-seeker said in a survey conducted by Love in mid-November. “I can’t sleep. I keep thinking about my pregnant wife that I left in Mexico,” another said.

Other people Love spoke to expressed similar angst: “I went through a lot to make it here, including having to sleep in forests, only to have to go through more suffering”; “I am fighting to not go back to Haiti. I had a lot of persecution in Haiti”; “I fear being deported to Haiti”; “I’m afraid I will die in the detention center.”

Inhumanity is a pattern at ICE jails across the United States. But conditions at Torrance—which is managed by the for-profit prison corporation CoreCivic—are particularly alarming. Earlier this year, the facility failed its annual government inspection due to chronic understaffing and unsanitary and unsafe conditions. It’s extremely rare for ICE jails, as horrific as they may be, to fail these inspections. “Why would the Biden administration choose to operate a place that can’t even meet the grossest of minimum standards to be custodians of people?” asked Love. “And then actively deny [asylum-seekers’] petitions to be released? There is no explanation except racism and a total lack of care for people’s human rights.” In May, several asylum-seekers sued CoreCivic after Torrance guards pepper-sprayed them for launching a peaceful hunger strike last year, protesting the lack of Covid-19 protections during a massive outbreak of infections. (ICE did not respond to a request for comment about conditions at Torrance.)

The Haitian asylum-seekers were taken to Torrance after the Del Rio camp was violently dismantled in late September, but it took weeks of pressure from advocates for ICE finally to grant some of them access to legal services. Love first met a group of the asylum-seekers for an in-person legal rights presentation in early November. She said she knew of at least four Haitians who were ordered deported by an immigration judge before they could get legal counsel and information about asylum. Their removal orders have since been appealed.

“If I don’t have an attorney I think that they can deport me. I don’t know what asylum is. I wasn’t allowed to speak,” a 25-year-old Haitian man detained at Torrance said in a statement released by advocates in early November (his name was withheld for fear of retaliation from ICE). “Nobody explained anything, and they just told me I was supposed to have an attorney. I don’t want to go back to Haiti. I can’t go back. My family member was killed and his house was burned. My mom has just been crying because I cannot go back. If I go back, I can’t even leave the airport.”

Love and other advocates have denounced ICE’s failure to provide translators and information about the asylum process in Haitian Creole. Love also said the agency has largely denied petitions for humanitarian parole and requests for release, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, in unusually rapid proceedings and without much explanation. Only one of the people she represents has been granted parole. Two others were released due to illness, she said. Another asylum-seeker Love represents was given an $8,000 bond.

Tens of thousands have fled Haiti over the years due to political instability, extreme poverty, violence, and the dire impacts of the climate crisis—conditions caused or worsened by U.S. policy and intervention. Many of the Haitians who arrived in Del Rio left home in the aftermath of the devastating 2010 earthquake and migrated to South America—mostly to Chile and Brazil, where visas were previously more accessible and there was an abundance of work. But anti-Blackness is also deeply rooted in the Latin American region, and through the years, it’s become much more difficult for Haitians to live at peace in countries like Chile, leaving them no option but to keep searching for safety and stability elsewhere. The trek north to the U.S., across multiple militarized borders in South and Central America and Mexico, is marked by traumatic violence, including stories of sexual assaults. But instead of compassion and dignity, Haitian asylum-seekers who reach the U.S. face further torture.

The agonizing conditions Haitian asylum-seekers are facing inside Torrance is an extension of this so-called “prevention through deterrence campaign that’s been enforced by bipartisan presidential administrations for decades to discourage asylum-seekers from even attempting to come to the U.S. Despite promising to be radically different from the Trump administration on immigration, Joe Biden has continued to embrace many of his predecessor’s inhumane policies, including Title 42, an obscure health law provision that has allowed the U.S. government to mass-expel asylum-seekers, citing the pandemic. Over 1.2 million expulsions under Title 42 have been carried out since March 2020, with Haitian and Black asylum-seekers disproportionately affected. Deportation flights to Haiti have continued even after the chaos that was set off by the July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, another deadly earthquake, and further damage from Tropical Storm Grace the following month. Although a federal judge instructed the Biden administration to stop using Title 42 in September, the U.S. government announced Friday it would continue to enforce it.

“If the Biden Administration does not change course immediately, it will cement its immigration legacy as no different than its vile predecessor: motivated by unhindered racial animus, willfully ignorant of public health and science, and truly determined to flout international and domestic asylum and refugee law,” said Breanne Palmer, interim policy and advocacy director at the UndocuBlack Network, in a statement last month.

Monday also marked the return of the Trump-era Remain in Mexico program. This means asylum-seekers who arrive at the southern U.S. border will once again be forced to wait in Mexico while their cases resolve in U.S. immigration courts—a process that could take months, even years. While a federal court order forced Biden officials to revive the contested policy, formally known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, the Biden administration chose to expand those who are eligible to include anyone from the western hemisphere—which includes Haitians. The expansion of MPP comes despite over 1,500 reports of murders, tortures, rapes, and other brutal attacks against asylum-seekers subjected to the program. Over 7,600 cases of similar violence have been reported by migrants expelled to Mexico under Title 42, according to Human Rights First.