Immigration Detention: Worse than Death?
Martin Méndez Pineda was held in U.S. immigration detention for over 100 days. As a journalist, Martin reported on federal police violence in one of Mexico’s most violent states. He received multiple death threats and was beaten by police, eventually forcing him to flee to the United States to seek asylum.
Asylum seekers have a right to seek protection at the border, but some U.S. border agents are blatantly disregarding the law. Some Customs and Border Protection officials have systematically turned away asylum seekers from U.S. ports of entry. Those who are processed for protection consideration are sent to immigration detention facilities, where some officers are intentionally exacerbating punitive detention conditions in order to pressure asylum seekers to drop their cases, and limiting due process protections.
I first learned of Martin’s case while documenting instances of U.S. border agents illegally turning away asylum seekers for Human Rights First’s report, “Crossing the Line.” In February, Martin and his lawyer approached CBP agents at the El Paso port of entry to seek asylum. At first the agents told Martin that Mexicans could not receive asylum in the United States. His lawyer ultimately pressed CBP to follow the law and process Martin’s petition for protection. They sent him to the West Texas Detention Facility in Sierra Blanca.
At the Sierra Blanca facility migrants are held in tent-like structures known as “the henhouse,” in no small part due to the way immigrants are crowded in and treated like animals. It is “small, with metal bunks, worn-out rubber mattresses, wooden floors, bathrooms with the walls covered in green and yellow mold, weeds everywhere and snakes and rats that come in the night,” Martin explained. “Honestly, it is hell.”
Make no mistake, immigration detention is jail. But crossing borders to seek asylum is not a crime. Nevertheless, asylum seekers are being punished for it. By ICE’s own policies, asylum seekers like Martin should be promptly considered for parole and allowed to pursue their asylum claims outside of detention.
Despite extensive evidence that he met the parole criteria and support from researchers that document attacks on journalists, ICE denied Martin’s parole request twice. As a result, he remained in detention for months waiting for his asylum case to be heard by an immigration judge. Last month, an ICE deportation officer told Martin, “99.9% of the people that qualify for parole are denied and are deported.”
Eventually, ICE transferred Martin to the Cibola County Detention Center, a six-hour drive from the Sierra Blanca facility. Shackled in the back of a bus, Martin and dozens of other detained immigrants were driven in circles for over 24 hours. Throughout the ordeal, the group was denied food or water. In response to pleas for sustenance the officer driving the bus screamed: “Stay quiet, nobody told you to come! Let this teach you to not want to return!”
Martin received that message loud and clear. Detention has the “clear intention of getting [asylum seekers] deported,” Martin wrote from his cell in April. “They punished me for getting sick, which is the worst of all punishments. They detained me in a place known as ‘el pozo’ or ‘la hielera’ (the pit or the freezer). Just remembering it frightens me. I spent all night crying… I never told anyone again that I was sick despite getting daily nosebleeds, so that I would not have to return to that room.”
ICE’s refusal to release Martin on parole and the abusive conditions he faced reflect the Trump Administration’s effort to deter refugees from seeking this country’s protection: treat asylum seekers punitively, undermine their access to legal processes to seek protection, and hope they stop showing up at America’s doorstep.
After months in detention, Martin finally gave up and returned to Mexico. “I would rather die than spend one more day in detention,” he later told his lawyers. Quickly becoming the deadliest year for journalists in Mexico, Martin faces immediate danger and ongoing persecution after the U.S. immigration system failed him.
President Trump says his immigration policies are based on upholding “law and order.” If that were true, his agencies would be following the U.S. laws and human rights treaties that protect asylum seekers from the type of detention and mistreatment Martin experienced. The lives of asylum seekers like Martin depend on the U.S. government to uphold the systems in place to protect them.