“I thought he was going to kill me”: Migrants say return of Trump-era border policy will put asylum seekers in danger
A Cuban woman sent to Ciudad Juárez after seeking asylum in El Paso was raped as she waited for her U.S. court date. She worries more migrants could be victims of violence as the Biden administration revives the "remain in Mexico" program.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can receive confidential help by calling the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network’s 24/7 toll-free support line at 800-656-4673 or visiting its online hotline.
Lisbet was facing jail time in her native Cuba for questioning the integrity of an election, she said. So she and her husband sold their belongings and bought a round-trip plane ticket to Nicaragua, lying to Cuban immigration officials that they were taking a vacation.
They left their two daughters with Lisbet’s mother and told their older daughter they would reunite later in another country.
After traveling through Central America and Mexico, Lisbet and her husband reached the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez international bridge in May 2019 and asked for asylum in the United States — joining thousands of other migrants who have made the same journey.
Immigration authorities sent her husband to an immigration detention center in Houston and sent Lisbet back to Juárez under a policy called the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP. Informally known as “remain in Mexico,” the policy was aimed at deterring migrants from crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
In Juárez, she said a Mexican police officer began harassing her, then stalking her — and later raped her so violently she had to undergo reconstructive surgery.
“I thought he was going to kill me,” she said. “All I kept thinking about was if I was going to be able to see my daughters again.”
Following a federal judge’s order, the Biden administration last week began to restart MPP, which during the Trump administration forced Lisbet and thousands of other asylum-seeking migrants to stay in Mexican border cities as their cases made their way through U.S. immigration courts.
Officials said the program would first be revived in an undisclosed border city, then migrants would be enrolled into MPP at El Paso, Laredo, Brownsville and San Diego.
Some human rights advocates, and migrants who have been placed in MPP, say reviving the program puts more migrants in danger of being targeted by criminals in Mexican border cities. Human Rights First, a New York-based organization, recorded 1,544 cases of killings, rapes and kidnappings of migrants who were forced to remain in Mexico between MPP’s launch in January 2019 and January 2021, when the Biden administration suspended the policy.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton joined the attorney general of Missouri to sue the Biden administration in April, claiming that suspending the policy violated administrative law. District Judge Matthew J. Kacsmaryk, a Trump appointee in Amarillo, agreed, but the administration appealed all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied the administration’s request to temporarily pause Kacsmaryk’s ruling.
The case went back to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which on Monday ruled to uphold Kacsmaryk’s ruling.
In the lawsuit, Paxton also argued that without MPP, human trafficking would increase and force the states to expend resources on migrants 一 such as providing driver’s licenses, educating migrant children and providing hospital care.
“I will continue to fight to restore safety and order along our southern border, making sure that this essential program is implemented in full compliance with the court’s order,” Paxton said in a statement.
Under the Biden administration’s version of MPP, migrants from all of the Western hemisphere can be sent into Mexico 一 previously it included migrants only from Spanish-speaking countries and Brazil. The migrants can receive a COVID-19 vaccine before immigration officials return them to Mexico.
Tami Goodlette, director of litigation for the Texas-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, said the Biden administration “must stop fueling cruel and heartless cycles of displacement.”
“Instead of providing care and safety for migrants, the U.S. is actively choosing to create an environment of rampant danger and abuse where vulnerable people are at an increased risk of violence and exploitation,” Goodlette said.
Lisbet, 37, was one of the 71,000 people sent back to Mexico during the Trump administration, and the asylum cases of more than 25,000 migrants placed in MPP remain pending, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
Lisbet, who asked to be identified only by her first name because her daughters are still in Cuba and she fears the government may retaliate against them, called the policy “an injustice because it’s denying a human being the possibility of seeking safety.”
Gabriel, a 45-year-old who was forced to stay in Juárez for a year and a half, fled Venezuela in April 2019 and requested asylum at Santa Teresa, New Mexico. Immigration officials sent him to Juárez, where he said he lived for 16 months before he was reunited with his sister in South Carolina.
Unlike Lisbet, he was able to get a work permit in Mexico and find a stable place to live. He said he felt lucky that he wasn’t a victim of violence or the elements: Two boys in a migrant camp died of hypothermia while he was in Juárez, he said, and a Cuban man was shot to death in a city plaza.
“The MPP the way I lived it, was not 100% humane,” said Gabriel, who asked to be identified with a pseudonym because he fears the Venezuelan government might retaliate against his two children. “A lot of the people who went through it with me felt discouraged and duped because the program didn’t give them any hope.”
“They couldn’t do anything for me”
After Lisbet cast her ballot in Cuba’s constitutional referendum in February 2019, she said she stayed near the voting booths awaiting the results instead of going back home as she’d been told. When she refused to leave, voting officials accused her of interfering in the process and called the police.
A plainclothes officer took her to a police station, where Lisbet, who was three months pregnant, insisted the vote was a sham. She said the angry officer struck her face, causing her to fall. The officer put Lisbet in a cell as she bled through her pants. She said she was denied medical care until three days later, when police took her to a hospital and a doctor told her she had lost the baby.
“I was devastated and filled with anger,” Lisbet said. “My husband was scared and he said, ‘If we don’t leave, we’re not going to be alive much longer.’”
When Lisbet and her husband reached the international bridge at the Texas-Mexico border, she said immigration officials placed them in a makeshift camp in El Paso, separating them by gender and taking away their belongings.
She was in the camp for 40 days before officials gave her a court date and then dropped Lisbet and six other asylum-seeking women in the middle of Juárez. The seven of them put their money together to rent a hotel for the night.
“We were all confused and disoriented because we were told there would be shelter and none of us knew each other,” she said. “I was desperate because my husband was the one with all the money.”
That night, Lisbet called relatives in Cuba. She said her brother put her in touch with a friend in the U.S., who wired Lisbet money to Juárez to buy food, clothing and lodging. Relatives also told her that her husband was in a detention center — he’d called them earlier.
Her first court date was in El Paso roughly two months later, in August 2019. After she made her case for asylum, she was sent back to Juárez, where she rented a house with other asylum-seekers. She couldn’t legally work, so she said she cleaned homes and helped vendors set up food stands in exchange for food.
Between her second and third court dates, Lisbet said a Juárez police officer began to harass her, asking for sexual favors and threatening her with deportation if she refused. She said she started moving from house to house to avoid the officer.
On Oct. 17, 2019, he seized her passport after she refused his sexual advances again, she said. The following day, she said she filed a complaint with the police. The angry officer then showed up at the house where she was staying, Lisbet said, and threatened to have her killed for reporting him. She said she went to the international bridge and told the immigration officials about the officer’s harassment and threats, begging to enter the U.S.
“I kept crying to them, but without any compassion, they just told me no, they couldn’t do anything for me,” Lisbet said.
On the night of Dec. 7, 2019, two days before her court hearing in El Paso, she was walking in an empty street alone when the officer found her and raped her.
“I was in shock,” she said. “I couldn’t believe the physical pain I was in. I also started to feel shame because I would have to explain to people what happened to me.”
A couple found her in the street and called an ambulance, which took her to a hospital where a doctor performed reconstructive surgery to repair the damage from the attack.
She didn’t want to tell her husband, who by then had been released into the U.S. and was living in Austin with a cousin. (Lisbet said they never figured out why her husband wasn’t placed in MPP.)
But her husband kept asking why she had ignored his calls and text messages for three days. She finally told him what had happened.
“He started to cry a lot, he started to worry even more,” she said.
Lisbet said she still hasn’t told her mother and daughters about the rape. She said she doesn’t have the courage.
Recuperating in a hospital bed, Lisbet missed her court hearing — she sent her hospital records with another asylum-seeker, hoping the U.S. immigration officials wouldn’t throw out her case. The woman came back with bad news: Lisbet’s asylum claim was closed because she hadn’t made the hearing, and immigration officials had issued a deportation order for her if she ever entered the U.S. illegally.
“I felt defeated,” she said. “I thought to myself, ‘I guess I’m going to have to stay here and just try to make a life for myself.’”
Lisbet said she stayed with a friend for eight months before the police officer who attacked her began to threaten the woman. Lisbet didn’t want her friend to get hurt, so she went to the international bridge in July 2020 and asked to enter the country.
This time, they sent Lisbet to a detention center in El Paso, where she told an immigration officer about losing her baby in Cuba and the Juárez officer who had raped her.
“I remember him telling me, ‘You can cry and throw a fit, but you’re being deported back to Cuba regardless,’” Lisbet says.
A fellow detainee told Lisbet about Diocesan Migrant & Refugees Services. Marysol Castro, a staff attorney for the organization, took Lisbet’s asylum claim to the Department of Justice’s Board of Immigration Appeals and asked to have her case reopened.
In December 2020, Lisbet was released from the detention center and went to Louisville, Kentucky, to reunite with her husband, who had moved there to live with a relative.
Three months later, Castro received a letter from the immigration board that it agreed to reopen Lisbet’s asylum case.
Lisbet says it’s been a tumultuous two and a half years. She and her husband don’t work because they are not legally allowed to, she said. Their relative in Kentucky is supporting them.
She said she doesn’t know when her case will be resolved — or when she’s going to see her daughters, who are now 17 and 7.
“I feel a lot of pain and sadness of course because it’s been hard,” Lisbet said. “But I keep thinking if I stayed in Cuba, I could have been imprisoned and kept away from my daughters.
So what gives me hope is that now that I’m physically OK in the U.S. that I have a chance of seeing my daughters again.”
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