Maria, an asylum-seeker from Honduras who was hiding from a group of men who she said brutally raped her in Mexico, hoped US immigration authorities would take her out of a Trump-era program that has forced thousands of immigrants to wait in dangerous border cities.
More than a year after her rape, it still pained Maria at times to sit. Still, the 54-year-old bolstered herself up inside the cold US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) facility in El Paso, Texas, on Friday, Jan. 22, and told an asylum officer her story through a telephone.
Maria recounted how she and her son were kidnapped in Mexico on their way to the US border. How a group of men violently gang-raped her when she refused to give them her daughter's phone number to ask for ransom. How her son was forced to watch the attack and how she now has a rectovaginal fistula, which causes stool to leak into her vagina. And finally, Maria told the asylum officer how she had filed a police report against her attackers and feared they would find her at the shelter she's been hiding at in Mexico.
Hours after the call, the asylum officer denied Maria's request to be allowed to continue her immigration case in the US.
"My mind went blank," Maria told BuzzFeed News. "It was like my life ended there. I had this grand hope that I would finally be able to breathe easy and feel better."
Once again, Maria retreated to the shelter in the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez in fear. Attorneys representing Maria asked that BuzzFeed News not use her full name out of fear of retaliation for speaking out against organized crime.
US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which employs asylum officers who oversee the non-refoulement interviews, did not respond to a request for comment. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the parent agency for USCIS and CBP, said asylum records, including those pertaining to credible fear interviews like Maria’s, are confidential under regulation.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, a White House spokesperson said thousands of people and families are still suffering due to policies that the Trump administration put in place.
"Fully remedying these actions will take time and require a full government approach," the White House said. "But President Biden has been very clear about restoring compassion and order to our immigration system, and correcting the divisive, inhumane, and immoral policies of the past four years."
The statement echoes ones previously made by the Biden administration, warning that any transformational changes to the immigration system won't happen overnight. The White House pointed to Biden's executive actions on day one and the nomination of Alejandro Mayorkas to be DHS secretary as evidence of the new president's intention to overhaul the nation's immigration system.
"When confirmed, Mayorkas will bring back values to DHS and lead the agency with an understanding that immigrants are an irrefutable source of our strength,” the White House spokesperson said.
Friday was the two-year anniversary of the Trump administration's Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), informally known as the Remain in Mexico policy. The policy has forced more than 70,000 immigrants and asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico for months and even years while their cases are adjudicated by a US immigration judge, according to an analysis from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University. Despite the word "protection" in its name and a promise from the Mexican government to protect those sent back to Mexico, hundreds of immigrants have been easy targets for cartels and corrupt law enforcement who kidnap and torture them for ransom.
A Human Rights First database has tracked at least 1,314 public reports of rape, torture, kidnapping, and other violence against people sent back to some of the most dangerous cities in the Western Hemisphere.
On the campaign trail, Biden had promised to end the Remain in Mexico policy. Last week, his administration stopped adding new people into the program, but it did not clarify how the government will process immigrants who are already in MPP. On Friday, Reuters reported that the Biden administration was looking at how it can process immigrants already in the program and prioritize the most vulnerable.
When the policy was rolled out, DHS said immigrants would not be involuntarily returned to Mexico if they were more likely to be persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Doing so would violate the non-refoulement principle, the practice of not forcing asylum-seekers to return to a place where they may be persecuted.
Brooke Bischoff, a managing attorney with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center who is working with Maria, said Maria faces persecution while in Mexico because she was targeted based on her status as an immigrant woman when she was kidnapped and raped. Now, Bischoff said, Maria also faces new persecution because most of the men in the group are still at large and could try to retaliate against her for filing the criminal complaint against them.
Keeping Maria in MPP also violates the standards of the program itself, Bischoff said. When DHS announced the program, it issued guidance that said immigrants with known physical and mental health issues should not be sent back to Mexico under MPP. However, CBP still sent back adults and children with health issues.
"It's so clear that she should've never been subjected to MPP in the first place," Bischoff told BuzzFeed News.
Getting Maria out of MPP would also ensure that she receives the medical care she needs to recover from being raped. The shelter Maria is in is overcrowded, and there's no regular access to showers or private areas where Maria can clean her wounds, Bischoff said.
"We want to make sure she isn't needlessly suffering from this program when she should've been exempt," Bischoff said.
Maria left Honduras to flee violence and was hoping to reunite with family in the US. In September 2019, she and her then-9-year-old were on a bus in the Mexican state of Veracruz heading to the US border, but were forced off by members of the cartel and kidnapped for ransom.
The men who kidnapped them demanded that Maria provide them with the phone number of a family member in the US. When she refused, the group of men raped her in front of her son. Later, the men put a gun to her son's head and told him that if he didn't get his sister in the US to pay their ransom, they would shoot him.
Maria and her son were held inside a hotel for about a month, but were able to escape when one of the housekeepers left the door to their room unlocked. The mother and son got into a taxi and asked the driver to help them. The driver had to stop and buy diapers for Maria who was still bleeding from the injuries she sustained from her attack.
Maria was able to make it to Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, and asked US border officers for asylum on Oct. 24, 2019. But like thousands of other immigrants and asylum-seekers, Maria was told she'd have to fight her US immigration case from Mexico.
"The hardest thing about being placed in MPP is your dreams being shattered," Maria said. "They send you back to Mexico with no money and nowhere to go, nowhere to run."
Under MPP, immigrants were sent back to Mexico with court dates and instructions to present themselves at an official border crossing on that date.
Thousands of immigrants waited in open-air encampments, shelters, and hotels while their hearings progressed. At the same time, they lived in fear of being extorted, kidnapped, or raped by cartels, and in some cases by Mexican authorities.
In December, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said his country had "protected migrants," but firsthand accounts and data of immigrants in MPP being attacked or targeted tell a different story.
Maria worked at a casino in Juárez as a custodian, trying to raise enough money for her medicine to heal from her injuries. In June 2020, while working at the casino, Maria saw one of her kidnappers. Terrified, Maria reported him to the police and never returned to work, choosing to instead hide inside the shelter.
The Mexican police did not arrest the man Maria saw but were able to arrest another man they believed was involved in her kidnapping using information from when her sister paid the ransom.
Bischoff, Maria's attorney, said that according to a 2019 Department of State Human Rights Report for Mexico, organized crime in Mexico acts with almost near impunity. Only 6% of crimes are reported or investigated, according to Mexico's statistics agency.
"Organized criminal groups were implicated in numerous killings, acting with impunity and at times in league with corrupt federal, state, local, and security officials," the report from the Department of State said.
Though one of the men was arrested, Maria lives in fear that the other men will look for her and find her in Ciudad Juárez, Bischoff said.
"She faces potential retribution because she made a criminal complaint and participated in the criminal process," Bischoff said. "There's no good way out and the country conditions really show us there's a huge amount of impunity in these situations."
Maria's hopes of being allowed into the US have been shattered, but she still dreams of being reunited with her family and feeling safe.
"I dream, I wish to have someone close to me to help me heal from my problems at least emotionally," Maria said. "My sadness doesn't go away."
Update: A sentence containing graphic details about the sexual assault has been removed from this post.