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Maybelin spends her days inside immigration detention with a constant stomach ache, dizziness, and a urinary tract infection, hoping to be reunited with the daughter she last saw being dragged away by smugglers in Mexico.
When the 22-year-old left her home in Ecuador in November, she weighed 130 pounds. Today, she weighs 96 pounds. She also has lethargy, a lack of appetite, and hemorrhoids. Rosa de Jong, her immigration attorney, said Maybelin’s health is deteriorating by the day and worries her client’s immune system is compromised, making her more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.
ICE officials told de Jong they have been unable to refer Maybelin to doctors outside the Texas facility where she’s detained to get a diagnosis, which could help get her released, according to documents sent to a detention and deportation officer at the El Paso Service Processing Center.
“Her case is a perfect example of how the current system makes immigrants vulnerable to becoming victims over and over again. It’s like a Russian doll; it just keeps compounding,” de Jong told BuzzFeed News. “She was kidnapped for six weeks. Her daughter was then kidnapped. And now she’s suffering through unnecessary detention during a pandemic.”
ICE declined to comment on the story without BuzzFeed News providing a privacy waiver signed by Maybelin.
Maybelin, who declined to use her full name citing privacy concerns, and her daughter requested asylum from US border officers at the southern border in November. They were sent back to Mexico under a Trump administration policy that forces immigrants to wait there while their cases are decided by a US immigration judge. Even when those cases were being heard, they are currently postponed amid the pandemic; immigrants have waited for months in cramped shelters, shared apartments or hotels, and a squalid camp in the Mexican city of Matamoros.
After an initial court hearing on Feb. 3, Maybelin's 4-year-old daughter started to have recurring fevers, stomach pain, and blood in her stool. A smuggler in Matamoros offered to get the pair to Ciudad Juárez and then into the US. But the smuggler’s deal turned out to be the beginning of a nightmare Maybelin hasn’t been able to escape from.
“The person she hoped would get her across ended up kidnapping her,” de Jong said.
In Ciudad Juárez, Maybelin and her daughter were held captive inside a home and forced to do housework from Feb. 16 to April 1. In that time, the Trump administration closed the US's borders with Mexico and Canada. The administration has been expelling most immigrants who try to enter the US under an emergency order it says is needed to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. Even most unaccompanied minors, who have more protections than other immigrants trying to cross the border, are being turned away.
In late March, Maybelin was moved to another home in Ciudad Juárez where she was starved by her captors if she cried. On April 1, a man grabbed her daughter against her will and smuggled her into the US. One of the men who was guarding the girl inside a home in El Paso, Texas, called her grandparents who live in the US and demanded an increasing amount of money in exchange for her release.
Later that day, Maybelin was handed fake documents and dropped off at an official US border crossing in Ciudad Juárez. Once there, she presented herself to US Customs and Border Protection officers and quickly told them about her daughter's kidnapping.
Homeland Security Investigations, an investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security that looks into cross-border crimes, found Maybelin's daughter inside a house in El Paso four days later. She was sent to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which oversees the custody of unaccompanied minors, before being sent to live with her grandparents.
Caseworkers with ORR noted that the 4-year-old showed signs of trauma, specifically when approached by men, according to court documents filed with the Justice Department. Her family worries she may have been subjected to additional violence after she was taken from Maybelin.
An investigation was opened into the mother's and daughter's cases, but the US Attorney's Office in El Paso told de Jong it wouldn't be pursuing charges against anyone. No explanation was given, and the US Attorney's Office declined to comment.
There seems to be an assumption that immigrants always consent to being smuggled, de Jong said, but in cases such as Maybelin's, that consent was taken away.
“We have seen a spike of Ecuadorians in local detention centers, the large majority of whom seem to have had similarly awful experiences with smugglers in Juarez, almost always including extended kidnapping and abuse,” de Jong said.
Linda Corchado, the director of legal services at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, said pursuing charges could've made Maybelin eligible for a "U visa," which gives undocumented immigrants who report crimes and work with law enforcement a path to permanent residency. Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center flagged the case to local FBI and prosecutors.
“We have these circumstances where people are becoming more and more victimized by [the "Remain in Mexico" policy], and people are taking dangerous routes to get here,” Corchado told BuzzFeed News. “At the same time, you have local prosecutors and agents who know we could corroborate and they declined to go any further, which is really sad.”
It sends the message that international criminal organizations on both sides of the US–Mexico border can operate with impunity, Corchado added.
Maybelin is currently detained at the El Paso Service Processing Center, which has 72 people diagnosed with COVID-19 and has seen a total of 119 cases since the start of the pandemic.
De Jong said ICE has been repeatedly exposing the people it detains to the coronavirus. Last week, Maybelin’s unit was placed in quarantine for the third time after a new immigrant who was sent there tested positive for COVID-19.
“She feels dizzy all the time, recurring urinary tract infection, constipation, hemorrhoids,” de Jong said. “They just treat the symptoms and never try to figure what’s going on.”
Advocates have long argued that because immigration detention is civil and not meant to be punitive, ICE has wide discretion to release anyone in its custody. Maybelin asked ICE to parole her while her case is adjudicated, but she was denied.
“You have failed to establish that parole is warranted based on urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit,” a May 20 denial from ICE stated.
De Jong filed another request for custody redetermination in Maybelin’s case on June 21, arguing that her client has no criminal background and a US citizen sponsor willing to house and support her.
Attorneys across the US filed several lawsuits to try to force ICE to release vulnerable immigrants it's detaining amid the coronavirus pandemic. In April, ICE said it would consider releasing immigrants who were over the age of 60, pregnant, or had certain underlying medical conditions. Nearly 700 immigrants were released under ICE’s guidelines.
But US District Judge Jesus Bernal, in response to one of the lawsuits, said ICE did not go far enough and ordered the agency to “identify and track” an expanded category of immigrants he considered to be at risk. As of June 25, 490 people have been released from ICE custody as a result of a court order, according to the agency.
If Maybelin has a serious or chronic health condition that makes her vulnerable to contracting COVID-19, she could be released under Bernal’s order, Corchado of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center said. But it’s impossible without a diagnosis. So far, ICE hasn’t sent Maybelin to see a doctor outside of detention who could make a diagnosis.
“Like so many detained separated mothers, her heightened distress and anxiety is having a negative impact on her health, and every day that goes by without her daughter, our client is becoming more despondent and wants to give up,” Corchado said. “We had hoped that ICE would agree to release our client from detention. Unfortunately, that has not been the case.”