EL PASO — The sisters said they fled their Central American village for the same reasons: the constant fear. One said she was raped by an employer. The other was kidnapped by local criminals. Both had watched their parents pay “protection” money to gangs under threats of even worse.
But while the older sister, Maria, is adjusting to a new life in California after seeking asylum in 2013, her little sister Katty — who asked for asylum after arriving to this border city in April — is locked up in a detention center here, fighting deportation and battling a COVID-19 infection.
El Paso-based attorney Ed Beckett, who represents Katty, said the 20-year-old from Guatemala tested positive after being placed in quarantine three times with dozens of other women in the El Paso Processing Center — all after being housed with women who showed symptoms of the disease.
“If one person has COVID, then everyone in the barracks gets quarantined,” Beckett said Katty told him. “So they were commingling people with symptoms [with everyone else]. She’s gone back to back for 14 days [of quarantine] four times now. That was their definition of a quarantine, which, to me, doesn’t sound like a real quarantine.”
Beckett’s tried twice to have Katty — the Tribune is identifying her only by her middle name because of her concerns about safety — released on humanitarian parole, but both attempts have been denied. He said the sisters’ cases illustrate how the chances of remaining in the United States and winning asylum — which has never been easy — have plummeted under the Trump administration, even during a global pandemic in which detainees face the risk of exposure to the virus during their confinement.
As of this week, 3,183 Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees have tested positive for the virus nationally, including 136 in the El Paso Processing Center where Katty is being held. About 950 detainees have active infections and 13,562 detainees have been tested, according to ICE statistics. There were 22,835 people detained in ICE facilities as of last week.
An ICE spokesperson in El Paso said the agency’s safety protocols for detained migrants during the pandemic includes using a “staggered approach” that includes “cohorting individuals for 14 days consistent with CDC guidelines.”
“Detainees who do not have fever or symptoms, but meet CDC criteria for epidemiologic risk, are housed separately in a single cell, or as a group, depending on available space,” spokesperson Leticia Zamarripa said. “Detainees who meet CDC criteria for epidemiologic risk of exposure to COVID-19 are housed separately from the general population to help prevent the spread of the agent to other individuals and the general public.”
Sisters leave home six years apart
The sisters' story began more than seven years ago in Guatemala, where the sisters’ mother sold Mayan cheese and their father sold traditional clothing. The family made a decent living in the country’s highlands, but success in one of the poorest countries in the Americas also came with threats of extortion and violence.
Maria, 25, said she was forced to flee Guatemala in 2013 after several threats against her siblings if her parents did not pay a monthly fee. Maria said she didn't know who the men were at the time, but later realized some of them included members of the MS-13, a Salvadoran gang that formed in United States prisons and later flourished throughout Central America. (Because of her sister's concerns about possible retaliation, the Tribune is identifying Maria by her first name only.)
She said she decided to flee north after taking a job on a farm— where she said she was raped by her boss. She said the local police didn't take action when she reported the assault.
Maria said she made her way through Mexico and crossed the border at Nogales, Sonora. She was detained, then released after she requested asylum. She was able to hire an attorney to help her navigate the complex U.S. immigration system and is now a legal permanent resident living in California and working as a housekeeper near San Francisco.
Meanwhile, criminals continued to shake down her family back in Guatemala, Maria said. In September, six years after she left home, her sister fled Guatemala, the last of 12 children to leave their parents’ house because of the continued extortion, Maria and Beckett said.
The tipping point came when Katty was kidnapped by a group of men and taken to a nearby safe house because the men claimed her parents had failed to pay the monthly fee, Beckett said. But she managed to escape during a restroom break and find her way home, he said.
"After that, her dad said, 'You can’t stay here anymore,'" Beckett said.
Same path, different result
She initially tried the same path her sister took to reach the United States, through Mexico to the northern city of Nogales, just south of Arizona. A smuggler helped her cross the border and the U.S. Border Patrol quickly apprehended her. She told them she wanted to claim asylum.
But after her credible fear interview – one of the first interviews asylum seekers undergo to state why they fear persecution or violence at home – she was ordered deported. Beckett said the language barrier — her primary language is K’iche’, a Mayan dialect — played a role in the result because she was interviewed in Spanish.
The official who conducted the interview concluded that Katty was coming to the U.S. to work and study and rejected her asylum claim, Beckett said. But it was a misinterpretation because while she did say she intended to work to be able to support herself, it wasn't her primary motive for coming to this country. Her asylum application states that she's afraid of returning to Guatemala.
"I have fear that I will be targeted and raped and possibly killed," she said, according to her application. "I cannot rely on the police to help me. The police does not have the will or the resources to help me."
Maria said her sister has always been the quiet, non-aggressive type, and was intimidated and confused during the interview.
“She doesn’t express herself well, not with us, not with authorities,” she said.
When Katty returned to Guatemala, the threats from the extortionists began again. So she fled again and crossed into the U.S. illegally in April, this time through El Paso. Beckett said asylum officers in El Paso saw that she had failed her previous credible fear interview and again ordered her deported.
But then she caught an unusual break when federal immigration Judge Michael Pleters said he disagreed with the asylum officers’ findings and concluded that she did establish “a reasonable possibility that she would be persecuted” should she return home. He left it up to Beckett to convince authorities she shouldn't be deported, Beckett said.
“I think she’s very lucky that she had a good judge and he had an open mind,” he said. “Most judges just rubber stamp whatever the asylum office said because it’s the easiest way to dispose of a case.”
Uphill fight to remain in the U.S.
Beckett is now seeking a withholding of removal for Katty, a separate form of relief under current law that is decided by an immigration judge.
It will be an uphill fight: the percentage of asylum seekers who have received any form of protection has fallen significantly since the 2016 fiscal year, and the percentage receiving asylum has dropped from 42 percent to 27 percent between 2016 and 2020, according to a study by Human Rights First, a New York-based advocacy group. That's 40 percent lower than the average during the previous two administrations, the group noted.
A separate analysis by the Transactional Access Records Clearinghouse at Syracuse University noted that successful asylum claims plunged after former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions limited the reasons for which immigration judges could grant asylum in June 2018.
But because of Katty's prior removals, Pleters has no say in whether she’s released on humanitarian parole — which would allow her to stay in the country while her case plays out without granting her any legal status. That’s up to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has twice denied her release, Beckett said.
In separate letters to Corey Price, the director of the ICE El Paso field office, Maria and her roommate pleaded to have Katty released after she is medically cleared, arguing they can support her.
"[Katty] is God-fearing and a good-hearted person,” Maria wrote. “She will cause no harm if she is free. She is my sister and I will take care of her.”
“Thank God that even through COVID, I’m still working,” Maria told the Tribune. “We’re going to help her with her case [and] the rent.”
Beckett said he spoke to Katty on Monday and she said she’s now completely isolated after her COVID-19 diagnosis. She’s been given medicine and sounded OK, he said.
But she should have never fallen ill in the first place, he said.
“She doesn’t belong in there, they should have released her already,” he said.