Celina Gutiérrez Cruz sits alone at a small table in a trailer at the Dilley, Texas detention center. The trailer is empty except for several rows of dark brown benches that resemble church pews. Gutiérrez Cruz, a 22-year-old woman from Honduras, has a round face that conveys her friendly manner. Her eyes, however, are ringed with dark circles and betray a deep sadness. Her voice is soft but firm. She and her six-year-old daughter, Maria José, have been held at the Dilley detention center (technically called Family Residential Centers) for seven months, ever since they were caught by Border Patrol trying to enter the U.S. It was her second attempt. Her first was in 2013 when she, like hundreds of thousands of Central Americans living in the Northern Triangle countries—Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—fled the violence endemic to the region. “I was persecuted by the Mara 18,” she says; one of the most vicious gangs in the Americas. “The boss wanted me to be his woman…They wanted me to sell drugs. If I did not sell drugs, collect ‘taxes’ (protection payments), they would kill me and my daughter.” Border Patrol caught and deported Gutiérrez Cruz and her daughter soon after they crossed the border.
Back home, her situation worsened.
“The threats started again almost as soon as I arrived,” she says. “The threats became much stronger; they started beating me.” Seeing no other options, on January 9 of this year, Gutiérrez Cruz took her then-five-year-old daughter and headed to the U.S. a second time. It’s a decision she now deeply regrets.
Despite establishing that she’d be at risk if she returned to Honduras—after which a person is usually released from detention—Gutiérrez Cruz continues to be held. Seven months at the facility have left her depressed and anxious; she’s had panic attacks and, according to a psychiatrist who examined her, she’s “at risk of a psychotic break.” She and her daughter have been diagnosed with PTSD and Maria José has been extremely ill, at one point vomiting blood for a week. “I thought the United States was a place of opportunity,” Gutiérrez Cruz says. “But it is a very hard place. It is cruel.”
Gutiérrez Cruz and her daughter made the journey from Honduras through Mexico mostly by bus, the occasional ride in a truck and, a couple of times, on foot. They also had one trip riding on top of the cars of the cargo trains migrants call “la bestia,” the beast. “There were gangs on the train, so I only went once,” she says. Gutiérrez Cruz and her daughter eventually made it to Reynosa and crossed into the U.S. where Border Patrol agents picked them up about an hour later. Like all of the other mothers and children Border Patrol agents capture, they were first taken to a building the women have named the “hielera”—the cooler—because it’s so cold.
“From what women have told me, it’s the first place you go when apprehended at the border,” says Johanna DeLeon, a paralegal at RAICES, an organization providing legal assistance to detained women. “There are no beds…no blankets.” Gutiérrez Cruz was there only a few hours but during that time, she says: “They gave us nothing, not even water.” DeLeon said that women and children who are there longer may get a baloney sandwich to eat. The next stop was what women call the “perrera” (kennel) because the families are put into small rooms that have fences in place of walls. It was there that she was first asked why she was in the U.S. She told officials that, because she was being threatened, she couldn’t return to Honduras.
Gutiérrez Cruz arrived at the U.S. border at the tail end of an unprecedented wave of migrants—overwhelmingly women and children—that reached the U.S. beginning last summer. The government’s response to this influx was to open a detention center in Artesia, New Mexico, declare these women and children “national security threats,” and deport them as quickly as possible. Artesia was closed late last year but was replaced by detention centers in Karnes and Dilley, Texas, overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) but run respectively by GEO and CCA, private prison corporations.
Over the last year, attorneys representing the women have successfully argued that the vast majority are fleeing violence in their home countries and are therefore refugees. Rather than being deported, they should be given asylum. An ICE spokesperson has not yet returned a request for comment.
Gutiérrez Cruz was sent to the Dilley facility where she was given reasonable fear interview (RFI), which is used to determine if a person will be persecuted if returned to their home country. She received a positive result because, she says, if she goes to Honduras, they will kill her and her daughter.
The next stop was a hearing in front of an Immigration Judge and here her difficult journey became even more difficult.
According to Elanie Cintron, an immigration attorney provided to her by the CARA Pro Bono Project, Gutiérrez Cruz had hired an attorney for her hearing who didn’t prepare her properly. In fact, the first time she met the attorney was on the day of the hearing. The judge denied her request for asylum. Cintron claims this was solely due to ineffective counsel and has filed an appeal. ICE has decided to keep Gutiérrez and her daughter in detention during that appeal.
“We’ve yet to receive a logical and legally sound reason as to why [ICE] is still detaining this woman and child,” says Cintron. “[They] are clearly suffering from extreme psychiatric issues. She was victimized by her attorney and now by ICE and then there’s all the victimization she suffered in Honduras.”
Their continued detention is even more baffling given that Jeh Johnson, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), stated in June that, “…once a family has established eligibility for asylum…long-term detention is an inefficient use of our resources and should be discontinued.”
In July, Cintron filed a request with ICE, asking that Gutiérrez Cruz and her daughter be released because continued detention would exacerbate their health and psychiatric problems. She argued that ICE has the power to specifically grant parole “for urgent humanitarian reasons” and noted that they pose no threat to national security, have no criminal history, and have a stable place they could live in the U.S. ICE turned down the request.
“The fact that she has a positive reasonable fear determination seems to not resonate for ICE,” Cintron says. “They are completely disregarding the Secretary’s announcement.”
Gutiérrez Cruz’s appeal could take another six months. She and Maria José have already had birthdays in detention, although she admits that there were no celebrations. There’s a good chance they’ll celebrate another one in Dilley before they’re released.
ICE describes the detention centers in glowing terms. According to ICE, detention centers are a “…safe and humane alternative to maintain family unity” where families have freedom of movement, recreational activities, cable television, exercise equipment, a soccer field, and a computer lab.
Gutiérrez Cruz sees it differently. “It is hard to be here,” she says. “They can cover everything with gold and it is still a prison.”
This article was written with support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and in collaboration with The Media Consortium.