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Immigration advocacy group infiltrates ICE detention center, alleges unjust treatment

By: Bill Melugin

EL PASO, Texas --

Organizers working with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance told KFOX14 they have intentionally allowed one of their members to be detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to get inside access to the El Paso Processing Center.

An NIYA organizer, identified as Santiago Garcia, has been inside the El Paso center for the last several weeks, and NIYA said he has helped uncover what the organization says is "nearly 100 instances of ICE officials refusing to release parole eligible individuals."

The El Paso Detention Center is home to almost 800 immigrants, many of which are detained and brought in after surrendering themselves at the U.S. Port of Entry. Many of them end up seeking asylum.

According to legal encyclopedia Nolo.com, when a Custom and Border Protection officer takes a noncitizen into custody for failing to provide required immigration paperwork or attempting to illegally enter the U.S., CBP will ask the person if they are afraid of returning to their home country. If the person says "no," he or she will be deported. If they say "yes," and mention they are afraid of being persecuted, killed or tortured, officers will set up what is called a "credible fear interview" with an asylum officer.

After the interview is complete, the interviewer will decide whether the detainee has a credible fear. The interviewer will provide a written decision and a transcript of the interview to the detainee.

A detainee who has established a credible fear of persecution will be allowed to apply for asylum, while in detention or after having been released on a bond. A detainee who has not established a credible fear can request a review of this decision in a hearing by an immigration judge as a last effort to avoid being removed from the country.

NIYA has alleged that they've been in contact with dozens of detainees who have passed their credible fear exams, and are still being held.

NIYA held a protest at the detention center on Tuesday afternoon, where they submitted a petition with 12,000 signatures, and with the help of local immigration attorneys, demanded a full-scale investigation into the facility.

"Many of the detainees have turned in their sponsorship paperwork, they've passed their credible fear interviews, they have all their requirements, yet they're not being released," said Luis Leon, an organizer with NIYA. "We don't understand how some people get released, in like a week, the wife does, but the husband has to stay in there for another five months, so we're asking for a review of that and a review of what that abuse of power is."

NIYA said their insider, Garcia, has helped discover the following allegations:

-- More than 100 cases where detainees are granted Credible Fear, provide sponsorship documents, and ICE officials still refuse to parole them;

-- Six cases of pregnant women detained in conditions detrimental to the health of their unborn babies, including one women who suffered a miscarriage, inside the center;

-- 12 instances of detainees, eligible for parole, deported;

-- Instances of male and female detainees being refused proper medication, despite diagnosed conditions.

Maria Reyes told KFOX14 her son has been held at the detention center since July.

"My son, his wife, and his two children came to seek political asylum from Mexico, someone wanted to assassinate him," Reyes said.

Reyes told KFOX14 her son's family of four was stopped at the bridge with their laser visas, and taken to the detention center. She said her daughter-in-law and one of the kids were released after five weeks, but that her son and the other child are still detained inside.

"It's not fair because they came as a family, they all had the same fear, why did they have to stay and my daughter in law got let go?" Reyes said. "We want them back as a family."

KFOX14 spoke on the phone with Garcia from inside the detention facility.

"I see how when nobody is watching, immigration does whatever they want," Garcia said. "When I was sitting being processed at the immigration checkpoint, there were two officers talking among themselves, and they thought I couldn't understand a single thing they were saying. They were planning that they wanted to drop me off at the bridge, tricking me into signing my own volunteer departure, telling me that what I was going to be signing an acknowledgment that they had read my rights, when in reality they were trying to get rid of me as fast as they could by making me sign my volunteer departure."

Garcia said he has been in contact with several of the detainees who he says are being unjustly held, some of which are from countries like Nigeria.

"A lot of the detainees feel like there's no one that even knows of their existence," Garcia said. "They're stuck in between two borders where they feel like nobody cares where they're at, nobody is fighting for them."

ICE spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa sent KFOX14 the following statement in response to the numerous allegations made by NIYA.

"U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE has not yet received the specific allegations that are supposed to be released by NIYA at today's news conference. However, the general charges made by NIYA in its media advisory concerning the detainee population at ICE's El Paso Processing Center are not accurate. NIYA previously attempted this same tactic of false allegations against ICE in Florida. Without detailed knowledge of the immigration and criminal histories of every ICE detainee, NIYA members have no means of properly assessing the appropriateness of releasing ICE detainees. Prosecutorial discretion decisions are based on the merits of each case and factual information provided to the agency. ICE cannot respond to NIYA's vague claims about individuals who have not been identified, nor to unsubstantiated anecdotes. ICE exercises prosecutorial discretion on a case-by-case basis, as necessary to focus resources on our stated priorities, which are public safety, border security and the integrity of the U.S. immigration system. Under the deferred action process, and prosecutorial discretion as a whole, ICE screens every alien its officers encounter, including those in ICE custody."
"The El Paso Processing Center is a civil detention facility that houses mandatory-detention individuals, detainees with final orders awaiting removal, detainees appealing their immigration cases, and recent entrants whose administrative cases fall under the priorities previously established by ICE.
ICE regularly reviews the case status of its detained population for appropriate release on alternatives to detention and prosecutorial discretion."

Local immigration attorney Pamela Genghin Muoz responded to ICE's statement with a statement of her own. The letter she references is attached to this web article. Her statement is as follows:

"While ICE, through Ms. Zamarripa, contend that they have received 'vague claims about individuals who have not been identified and unsubstantiated anecdotes,' from NIYA, the truth is that they received much more than that from local immigration attorneys in a letter delivered this morning to Field Office Director Adrian Macias's office. That letter, which was prepared and signed by private immigration attorneys and non profit organizations in El Paso, contains details about specific individuals who fall within the category of detainees referred to as arriving aliens who have passed a credible fear interview. We can corroborate a systemic deviation from stated US ICE policy as to the custody of asylum seekers. Memorandum from John Morton, Assistant Secretary U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Directive No. 11002.1, Parole of Arriving Aliens Found to Have a 'Credible Fear' of Persecution or Torture (Dec. 8, 2009); if you notice, the date stamp on the scanned copy I am providing you shows that it was received by ICE/Department of Homeland Security at 10:12 am.
"The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) states at Section 236(c) that individuals categorized as "arriving aliens" (as any person who presents themselves at a port of entry requesting asylum is categorized) are subject to mandatory detention, thereby stripping the Immigration Judge of any jurisdiction to consider release of the individual on bond. This means that the only recourse for these asylum seekers, many of whom have no criminal history or immigration history and who have family ties in the U.S., is to request release on parole from Immigration and Customs Enforcement Officials. In a policy change aimed at resolving this issue, then ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton issued a memo in 2009 which took effect in January 2010, providing for the consideration of release on parole for individuals who were arriving aliens and who had passed a credible fear interview, the initial prima facie vetting of an applicant's asylum claim.
There are countless instances here in El Paso, including those mentioned by name in the letter, who have passed credible fear interviews, have documentation to provide ICE officials as to their identity and ties in the US, but have been denied release on parole. In addition to the mental and physical damage caused by prolonged detention, in the specific instance of immigration law, it often results in applicants abandoning their claims in order to get out of detention. These violations of the ICE stated protocol and capricious adjudications clearly stray from the spirit of the 2009 Memorandum."