Last week I heard a story that broke my heart. It was about a little boy called Josué, just 3 years old, who had spent more than half his life in a detention center. He had learned to walk and talk there, and probably has no memories of freedom.
Why would a toddler be detained like this? This is a question for the Department of Homeland Security. Because Josué, and many other children and adults, are being held here in the United States while their applications for permanent residency are processed.
Josue’s mother, Teresa, decided to seek asylum in the U.S. after fleeing kidnapping threats and physical assault in Honduras. Fifteen months ago, I was in Teresa’s shoes. I lived in El Salvador, where gangs and organized crime feed one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
My life was filled with violence. When the physical and sexual abuse I had been suffering at the hands of my partner became too much, I took my two kids and went to live with a relative. It was the wrong decision. Within a few weeks the relative, who is involved with gangs, was also beating and abusing us. I received death threats from local gang members who were believed to have killed people before. I knew I had to get out.
I have relatives in New York and I planned to stay with them while my application for asylum in the U.S. was processed. I decided to leave my children in El Salvador until I could make the necessary arrangements to bring them here legally—I thought this would be a few months at most.
But my plans went horribly wrong. I was detained at the border by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and spent 450 days in Prarieland Detention Center. Those months seemed endless, and I missed my children terribly. Still, I knew that if I had brought them with me, they too would have been detained in this dark place.
I used to think that prisons were for criminals. Now I know that things are not so simple. I was kept in detention for 15 months simply for seeking asylum, which it was my legal right to do. I have no criminal record, so I could not understand why I was treated like I was dangerous, why my wrists and ankles were shackled, or why I was frequently prevented from speaking to my family, and denied access to a lawyer.
In February of this year, after more than a year in detention, I had a seizure and collapsed. I was diagnosed with a tumor on my pituitary gland and spent 12 days in hospital. This condition is life-threatening, so I was astonished when I was returned to Prarieland and given nothing more than Tylenol to treat my symptoms. I felt dizzy and faint and suffered from nosebleeds, terrible headaches and convulsions, not to mention the terror of not knowing if I was going to see my children again. I was taken to my medical appointments in shackles, where I had to wait for an interpreter to be called so I could understand what the doctor was telling me about my condition—all while in the presence of two prison guards.
My story is one of many. Last week I was released on parole, and I am resting with my family in New York. I am weak and tired, but most of all I feel let down. This is not what I thought the U.S. would be like. From El Salvador, I had always imagined it as a place of sanctuary, a country committed to human rights and equality. This was not what I experienced.
Still, I consider myself one of the lucky ones. There many people, including children, seeking asylum here who are instead held still in detention centers and the policies proposed by the new administration are likely to make that number soar.
Most of those detained asylum seekers fled horrific violence in countries like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. It’s not only unconscionable to detain vulnerable people like this—it’s illegal. Under U.S. and international law, the U.S. government is supposed to use detention of asylum seekers only as a last resort, not to automatically detain people while their claims are processed—however long that takes.
I hope that I can start rebuilding my life in the U.S. I hope that my children can come here safely and legally, and that we can be a family again. As much as all this, I hope that the government will change its cruel practice of detaining asylum seekers, and step up to its commitment to protect them.