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Haitian Asylum Seekers Held Under Del Rio Bridge Now Face Inhumane Conditions in New Mexico ICE Jail

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The world was shocked by images of Haitians whipped by U.S. Border Patrol agents on horseback as they sought refuge. Thousands were soon deported, but dozens are now detained in an ICE jail in New Mexico where they face inhumane conditions and lack access to legal services. We speak with a lawyer who describes medical neglect, deteriorating mental and physical health, and poor treatment by the staff. “They cannot get the basic tools and have the basic human contact that they need to save their own lives,” says immigration attorney Allegra Love of the El Paso Immigration Collaborative.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We turn now to look at what happened to some of the Haitian asylum seekers we first heard about in September, when the world was shocked by images of U.S. Border Patrol agents on horseback whipping them as they waded across the Rio Grande into Texas. Well, thousands were taking shelter at a makeshift camp underneath a bridge in Del Rio, Texas, after fleeing extreme poverty, political turmoil, violence and the impacts of the climate catastrophe at home, conditions largely exacerbated by U.S. and foreign intervention in Haiti.

Most of the Haitian asylum seekers were mass deported by the Biden administration, but some are still being held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE, jails. Human rights advocates have raised alarm about dozens now held at the Torrance County Detention Facility in Estancia, New Mexico, about an hour southeast of Albuquerque, where they say asylum seekers are facing abuse and medical neglect. Advocates have also reported asylum seekers have had limited access to legal services and say many of their requests to be released to stay with family members or sponsors while their cases are resolved have been denied.

The jail is managed by the for-profit private prison corporation CoreCivic. Earlier this year, Torrance actually failed its annual government inspection over severe understaffing, unsanitary and other unsafe conditions. Torrance also saw a massive COVID outbreak and was sued in May by several asylum seekers after guards pepper-sprayed them for launching a peaceful hunger strike last year protesting inhumane conditions.

For more, we’re joined in Santa Fe, New Mexico, by immigration attorney Allegra Love of the El Paso Immigration Collaborative.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Allegra. If you can describe who the Haitian asylum seekers are in the Torrance facility in Estancia and what’s happening to them now?

ALLEGRA LOVE: Good morning.

So, the people being held at the Torrance facility in Estancia, New Mexico, are, we think, between 60 and 80 of the men who we first saw in camps under the bridge in Del Rio, Texas. For reasons that no one has made clear to me, in spite of the fact that I’m their lawyer, at least 45 of those people’s lawyer, we have not been told why they were chosen to be put in this detention center and were spared the expulsion flights that thousands and thousands of their countrymen were subjected to. So they’re there ostensibly seeking asylum and being held for an administrative hearing for them to be removed to Haiti.

Most of my clients were put into the detention facility around September 21st, and so they’ve been there over two months at this point. And we are receiving complaints about food, water, treatment by the staff. And probably scariest to me, we’re receiving really, really sincere complaints across the board of medical neglect and people’s physical and mental health deteriorating inside of this facility rapidly.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read a statement from one of the Haitians you’re trying to assist at Torrance. This is from a 25-year-old Haitian man who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. He wrote, “If I don’t have an attorney I think that they can deport me. I don’t know what asylum is. I wasn’t allowed to speak. Nobody explained anything and they just told me I was supposed to have an attorney. I don’t want to go back to Haiti. I can’t go back. My family member was killed and his house was burned. My mom has just been crying because I cannot go back. If I go back I can’t even leave the airport,” he said. Talk more about this situation and what has to be done now, Allegra.

ALLEGRA LOVE: So, it’s hard — you have to imagine that this is not a detention facility that is next to a big city, next to a place where there’s lots of law firms, next to a place where there’s a law school who can help all these people. This is in the middle of the barren New Mexico desert, and there are not a lot of lawyers who can help these people with their cases. Asylum cases are intense, very, very legally complicated, very, very evidence-heavy claims that you need sincere legal assistance to help.

For a lot of the gentlemen who are detained in that facility, it took us between September 27th, was when I first contacted the government, to November 12th to speak with them for the first time in person. So, when this person, my client, says, “I don’t know what asylum is,” he’s being sincere. He has not spoken in his own language to someone who is on his side and can help him understand the extremely grave legal process that he’s going through. But when he said that, he may have already been through one or two hearings in front of an immigration judge, who’s actually 300 miles away in El Paso and talked with him over video and is rapidly trying to remove him from the country and is indifferent to the fact that he has not been able to secure any legal counsel or any even explanation of what asylum is.

Detention — I mean, I’m never going to say — there’s really no conditions for me that depriving an asylum seeker of their liberty is going to work for me, but it certainly does not work when they cannot get the basic tools and have the basic human contact that they need to save their own lives. And that’s what we have in this extremely remote and extremely rural detention center in New Mexico.

AMY GOODMAN: Allegra, can you talk about CoreCivic, this private for-profit detention prison company that is running this facility, that failed an inspection this past year?

ALLEGRA LOVE: Yeah. CoreCivic is one of the biggest private prison corporations in the United States that profits off of ICE keeping immigrant bodies inside of this detention center. Interestingly enough, during the Trump administration, because of the border closures and because of the pandemic, by the end of 2020, right before Trump left office, there was less than a dozen people inside of this detention facility, which meant an enormous loss of profit, I mean, to a certain extent, to these corporations. Now we are watching the Biden administration repopulate this rural detention center with immigrants, and it’s hard not to conclude that this is to bolster corporate profit.

What’s really, really alarming about Torrance is it was one of three facilities in the United States that failed their inspection this summer. Failing an inspection is an extremely difficult thing to do. I think your program probably does widespread coverage about how terrible immigration detention is, yet most facilities actually pass their inspections. And Torrance failed. Yet, our president and this administration is choosing to repopulate this facility that has not met the standard for caring for human life. They’re repopulating it with extremely vulnerable people, extremely vulnerable Haitians. And it’s part of a deterrence strategy. It’s part of a strategy to make sure that more Haitians don’t attempt to come into this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Allegra Love, we’re going to continue to cover this issue. It is so critical. Immigration attorney with the El Paso Immigration Collaborative, speaking to us from Santa Fe, New Mexico, today.

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