'Only God could help us': An asylum-seeker's 8-month odyssey in the immigration detention system

ICE Field Office contradicts ICE's own rules, failing to grant parole.

October 17, 2019, 6:13 AM

For asylum-seeker Miguel Angel Giron Martinez, getting to the U.S. border was the easy part.

It was the eight months afterward that he says was a nightmare.

In an interview with ABC News, Giron Martinez -- a 23-year-old student activist from Honduras who had his life threatened by the government -- claimed that he was kept in cramped conditions where men lined up for hours to use one of only three showers and was bounced around to different facilities in what he described as "endless detention."

At one point, he says he suffered a botched dental surgery in U.S. custody that was so painful he had no choice but to later extract part of the tooth himself, using only toilet paper to stop the bleeding.

Giron Martinez is one of several named plaintiffs seeking injunctive relief and class certification in a lawsuit against Kevin McAleenan, the former acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security who stepped down last week, the acting director of ICE, Matthew Albence, and two other ICE officials.

The plaintiffs claim in the suit, which is ongoing in Washington, D.C. federal court, that the New Orleans field office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has failed to follow agency directives for parole -- temporary release for those who have a "credible fear of persecution or torture" -- and instead have subjected them to indefinite detention "in remote immigration jails across the Deep South" despite satisfying the grounds for release, according to the complaint.

Giron Martinez claimed he was repeatedly denied parole despite being an ideal candidate; he had no criminal history, had a U.S. citizen willing to sponsor him, and was not considered to be a flight risk, according to his lawyers. He has since been granted asylum in the United States.

But some immigration lawyers say the harrowing details of Giron Martinez’s story raise serious questions about the U.S. treatment of asylum seekers. They say it highlights how unfair it is to deny parole to detainees who have no criminal history, who do not pose a flight risk, and should, under ICE's own parole directive, be granted parole.

Parole rates for detainees have been plummeting under the Trump administration and conditions under which detainees are held have come under scrutiny by advocates as well as the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General.

During his ordeal, Giron Martinez said it was his faith that helped him pull through.

“At nine at night, we would make our own religious circle,” he told ABC News. “Because we were asking God to help us. Because only God could help us.”

The ‘Ice Box’

Giron Martinez was a student political leader and a member of an opposition party who marched for justice and an end to corruption in his home country. In court documents and an interview, he said local police "threatened me with disappearance and death." But when his friends were murdered and his own life was threatened, he said he decided in October 2018 to leave home and family behind to seek asylum in the United States.

He traveled on foot with a caravan to the American border and said he received "death threats by narcotraffickers" along the way, according to his declaration in the federal lawsuit.

Asylum Seeker's Journey to the US
Asylum Seeker's Journey to the US

Upon arriving in Tijuana in November 2018, Giron Martinez faced the first obstacle -- a flood of migrants, like him, who were trying to enter the United States to seek asylum.

For more than two months, he said he patiently waited his turn. Then, on Jan. 14, 2019, Giron Martinez was granted entry at the San Ysidro port, near San Diego.

His first stop was the so-called “ice box” -- also known as the "hielera"-- a frigid holding room for migrants inside a facility run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Giron Martinez echoed what other migrants before him said about the 'ice box.' He claims he wasn’t provided a bed and had to sleep sitting up. The only thing officials gave him for warmth was an aluminum blanket, he maintained.

CBP has said its facilities are intended to hold people briefly – the goal is no more than 72 hours -- until they can be processed and moved to other government facilities. But 2019 marked a radical increase in the number of people trying to cross the border – nearly 1 million undocumented migrants -- almost double the amount in prior years.

Giron Martinez said he spent nearly a week in the "ice box" before being handed over to ICE on Jan. 20.

The Pain

Giron Martinez said he was cuffed and taken to a detention center in Mississippi. From there, he says he was transferred to another detention center, this time in Louisiana, and then another. He would spend the greater part of a year under the jurisdiction of the New Orleans ICE Field Office.

PHOTO: Chart
New Orleans ICE Field Office Rate of Parole
ABC News Chart Illustration

While he was being held in the Jackson Parish Correctional Center in Louisiana, where he was transferred around March 21, Giron Martinez said he started experiencing severe pain in one of his teeth, so he asked to have it removed.

“I was asking every day for six weeks,” Giron Martinez told ABC News. “And they finally came to take it out. And when they took it out, they somehow botched the job. They left a little bit of molar still in there and they sewed me back up.”

He says the pain never stopped. According to his declaration, the dentist told him he needed to see a specialist to have the rest of the tooth removed, but when he was moved to a different facility, Winn, over the summer, he claims he was told there were no specialists.

About three months later, he said he noticed the rest of that tooth was protruding a little. So he decided to take matters into his own hands, removing his own tooth, without anesthetic. To help clot the blood, he shoved toilet paper into his mouth, he said in an interview.

Giron Martinez said he couldn't access his health records because he had been transferred and was not able to see a dentist at Winn, according to his declaration.

He also claims that he was confined to a room about the size of a tennis court with what he estimated to be 140 other men. There was no air conditioning and only three showers for the men he shared the room with, he claimed. The officers put two giant fans at either end of the room, but it still stunk with heat and sweat, he said.

Giron Martinez said he was rarely away from the stench and was let outside for 30 minutes once a week. Rusted iron bunk beds filled the entire space. Some of the men spent their days laying down, others huddled in conversation, and many lined up for hours waiting for a shower, he said during the interview.

ICE disputes some of the details of the conditions at the Jackson Parish Correctional Center. A spokesman said the room’s capacity was only 100 men and that they were allowed outside for one hour a day, weather permitting. ICE also said Giron Martinez would have had access to six showers and that the air conditioning worked every day but two while he was at Jackson Parish.

Giron Martinez’s description of deficiencies at the detention centers tracks with conditions described by an internal DHS watchdog. In other ICE facilities around the country in 2018, the Homeland Security inspector general reported expired and moldy foods were in kitchen refrigerators and some migrants were kept in "standing-room-only conditions.”

“Cruelty is the point,” said Luz Lopez, a senior attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, which represents Giron Martinez and others in the federal class action lawsuit.

“They want to be as cruel as possible so everyone will talk,” Lopez said. ”And then they will tell anyone who is thinking of coming to not because the conditions are so horrible.”

0% Parole Rate

Giron Martinez passed his credible fear interview (which is part of an asylum claim), proved his identity and that he was not a danger to society -- the general qualifications for parole barring other considerations. He also had a U.S. citizen, Tanya Hartley, willing to sponsor him – a strong indication that he was not a flight risk, according to his lawyers. Hartley told ABC News that she met Giron Martinez in December 2018 at the border where she was volunteering. After a few weeks of 'vetting' him herself, she said, she agreed to become his sponsor. Giron Martinez was the first – and is the only – asylum seeker Hartley has sponsored.

But for each of the three times Giron Martinez requested parole from the New Orleans ICE Field Office, he was denied. ICE claims he was a flight risk, but did not give any guidance or specific proof to this claim other than checking a box on his form. He was not the only one. According to a September memorandum opinion by Judge James Boasberg in Giron Martinez's case, no one has been released on parole by the New Orleans office this year.

Three years ago, under President Barack Obama, the office operated very differently. In 2016, more than 75% of asylum seekers under its jurisdiction were granted parole, Boasberg's memo said.

PHOTO: Miguel Martinez, 23, was in the custody of the New Orleans ICE Field Office for eight months. During his detainment, he applied for parole three times. He was denied every time.
Miguel Martinez, 23, was in the custody of the New Orleans ICE Field Office for eight months. During his detainment, he applied for parole three times. He was denied every time.
Courtesy Miguel Martinez

While parole remains largely discretionary and based on a case-by-case basis, Boasberg said it is likely that the New Orleans ICE field office is ignoring ICE's own parole procedures by denying parole on such a large scale.

"The numbers and the affidavits provide a powerful case - one the Government barely attempts to rebut - that the New Orleans Field Office no longer follows the dictates of the Parole Directive," Boasberg wrote in the September opinion.

In an order in September, Boasberg granted the plaintiffs' motions for class certification and preliminary injunction against the New Orleans field office, and ordered them to follow their own rules and grant parole on an individualized basis for ‘arriving aliens.’

The order prohibits the field office from denying parole without going through the parole process for each individual,

In October, Boasberg ruled that the field office would have to produce a report for all parolees denied before Sept. 5, 2019 (the day of the preliminary injunction) and a monthly report for all those who arrive after and give detainees notice of the class action lawsuit and contact information for the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

$31,000 Jail Bill for Taxpayers

Bryan Cox, a spokesman for ICE, declined to comment on the court case, noting that “ICE generally does not comment on pending litigation.” But he advised that ICE complies "with court orders” and that “the agency is currently reviewing the court’s ruling to determine appropriate next steps."

On Aug. 13, 2019, Giron Martinez was granted asylum by an immigration judge, but he still wasn’t allowed to go free. The Department of Homeland Security reserved appeal, so Giron Martinez was forced to spend an additional 30 days in detention, according to his lawyer. When asked about the appeal, ICE had no comment

DHS has not responded to ABC News' request for comment.

Finally, on Sept. 13 -- almost eight months to the day since crossing the border legally -- Giron Martinez was released and granted full asylum. He now lives in Southern California with a U.S. citizen host Rachel Bruhnke, who knows Honduras well since she lived there for three years as a Peace Corps volunteer. She is providing him housing and support, as well as helping him assimilate to American life. He is currently studying English.

All in, Giron Martinez spent 236 days in ICE custody, costing the U.S. taxpayer roughly $31,621 -- based on the average per bed cost for an adult of $133.99 per day according to ICE’s 2018 budget.

Giron Martinez looks at his suffering from a bigger picture.

“I feel like God has always been with me,” Giron Martinez said. “Because no matter what, I seem to be getting out of it.”