Migrant Woman Attempted Suicide Minutes After Realizing She Can’t Afford Her Own Release

CREDIT: AP Photo/Juan Carlos Llorca, File

FILE - In this Sept. 10, 2014, file photo, an unidentified immigrant from Guatemala who declined to give her name, is interviewed, while her son paints on a whiteboard at the Artesia Family Residential Center, a federal detention facility for undocumented immigrant mothers and children in Artesia, N.M.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials are set to release a 27-year-old Honduran migrant mother who attempted suicide minutes after officials gave her the choice between paying a $5,000 bond or remaining in an immigration detention center in Texas. Just last month, a federal court issued an injunction to temporarily halt the government from detaining migrant mothers with children seeking asylum in the United States. But advocates are saying that officials are bypassing the injunction by issuing high bonds as a way to keep those immigrants in detention and deter future border crossers.

“They told me they were going to send me to another psych center, but instead they brought me to this detention center,” Bernice said last week according to a press release. “They took my child from me and have not told me anything about where she is. I know I will be killed if I am deported; I cannot pay $5,000. I ask for god to help me.”

Immigration officials have detained Bernice at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas since December 2014. Bernice, a Honduran of Garifuna descent, was found to “have favorable credible fear findings, a process which allows for individuals to pursue their asylum cases,” according to an Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) press release.

Jonathan Ryan, the executive director of the immigration rights group Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) told ThinkProgress on Thursday that Bernice had been politically active in Honduras and was seeking political asylum in the United States after “she got into a tight situation” fighting for equality for the Garifuna community, an oppressed minority group of Afro-Caribbean descent living in Honduras.

“This is someone who sought redress from harm in her country and her country failed her,” Ryan said. “We failed her in terms of helping her and we made it worse by putting her in detention, calling her a threat to national security. The [high] bond that she received was under the ‘national security’ argument.”

In an April 2003 ruling, former Attorney General John Ashcroft argued against granting bond to a Haitian immigrant because it would encourage future illegal entries, Buzzfeed reported.

Immigration officials generally determine the bond price based on a variety of factors, including whether an immigrant could be a flight risk or pose a public safety threat. According to Mohammad Abdollahi, the RAICES advocacy director, lower bonds — the minimum set at $1,500 — are set for immigrants who have U.S. citizen connections because they are more likely to show up to court. Higher bonds are generally set for immigrants with undocumented family members.

Even after Ryan argued that Bernice has U.S. citizen family members who could take her in and could assure that she would check in with the court, ICE reportedly refused to budge on the bond amount. “Why her bond remained the same was confusing to me as her attorney,” he said. “It was clearly confusing and devastating to her, as the person in detention, because it was within minutes of hearing this that she lost all hope and did something drastic.”

After Bernice’s attempted suicide, ICE told RAICES Thursday morning that she would be released without having to pay a bond. It’s as yet unclear whether she would be released on her own recognizance, a process that allows detainees to promise in writing to show up for future court proceedings. Ryan was upset about how ICE had come to this process, “This is a few days after ICE decided not to change the bond… As soon as the spotlight of attention is on her case and on her vulnerability, her suffering, she’s released, or slipped under the rug. ICE tried to use this person to send a message [of deterrence to future border crossers].”

An influx of 68,445 Latin American adults with children crossed the southern border last year. In response, the Obama administration adopted an “aggressive deterrence strategy” to lock up women and their children in detention under a “no release” policy as a way to deter future migrants from making the trek. Some people were released, but many were denied bond based on the national security threat argument.

“With this story coming out, we’re hearing from other attorneys of clients who have reached similar states of desperation and that it’s connected to this high bond policy,” Ryan said, “This is not a unique case. It’s just unique in the attention it’s receiving. We’ve been seeing [higher bonds]. When we first saw the $7,500 bonds across the board, we felt that ICE’s response was to indiscriminately set $7,500 bonds.” Ryan added that he’s “seen bonds anywhere between $7,500 and $15,000. In this case where the family has U.S. citizen family, a $5,000 bond seems excessive. I would describe ICE’s handling of the bonds to be arbitrary and oppressive.”

Advocates have heavily criticized conditions in family detention facilities like the ones at the Artesia Detention Center in New Mexico and Karnes County Civil Detention in Texas for its treatment of detainees, including children who slept in freezing “ice-box” conditions, women who never received the opportunity to get legal representation, and attorneys who weren’t allowed to talk with their clients. ICE transitioned to Dilley after shutting down Artesia in December.

“These high bonds [are used] as a way to send a message back to Central America that they’re not welcome here,” Ryan said. “Their claims of relief will not be heard if they can be rounded up and sent home without any kind of judicial process.”