Hundreds of protesters demand release of asylum seekers held in San Diego detention facility

Many immigrants were fleeing political unrest, gang violence, and repression in their countries.

Hundreds of protesters gather outside Otay Mesa detention facility. (Credit: Screenshot, San Diego Union Tribune)
Hundreds of protesters gather outside Otay Mesa detention facility. (Credit: Screenshot, San Diego Union Tribune)

Hundreds of protesters gathered outside Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego Sunday morning to call for the release of immigrants being held in the facility for crossing the U.S. border without documentation.

According to the San Diego Union Tribune, approximately 200 immigration rights organizers and activists read letters written by asylum seekers who were detained after arriving as part of a caravan at the border in Tijuana, Mexico in April. Many were fleeing political unrest, gang violence, and repression in their countries.

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Their letters shed light on the disturbing conditions many of them face at the detention center, which is run by CoreCivic, a private company. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency officials have said allegations of poor treatment are false.

“They force us to work for six hours [a day] for a payment of a $1.60,” David Obud of the immigration advocacy group Pueblo Sin Fronteras read from a letter. “They threaten to report us to judges when we don’t want to work. They threaten … to damage our cases.”

“For any medical needs it’s nonexistent,” 24-year-old Jennye Lopez, who spent six months in the facility last year, said to the crowd in Spanish. “They barely offer you water.”

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ICE spokesperson Lauren Mack told the San Diego Union Tribune that the agency is “committed to providing for the safety and well being of all detainees in our custody … We have very high-standard medical centers inside the facilities.”

While the practice of detaining asylum seekers prior to their immigration hearings is one spanning across multiple presidential administrations, the Trump administration has taken it several steps further. Last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy will allow for the prosecution of all people, including asylum seekers, who attempt to cross the border into the United States without documentation. Children are separated from their families while their parents await prosecution, and many immigrants are held on high bonds or denied parole.

“How is it possible that we have come asking for help and protection for our lives and that when we arrive, we are separated from our children and families and treated like criminals even if that’s not what we are,” one activist read from a letter. “We want people to be conscientious and to give us the opportunity to be released on parole or with a minimal bond because, right now, they are denying parole to all and the bonds are very high, even $15,000 or $25,0000.”

“How do you think we are going to be able to pay that amount if we come fleeing our countries?” she continued.

Several protesters held signs emblazoned with the name “Roxana Hernandez,” a transgender woman from Honduras who died in ICE custody last month. She was one of dozens of transgender and gender nonconforming immigrants who fled hate, stigma, and violence as part of the migrant caravan.

According to immigration advocacy groups, Hernandez likely died from lack of medical care. When she was finally taken to a local hospital after one week in detention, she exhibited symptoms of pneumonia, dehydration, and complications associated with HIV.

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According to CNN, Hernandez is the sixth person to die while in ICE custody since October, but several new reports suggest the number may be higher. Last week, an Eritrean national, Zeresenay Ermias Testfatsion, who was denied asylum in the United States, killed himself in a holding area at the Egyptian airport while being deported back to his country.