ThinkProgress

An undocumented mother always thought she was an American citizen. Now she’s in ICE custody.

An undocumented mother who helped put a rapist behind bars is in ICE custody and has no idea how long she'll be kept there. PICTURED: A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) special agent preparing to arrest alleged immigration violators. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

Ivonne Burciaga Prieto believed she was born an American. Her mother told her that she was born outside of Houston, Texas. For 36 years, she worked, raised three American children in El Paso, paid her taxes, and bought a home.

But since February this year, Burciaga Prieto has languished in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), after authorities accused her of using a false birth certificate, according to the Texas Tribune. It’s the same birth certificate she used repeatedly to travel to Mexico.

“Her mother told her she was born outside of Houston and … used a midwife,” Burciaga Prieto’s attorney, Stephen Spurgin, told the Tribune. “A midwife jumped through all the hoops to sign off on [the birth certificate] and the people at the bridge were happy with that for years.”

That all changed in 2013, when Buricaga Prieto reported a cousin had sexual abused her 6-year-old daughter. She now believes she is being punished for coming forward.

Just prior to the cousin’s conviction, Burciaga Prieto was detained at the border. Both she and her attorney believe U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was tipped off by relative who wanted revenge on Burciaga Prieto, who reported and testified against a family member.

In a letter to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) this past spring, Spurgin claimed the tip may have been part of a larger ploy to get Burciaga Prieto and her daughter to recant their story.

Four months after she was detained at the border and charged with violating immigration laws by making a false representation of citizenship, federal prosecutors dismissed the charge, and the Tribune noted that, for the next four years, Burciaga Prieto collected “copies of pay stubs, income tax returns and lease agreements” that all proved she was living life on the radar, and in sight of immigration authorities.

In February, ICE used that visibility to track Burciaga Prieto down and place her under arrest.

Burciaga Prieto is currently being held at an immigration detention facility in Hudspeth County, Texas. Her children are staying with family in Mexico until school restarts this fall. She has no idea how long ICE plans to keep her there.

“I’m a single mother, I’m a mother and father and my children need me,” she told the Tribune. “And I am here and I see that everyone is getting out, that mothers arrive with their kids and they get out and I am traumatized. I haven’t killed anyone, I am not a drug dealer, I don’t have criminal charges.”

That an immigrant mother who reported her child’s sexual abuser would end up in the custody of an agency accused of abusing its detainees is yet another example of the extent to which the U.S. immigration system is broken.

As The Intercept reported, from January 2010 to September 2017, there were 1,224 sexual abuse complaints made by detainees in ICE custody, but only 43 investigations.

“On top of feelings of shame and the victim-blaming that all survivors face, detainees who are sexually abused by staff are faced with the horrifying prospect of having to report the assault to their rapist’s colleagues and friends,” Jesse Lerner-Kinglake, communications director of anti-sexual violence group Just Detention International, told The Intercept.

One survivor, a woman seeking asylum in the United States, described her assault by a van driver from Texas’ T. Don Hutto Residential Detention Center to The New York Times. “He grabbed my breasts…. He put his hands in my pants and he touched my private parts,” said the woman, who said she had just been released from the facility and was being driven to a relative’s home where she would stay while her case was pending. “He touched me again inside the van, and my hands were tied. And he started masturbating.”

Another survivor, a 19-year-old who had been staying with her 3-year-old son in a Pennsylvania family detention center, said she “didn’t know how to refuse” because her abuser told her that she would be deported. “I was at a jail and he was a migration officer,” she said. “It’s like they order you to do something and you have to do it.”

Children and adolescents are also at risk of being assaulted while detained in such facilities, many of which have histories of alleged mismanagement and abuse. Last week, two youth care workers at separate detention centers in Arizona were charged with sexually assaulting teens under their care over the past year. The centers are both run by Southwest Key Programs, “a Texas nonprofit that has received at least $955 million in federal contracts since 2015 to provide shelters and other services to immigrant children in federal custody,” according to the Times.

In the age of emboldened immigration enforcement, ICE is cracking down on law-abiding immigrants who have spent years living quiet lives in the United States.

A few months ago, ThinkProgress reported on an undocumented mother being held at an ICE detention center in Florida. “Mary Caceres” (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy) had missed a court date due to factors out of her control; her immigration attorney had committed suicide and she wasn’t informed of her next check-in date. Mary did not have a criminal record and appeared voluntarily before law enforcement officials to make sure she was complying with the law. According to Carceres’ daughter, she was deported back to Colombia last month anyway, after 13 years of living in the United States.

An undocumented mother in Pompano Beach, Florida was also detained by ICE agents earlier this year, after showing up to a police station to voluntarily pay a traffic ticket. Another Florida woman was deported to Venezuela after living in the country for 20 years. She had received a university degree, had a good job, a home, and had built a quiet life in the states with her husband and two children.