On Friday, fourteen people arrived to fill the small courtroom at the San Antonio immigration court and surprised staff with matching t-shirts to support Maribel Zelaya at the bond hearing she had finally been granted after more than a year in detention.
Glaringly absent in the room was Maribel herself, who was not permitted to physically attend her own hearing. She was instead video-conferenced in to the proceeding from the detention center in Laredo, where she was not able to see her supporters, or even her attorney. The only evidence of her presence was the persistent coughing audible from the videoconference system. She later told me she was so nervous she was physically ill and had no idea what had happened in the hearing.
Maribel is a refugee mother from Honduras who identifies as Garífuna, a black indigenous group that faces discrimination and marginalization throughout Latin America. She fled harrowing abuse at the hands of her former partner and members of his gang. She had already lived at a shelter in Honduras due to the abuse that she and her children experienced, but continued to face threats from gang members who retaliated against her for actions her partner had committed. The gang had occupied nearly her entire street, and one night after she refused to carry drugs for them, they entered her house and viciously raped her in front of her children. She fled soon after.
When I met her in July 2015, Maribel had already been in detention for more than 6 months at the T. Don Hutto Detention Center in Taylor, Texas and was presenting her case before an immigration judge for the first time. She didn’t have an attorney and knew little about the grounds for obtaining asylum in the U.S. or what kind of evidence she should present to the judge. Because she was detained, she was also unable to send her family the money they would need to obtain some of the official documents that would have served as evidence in her case. In her final hearing the judge did not ask her questions and she did not speak. She lost her asylum case because the judge did not understand it.
Maribel remained in detention while appealing the decision in her asylum case. Her health had been deteriorating for some time, from being unable to manage her sickle cell disease under the conditions of detention. She also began to have new issues such as depression and anxiety and high blood pressure. Maribel decided to participate in the hunger strike that broke at the Hutto Detention Center in late October 2015 to protest how she was being treated in detention and demand her freedom. She was one of the original 27 women to begin the hunger strike and sent a powerful letter about why she was participating that was heavily quoted in the media.
CCA officials placed Maribel in solitary confinement for 36 hours in retaliation for her participation in the hunger strike. Officials claimed that it was for medical observation, but she was not provided with any care from medical staff, the room was freezing, and she was told that she would not be released until she ate. In early November as the hunger strike grew to hundreds within the detention center, Maribel was transferred to the Laredo Processing Center far from her social and legal support, along with other women who were participating in the hunger strike.
During this time, her health continued to deteriorate. She began experiencing severe symptoms, for which she received extremely poor medical care. She was not told what medications she was taking and was given disciplinary reports for the effects of her illness and the medications. She also received a bacterial infection from the food at the Hutto Detention Center, which went untreated and caused her severe pain for more than 24 hours while she was being transferred to Laredo.
Her attorney, who had begun representing her when advocates reached out after she was placed in solitary confinement during the hunger strike, struggled to obtain Maribel’s medical documents but was finally able to submit a parole application to ICE petitioning for her release. It was denied the same day she submitted it. Advocates also contacted Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), who wrote a letter of support and request for her release, which was also denied. Grassroots Leadership partnered with NDLON to launch a call-in campaign to demand the release of Maribel and another one of the women who was moved during the hunger strike. But still ICE refused to release her.
When Maribel’s attorney submitted the request for a new bond hearing in her case, ICE lawyers lied, saying that there was no jurisdiction for the hearing. When she was granted a hearing, we were at once thrilled and apprehensive. If she were granted a bond she would have the hope of getting out of detention and receiving medical care. If not, she could easily be in detention for many months longer, even if her appeal came back positive.
For such a high stakes event, little was said in the courtroom Friday morning and the judge’s attitude was apathetic at best. The ICE prosecutor had evidently not looked at Maribel’s case since he tried to tell the judge that she had a prior order of deportation that was reinstated, even though this is her first time entering the U.S. The judge paused in the middle of her hearing to ask the court scribe about new tabs that appeared in their computer system. After hearing from her attorney that Maribel’s current partner who she entered the country with was disappeared, likely murdered, upon being deported to Honduras, the judge’s only response was, “Well, it's a dangerous place.” He cut off Maribel’s attorney on several instances where she attempted to explain parts of her case. Maribel was never permitted to speak. After several minutes of silence, the judge declared that he would set a bond of $8,500.
We went downstairs to the lobby to celebrate and meet each other. It was a high bond, but several people there that morning began volunteering donations. Maribel’s attorney spoke to our group about her ongoing legal strategy and who we could contact immediately to begin raising the bond. Two women there planned to go visit Francisca, the other mother who had been transferred to the Pearsall detention center in retaliation for participating in the hunger strike. It was a beautiful moment of connection and shared victory after a long struggle. Many of us headed over to visit RAICES, a legal advocacy nonprofit that operates a bond fund. After we shared what had happened at the bond hearing and promised to fundraise they agreed to cut a check for the full bond and began the paperwork so that Maribel could be bonded out.
Please help us raise her $8,500 bond to replenish the bond fund and ensure that this vital resource continues to exist for others!
Maribel arrived at the Austin shelter where she is staying the night of her bond hearing — sick, exhausted, but finally free after more than a year locked up. She will finally be able to receive competent medical care and begin to recover from everything she has suffered. This was only possible due to her courageous organizing and that of other women inside of the Hutto Detention Center at the end of last year during the #Hutto27 hunger strike. The connections that were made — to attorneys, advocates, lawmakers, media — that led to her receiving a bond and that are supporting her ongoing legal case would not have happened had she not organized inside for her freedom. Her release represents a huge victory against the slick system of intimidation and deception that so quickly removed strong organizers of the hunger strike from the detention center and disappeared the witnesses by deporting refugee women back to the danger from which they fled.
The struggle is not over for Maribel, who is still waiting for a decision on her asylum case, and even less for the women who participated in the hunger strike and have been deported or are still in detention. One of these women is Francisca, another refugee mother who was moved to a detention center far from her social and legal support in retaliation for her role in the hunger strike. Another incredibly brave individual, she was initially placed in “segregated housing” — solitary confinement — after she was moved to Pearsall because she stood up to the verbal abuse she experienced from guards at the Hutto Detention Center. She has been in detention for 10 long months even though her husband (a legal permanent resident) and children (who are eligible for DACA) are desperate to be reunited with their mother. Similarly to Maribel, her attorney and advocates have been pursuing all possible avenues for her release, which have so far been rejected by ICE. She, and others asylum seekers who are entering the U.S. for the second time, are subject to something called “mandatory detention,” which arbitrarily holds her in detention without considering any of the individual factors in her case. However, ICE has the power to use discretion in her case and release her!
Please call for Francisca’s release today, sign the petition, and share this with others so that she can also be released to recover from the trauma she has experienced!
Call Richard Rocha at ICE HQ at 202.407.5142
& Enrique Lucero (or whoever answers) at the San Antonio ICE office at 210.283.4711
"Please release refugee mother Francisca Morales Macías (A#098652351) immediately on parole! Francisca has been detained for 10 months, currently at the Pearsall detention center. When Francisca was deported in 2011 to Mexico after living here for 20 years, she experienced violence and threats to her life. She has a Legal Permanent Resident husband and two DACA-eligible adult daughters in Texas. The prison corporation CCA retaliated against her for participating in the Hutto hunger strike, and her parole request was recently denied. She has survived too much already. Release her now so she can begin healing from her ordeal."