ACLU Challenges Six Year Detention of Salvadoran Asylum Seeker

Affiliate: ACLU of Louisiana
September 6, 2023 1:00 pm

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LAFAYETTE, La. — The American Civil Liberties Union and ACLU of Louisiana filed a writ of habeas corpus in federal court today seeking the release of Jessica Patricia Barahona-Martinez, a single mother and LGBTQ asylum seeker from El Salvador who has been held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention for more than six years, although she poses no danger or flight risk.

Barahona-Martinez came to the United States with her three children in 2016 to seek asylum. ICE released them into the U.S. and she complied with all reporting conditions for over a year. However, ICE suddenly arrested Ms. Barahona-Martinez in June 2017 after an Interpol Red Notice was issued against her based on an arrest warrant from El Salvador. Although Interpol itself permanently deleted the notice after attorneys pointed out its substantive and procedural errors, Barahona-Martinez remains in ICE custody more than 74 months after she was first detained.

“I always think back on that day in 2017 when I was arrested by ICE and taken away from my children. They were so young at that time. I never thought that I would still be in detention six years later. I have missed so many of their birthdays, graduations, and other big life events. Being separated from my children for this long has been so difficult, but I am fighting for a future here with them. All I want is the chance to show a judge why we should be reunited,” said Jessica Patricia Barahona-Martinez.

As a lesbian woman, Barahona-Martinez was targeted by the Salvadoran police, which brought false charges of extortion against her in association with the MS-18 gang. Although initially acquitted of the charge, she was targeted by rival gangs because of the false accusation of gang affiliation. After seeking protection in the U.S., Barahona-Martinez was found credible and granted asylum twice by an immigration judge. In each case, the government appealed, and on the second appeal the Board of Immigration Appeals ruled in a 2-1 decision that she was barred from asylum due to the then-pending Interpol Red Notice and the Salvadoran warrant. The dissenting board member noted that Barahona-Martinez had been acquitted of the alleged offense once, and had also submitted credible evidence to back up her claim of innocence.

“The ongoing detention of Ms. Barahona-Martinez flies in the face of due process, humanity, and this administration’s promise to move away from a punitive immigration system. Prolonged detention is already a serious concern with ICE detention in general — six years in this case is simply unconscionable,” said My Khanh Ngo, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. “The government shouldn’t be fighting to keep people in detention indefinitely; Ms. Barahona-Martinez must be released to her family immediately.”

The petition argues that Barahona-Martinez should be released because her prolonged detention is a violation of due process as there is no government interest in keeping her locked up, especially since there are alternatives to detention, including electronic monitoring, which would be more than adequate to address any concerns about danger or flight risk. In addition, she has a strong family support system in the United States which can provide her with a place to live.

“Mass immigrant detention, an inhumane and unnecessary practice, is widespread and growing in Louisiana. Thousands of immigrants languish daily in rural ICE jails — many of whom have been there for years and report suffering from medical neglect, exposure to dangerously unsanitary conditions, incidents of excessive force, and being paid an unconscionable dollar per day for their labor,” said Nora Ahmed, legal director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “We must end the cruel practice of immigration detention and allow people like Ms. Barahona-Martinez to navigate their immigration cases alongside their families and communities and with access to the resources they need.”

Barahona-Martinez has been held for nearly three years at the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center, run by for-profit prison giant, The GEO Group, Inc. The ACLU learned of her situation through the ACLU of Louisiana and immigrants’ rights coalition partners’ legal rights initiative, which conducts regular visits to all nine of Louisiana’s detention centers that jail immigrants and distributes “pro se” materials in eight languages to the thousands of people held in the state’s ICE facilities, providing them with knowledge about their rights, including ways to challenge their detention.

Barahona-Martinez was the victim of significant police abuse in El Salvador. She spent 10 months in detention before being acquitted of the false aggravated extortion charge in 2015, but the Salvadoran government sought to retry her for the same offense in 2016 — when she was already in the U.S. — leading to the issuing of the Salvadoran warrant and Interpol Red Notice. The notice has since been deleted in response to evidence of the pretextual prosecution. Notably, El Salvador has a history of abusing Interpol notices — a systemic issue that is part of a larger pattern of the Department of Homeland Security relying on unreliable information from El Salvador to arrest and deport asylum seekers like Barahona-Martinez.

“After we presented conclusive arguments and evidence pointing out significant flaws in El Salvador’s request through Interpol, including the fact that she had been acquitted of the underlying charges, Interpol moved to delete the Red Notice in record time,” said Sandra Grossman, a Partner at Grossman, Hammond & Young, LLC. She added, “What is most troubling about this case, is that ICE continues to arrest and indefinitely detain asylum seekers who are the targets of bogus Red Notices.”

Prior to her arrest by ICE in 2017, she was living with her sister, a lawful permanent resident, in Virginia, where her three children remain today. Barahona-Martinez is detained over 1,000 miles away from her family in Louisiana and has repeatedly been denied transfers that would bring her closer. A psychological evaluation revealed that Barahona-Martinez and her children have and will continue to suffer irreparable harm if she is not reunited with her family.

The habeas petition is here:

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