A dozen Cuban asylum-seekers detained in a facility near Grants say they have been repeatedly placed in solitary confinement as punishment for engaging in a right many Americans take for granted: peaceful protest.
In interviews with The New Mexican, two asylum-seekers in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody said they and 10 others were put in solitary confinement in two separate New Mexico facilities as a punitive measure for going on hunger strikes to protest the denial of their asylum cases and their lengthy stay in prison.
“We’re not criminals, but they just keep us locked up,” Juan Carlos Peña Pavon, a 51-year-old Cuban man, said by telephone while detained at Cibola County Correctional Center shortly after he spent nine days in solitary confinement. “We’re threatened with death if we return to our country, so they’re going to have to bury us here, incinerate us here.”
Peña Pavon is part of a group of detained asylum-seekers that last month staged sit-ins at Otero County Processing Center in Chaparral, with at least two people attempting suicide. Those reports sparked criticism from New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who demanded that ICE stop “inhumane treatment” at facilities in the state.
Despite those calls, federal authorities appear to have continued treating the Cubans in a similar way since then.
After being put in solitary confinement for around a week at Otero, some of the protesters were separated and transferred to other federal detention centers in the state.
Upon arrival at the privately run Cibola facility in Milan, a group of 12 Cubans began a hunger strike, two of them said. In retaliation, prison officials again put them in solitary confinement, where they continued to refuse to eat, they said.
Peña Pavon said that if they aren’t released, they might attempt suicide if conditions don’t improve.
“We are all willing to do that,” he said. “If they don’t let us out of here, we’re going to die.”
A spokeswoman at ICE’s El Paso field office, which oversees New Mexico operations, did not respond to a request for comment.
Guards have also treated the Cubans poorly, including using insults and racist remarks, according to Peña Pavon and another Cuban detainee, Luis Miguel Valladares Oliva, who also said he was put in solitary confinement in both the Otero and Cibola facilities.
“They threaten us all the time — that they’re going to take us to the hole,” said Valladares Oliva, 30, using another term to describe solitary confinement. “But we’re professional, well-educated people.”
“They always treat us with racism,” Peña Pavon added. “In Otero, the guards were the most racist.”
Both Peña Pavon and Valladares Oliva said they fled their home country after being beaten and jailed by security forces for expressing opinions critical of the Cuban government.
That type of mistreatment would seem to fit the requirements of U.S. asylum law, which holds that applicants must prove they have been persecuted based on at least one of five protected grounds, including political opinion.
Yet since crossing into the U.S. in March, the two Cubans were denied bond and had their asylum cases rejected — even though they have sponsors who are either U.S. citizens or residents and they passed an interview showing they have a credible fear of returning to Cuba.
Peña Pavon and Valladares Oliva are appealing their cases and have now been detained in ICE custody for eight months. Valladares Oliva said he has been in solitary confinement for 29 days.
“These stories are so emblematic of everything that’s wrong with the system right now,” said Allegra Love, executive director of Santa Fe Dreamers Project, which is part of a team of advocates that has met with Cuban detainees in New Mexico. “It’s all really disheartening because these two cases really exemplify what thousands of people are facing.”
Love, an attorney who represents asylum-seekers in the region, said those who pass their credible fear interviews and have no known criminal history are generally supposed to be released from prison on bond. That would allow them to find a lawyer and await their court cases while living with their sponsors.
“Because they couldn’t get out on bond, they spend this absurd time in detention, aren’t able to find lawyers and end up losing what seem to be winnable cases,” Love said. “If you’ve been detained by your own government because of your political opinion, that’s what political asylum is.”
Yet the number of asylum-seekers released on parole has plummeted since President Donald Trump took office, according to a 2018 American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit. While five ICE field offices in 2013 granted 95 percent of asylum-seekers’ applications for humanitarian parole, that rate had dropped to nearly zero by 2018, the ACLU said.
For the Cubans, it was no easy journey getting to the U.S. Valladares Oliva fled Cuba for Bolivia in October of last year and made his way through Central America and Mexico before arriving in Ciudad Juárez in March. Peña Pavon began his journey north in Guyana and it took 18 months to get to the U.S. border.
Peña Pavon said that when he finally reached a town on the Mexican side of the U.S. border, an hour southeast of Juárez, he and other asylum-seekers were assaulted by a gang that took all of their belongings. That’s when they crossed into the U.S. to request asylum.
Lujan Grisham ‘appalled’
Asked about the continued reports of the use of solitary confinement, New Mexico’s governor said she was “incredibly concerned.”
“Along with many New Mexicans, I am appalled at the conditions repeatedly reported at [the Otero facility], including an unconscionable use of punitive solitary confinement on individuals seeking asylum,” Lujan Grisham told The New Mexican. “These reports are indeed cause enough to suspect that these issues persist at other ICE facilities, and the federal government needs to answer for these violations.”
In late October, Lujan Grisham sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security inspector general, calling on him to open an investigation into the treatment of detainees at Otero. In a separate letter, she demanded that the acting homeland security secretary “intervene immediately to protect some of the most vulnerable among us.”
Lujan Grisham’s letters also came after a transgender asylum-seeker from El Salvador died in an El Paso hospital earlier this year after two months at the Otero facility. A transgender woman from Honduras died last year as well while in ICE custody in Cibola County. In July of this year, detained Indian asylum-seekers began a hunger strike at Otero that lasted 75 days.
The Otero facility is run by Management & Training Corp., a private contractor, while the Cibola center is managed by private company CoreCivic.
The United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture has said the solitary confinement of prisoners should only occur “in very exceptional circumstances and for as short a time as possible,” and that such confinement “in excess of 15 days should also be subject to an absolute prohibition.”
ICE itself said in a 2013 directive that the placement of detainees in segregated housing is a “serious step that requires careful consideration of alternatives” and that it “should occur only when necessary and in compliance with applicable detention standards.”
In response to previous accusations of mistreatment at its facilities, ICE has said it takes the health and safety of detainees seriously, ensures they receive comprehensive care and has an oversight process for facility inspections and reviewing allegations about conditions.
Yet Eunice Cho, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, said that while ICE often says it resorts to the practice as a type of “administrative segregation” used to monitor detainees’ health, there are better ways of doing this.
“While ICE uses the justification that it’s in the best interest of the hunger striker to put them in solitary confinement, that excuse wears pretty thin,” said Cho, who works on the ACLU National Prison Project. “They could put them in an infirmary.”
Cho added that detainees have First Amendment rights to exercise free speech, which includes hunger striking.
“The Constitution still applies to detainees,” she said.
AVID, a Las Cruces organization that regularly visits ICE detainees, said it had received reports that dozens of Cubans had been moved from Otero to Cibola after the sit-ins, although it added it hadn’t been able to confirm why the agency transferred them.
“It’s guesswork, but obviously it’s in their best interest to break up these protests,” said Margaret Brown Vega, a volunteer with the group, which stands for Advocate Visitors with Immigrants in Detention of the Chihuahuan Desert. “It undermines their efforts to work together to organize and protest.”
Brown Vega added that during her group’s visits to meet with Cuban asylum-seekers in detention, they’ve seen ample evidence that they had been physically abused in their home country.
“Many people have signs of being clubbed and bashed,” she said. “There are guys with dents in their heads and giant scars in their arms.”
With their requests for bond and asylum denied, and potentially facing deportation to a country where they say they could be tortured or killed, the Cubans said they see no other option than to keep protesting their incarceration.
“We’re slowly deteriorating psychologically,” Peña Pavon said.
He said he and the other Cubans are prepared to stage another hunger strike if they don’t receive favorable news about their appeals soon.
“At this point, we’re waiting for answers,” he said, “and if they don’t give us an answer, we’ll be ready.”