POLITICS

A Mother Was Burned With Acid In Mexico. The U.S. Government Still Sent Her Back.

Lawyers hope a new federal court injunction will prevent her from being returned to Mexico a third time.
A U.S. Border Patrol agent at the border wall between Juárez, Mexico, and Sunland Park, New Mexico.
A U.S. Border Patrol agent at the border wall between Juárez, Mexico, and Sunland Park, New Mexico.

In July, a Guatemalan woman and her 11-year-old daughter got into what they thought was a cab that would take them to the bridge that connects Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and the United States. They planned to seek asylum but instead, the driver took them to an isolated house where they were held captive for 18 days, HuffPost has learned.

Elizabeth, who is being referred to with a pseudonym to protect her safety, told lawyers she was sexually assaulted and that her legs were burned with acid in front of her daughter.

The girl closed her eyes and covered her ears at the sound of her mother screaming.

Since then, Elizabeth and her daughter have gone to the U.S. border three times to ask for safety. The first two times, U.S. border officials sent them back to Mexico as part of a program created by the Trump administration known as Migrant Protection Protocols (or MPP), which force immigrants to wait in Mexican border cities for their U.S. court hearings.

The third time was Friday ― just hours before a federal appeals court temporarily blocked the MPP policy on the grounds that it was violating international human rights law.

Now, Elizabeth and her daughter could finally be let through since the injunction states that no immigrant can be returned to Mexico as they await adjudication. The Trump administration is likely to try and reverse the decision, as it has for past rulings against its hardline immigration policies. But Elizabeth’s attorneys are hoping that before the Supreme Court acts, she and her daughter can get into the U.S. where they have relatives and can live safely.

Crossing the border could mean the difference between Elizabeth’s wounds healing and a future of chronic pain, severe scarring and psychological distress.

She should have been exempted from MPP in the first place, because she was tortured, is facing a medical emergency and is hiding out from her kidnappers in Mexico, said Nicolas Palazzo, an immigration lawyer with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center who is involved in Elizabeth’s case.

“There’s no doubt that something as extreme as chemical acid attacks, which leaves scars on your body, cannot be considered anything short of torture,” he said. “This is really just completely undermining what asylum means.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.

HuffPost reviewed images of the deep wounds covering her thighs and feet. Elizabeth needs to see a specialized surgeon to treat her injury and have regular sessions with a psychologist, according to Dr. Barclay Stewart, a surgeon at the University of Washington’s regional burn center who evaluated her injuries.

Elizabeth spent four days at a hospital in Ciudad Juárez soon after the attack, but was released — even though she was unable to walk — due to overcrowding and her lack of health insurance. The city does not have hospitals that specialize in treating chemical burns, according to her lawyer.

Nearly 60,000 immigrants have been sent to wait in Mexican border cities for their U.S. court hearings, often living in large camps with unsanitary conditions where crime is rife and infections can easily spread. Immigration lawyers told HuffPost that while border agents are supposed to exempt immigrants from the program if they have serious medical issues or fear for their lives in Mexico, that people who fall into these categories are regularly denied entry into the U.S. For example, agents have previously sent back a 6-year-old child with down syndrome and a heart condition. As a result, parents have resorted to sending their children across the border alone, since unaccompanied youths are not included in the MPP program.

“There’s no rhyme or reason why people are being denied,” said Palazzo, who added that he’s seen immigrants returned to Mexico, even after they were raped or kidnapped and showed border agents WhatsApp messages of their captors demanding extortion money from family members.

“Many people in this program live in a constant state of fear,” Palazzo said. “We cannot expect people to live in a shelter without seeing the light of day.”

In November, after Elizabeth’s wounds had healed enough for her to walk, she and her daughter finally presented themselves at the border to seek asylum. Elizabeth said she told the border agent what had happened to her, and that she was screened in the U.S. and given a medical examination at a hospital in Tucson, Arizona. But despite her chemical burn, and her fear of returning to Mexico, she was sent back to Ciudad Juárez.

They again tried to enter the U.S. at the border on Jan. 31, with the help of lawyers who presented border agents with photos of her injury and the surgeon’s note. But an asylum officer told her she had to return to Mexico yet again. Palazzo said both Elizabeth and her daughter are deeply traumatized and that every time they are turned away from the border, their mental states worsen.

If Elizabeth is sent back to Mexico a third time, she could be forced to hide out from her kidnappers in a shelter for up to a year until her final court date for her asylum case. But her lawyers hope the ruling pausing MPP means she will be allowed to cross the border and that future immigrants will not be put in her situation.

“Many people in this program live in a constant state of fear,” Palazzo said. “We cannot expect people to live in a shelter without seeing the light of day.”