In her first interview since being sent back to Honduras, the teenage mother who cut her wrist in U.S. custody described a dramatic six days – in which, she said, she was taken from her young son, stripped naked in front of screaming staffers, put into isolation and then hidden at a hotel before a hasty deportation.
Days later, Lilian Oliva Bardales, 19, is back in her home country – one of the world’s most dangerous – living temporarily with relatives as she contemplates her next move.
In a wide-ranging, exclusive interview with McClatchy, Oliva for the first time shared what happened to her at the Karnes County Residential Center in Texas after she cut her wrist using her broken ID bracelet and was put on suicide watch. She described the treatment as punishment, not health care.
Oliva’s story is just one experience in a detention center housing hundreds of migrant women, detained with their children, who have fled violent nations in Central America in the past year. U.S. immigration officials argue Oliva, a victim of domestic violence in Honduras, had every opportunity to prove she deserved asylum; her lawyer says she was sent back before she could exhaust her appeals.
This week, sitting by a window at a relative’s home, her 4-year-old son pushing a toy police car at her feet, Oliva described how she stood naked, crying in front of a screaming detention officialand two other staffers wearing rubber gloves just minutes after being found bleeding in a bathroom of the Texas family detention center.
Oliva told staffers she didn’t want to take off her clothes, she recalled. She promised not to hurt herself again. She wanted to see her son. She recalled that detention staff told her the facility had rules and she needed to follow them.
“If you don’t take your clothes off, we'll tear them off you,” Oliva said she was told.
“I was so nervous. So confused,” she recalled. “I took off my shirt. And then pants. `No!' they said. `Take off everything! Take off your shoes! Take off your underwear! Take off your bra!'“
Her account of the treatment she received at the hands of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the detention center’s private contractor, Boca Raton, Fla.-based GEO Group, varies greatly from the explanations from officials. They say Oliva received proper medical attention after the incident, including mental health care.
Immigration officials said the injury was minor and not life-threatening. Her lawyers accused officials of keeping them from seeing her. Officials counter that she was allowed to talk with a lawyer by phone before she was appropriately deported.
Whatever happened in those five days inside the concrete facility that houses some 600 parents and children has raised more questions about the already controversial program to detain mothers and children while their asylum cases move through the courts.
The Homeland Security Department ramped up family detention last summer as nearly 70,000 families converged on the U.S. southern border fleeing violence and poverty in Central America.
Oliva and her son were among the 4,500 people, mostly women and children, who have been locked up in three family detention centers in Karnes City and Dilley, Texas, and Berks County, Pa.
Oliva and Christian’s journey to the detention center took seven days, multiple buses and the paid help of a coyote to cross the Rio Grande into Texas. It was there in October, she said, that they were stopped by U.S. Border Patrol agents.
They were put under a mandatory detention order because it wasn’t Oliva’s first attempt to enter the U.S. illegally. In May 2014, she traveled alone from Honduras because, she said, her ex-partner had taken away her son. She was immediately deported, but after reuniting with Christian several months later, she tried again.
At first, Karnes didn’t seem so bad. She thought she had a good case for asylum, and her son made friends with other detainees’ kids. The facility had a nice soccer field and games. Christian was given toys to play with. But days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months. Many of the people they got to know were released on bail, as they were first-time offenders.
Christian often asked about leaving. Oliva wiped away tears explaining how he picked out friends to give his toys to when “it was their turn.” He turned 4 in January. She bought him some cookies from the commissary and apologized that she couldn’t get him a cake. On Mother’s Day, she wondered what her own mother would think of how she was doing.
“I didn’t feel alive in that place,” she said. On June 3, she wrote a two-page letter, shut herself into a bathroom and cut her wrist.
Five days later, she said, she and Christian did get out of the facility. But they were not immediately deported.
Lawyers needed paperwork in her possession to file another appeal. On June 8, they planned to visit her again.
They never got the chance.
Oliva and Christian were taken out of the facility early that morning, she recalled. At the time, detainees reported that staff had turned off their phones, preventing them from contacting a legal hotline at the Texas-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, which was assisting many of the women.
Oliva and Christian were not taken to the airport, she said, but to a hotel, where they spent the next 24 hours. An immigration official stood guard outside the door, she said.
“No one heard from us again,” she said. “It was like we disappeared.”
Jonathan Ryan, executive director of the Texas-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, said it was a clear example of the government trying to keep a client from her attorney.
“They have how many detention beds?” he said. “Yet they go out of their way to pay staff and hotel accommodations in a clandestine location.”
For operational security reasons, ICE officials said, they can’t discuss the nature of removals. Spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said an on-site medical professional confirmed that Oliva’s injury was minor and in no way life-threatening. She said Oliva also received specialized mental health care. She would not comment further on Oliva’s accusations.
In Honduras, Oliva has not been able to communicate with her parents. They do not know that she is back. She’s sure that if she returns to her small village, her ex-partner will find out and hurt her and possibly take Christian.
He’s well-known in the remote, sparsely populated area, Oliva said, and lives on the road to her mother’s home. The last time she threatened to leave him, she said, he told her he would kill her and her parents. She said he’s pulled a gun on her and hit Christian. The nearest police station is eight hours away. And she said she was once raped by three men, which she did report to police, but the authorities didn’t do anything.
People may qualify for asylum in the United States if they can demonstrate past persecution or a well-founded fear of future persecution based on membership in a particular social group. Immigration judges regularly have denied asylum to victims of domestic violence because U.S. law did not consider them part of a “social group.”
But Oliva’s lawyers tried to take advantage of a recent Board of Immigration Appeals decision that granted asylum to a Guatemalan woman after the court determined that the country had a “culture of machismo and family violence” and that police didn’t respond to her repeated complaints. One of Oliva’s lawyers said the judge in her case didn’t feel she qualified because Oliva was no longer officially with her partner. But Oliva says the man still has control over her and her family.
The U.S. government legally had the right to deport Oliva. She lost her last appeal in May. But her lawyer, Bryan Johnson, said she’s eligible for special immigrant juvenile status because she is under age 21 and can’t return to her family. He plans to ask the court to grant guardianship of Oliva to family friends living in New York, where he practices.
“She is a perfect candidate,” Johnson said.
But he faces an uphill battle because she’s not already in the country.
Oliva said her son remains confused about the South Texas detention center where he spent nearly a quarter of his life.
She catches Christian sometimes staring through the window at the blinking cellphone tower that hovers over the dilapidated neighborhood where they’re staying. He thinks the light is a camera, she said, like the ones that watched over detainees at the Karnes County Residential Center.
“The cameras are watching me,” he said.
Sandra Cuff is a freelance journalist based in Central America. She reported from Tegucigalpa. Ordonez reported from Washington.