A Guatemalan mom who says she sustained severe chemical burns and was sexually assaulted in front of her young daughter during a kidnapping in Mexico is asking the U.S. government to let her into the country while her asylum case plays out.
The woman is currently under the Trump administration's remain in Mexico program, and her attorney says sending her there was an “incredibly egregious” example of the types of cases the U.S. said would be exempt from the policy.
“They’re putting us at risk. We’re at risk of being kidnapped, tortured,” said Elizabeth, who asked that only part of her name be used out of fear of retaliation.
Elizabeth, who went to Juarez, Mexico, in the summer to claim asylum with her 11-year-old daughter after fleeing gender-based violence in Guatemala, said she was tortured and sexually assaulted after arriving there and held for around 18 days in July and August.
“In this line of work you see horrific things, but this is incredibly egregious,” said Nico Palazzo, an attorney with the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center who is representing Elizabeth.
At a court hearing in the U.S. on Friday morning, she asked immigration officials for a third time to allow her to stay in the United States and receive treatment while her case plays out. Her hearing came on the same day the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 to reinstate a block on the policy in a long-anticipated decision that dealt a blow to the Trump administration.
Elizabeth's attorneys are calling on immigration officials to release her from custody and allow her to be in the United States as a result of the ruling.
"We are hopeful but proceeding with caution," Palazzo said. "The implications of this are monumental and clearly illustrate this policy is not only appalling and dehumanizing but clearly unlawful."
"The mandate of this ruling is clear -— they cannot return her and her daughter," he said.
Elizabeth was chemically burned down large portions of legs during the kidnapping and is still at great risk of infection, her lawyer said. But the U.S. has twice turned Elizabeth back to Mexico, once in November and once in January, under the Trump administration policy forcing asylum-seekers to wait there for court cases in the U.S., he said.
About 60,000 migrants have been forced to wait in Mexico under the program, which is formally called the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP.
Customs and Border Protection said in its guiding principles, published in January 2019, that migrants with “known physical/mental health issues” would not be amenable to the program.
On its website, the Department of Homeland Security said unaccompanied children will not be subject to the policy and others “from vulnerable populations” may be excluded “on a case-by-case basis.” Migrants who claim a fear to return to Mexico could be exempt from the policy if they are determined to be “more likely than not” to face persecution or torture in Mexico.
But immigration advocates and attorneys say that standard places an unfair burden on migrants and that some with serious health issues are still being sent back. Elizabeth has been turned back on two occasions, despite showing immigration officials her wounds and detailing her kidnapping, her attorney said.
“She clearly fits the medical exception to MPP based on the severity of her wounds but also based on the fact that she is afraid of returning to Mexico because she's been tortured,” Palazzo said.
According to Elizabeth and her attorney, the harrowing ordeal began after Elizabeth and her daughter got off a bus taking her to Juarez and took what she believed to be an Uber. She believes she was targeted because she is a migrant.
Elizabeth said she was threatened, kidnapped and taken to an unknown location where she was held for around 18 days.
“They told us not to make noise, that they would kill us,” she said.
Her captors sexually assaulted her in front of her daughter and demanded ransom money from relatives, she and her attorney said. When they could not get it, they used a chemical to burn her legs, Elizabeth said.
“I just screamed and screamed and my daughter covered her eyes and ears because of my cries,” she said.
Eventually, the two were able to escape and when Elizabeth was found she was described as being “disoriented and having suffered a heat-stroke,” Palazzo said.
She spent days in a hospital but has not received the full medical treatment she needs and is still at great risk of infection, Palazzo said.
Photos provided by her attorney appear to show massive injuries all along both of her legs. Palazzo provided a letter from a doctor saying he had reviewed her medical records and photographs and said her open wounds are still at risk of infection.
“Like all burn victims, victims of chemical assault need to be treated in a multidisciplinary burn center that has the resources to provide holistic care and recovery across a lifetime to achieve a good outcome,” wrote Dr. Barclay Stewart, an assistant professor at the University of Washington Medicine Regional Burn Center.
"By being denied access to a multidisciplinary burn center or the services aforementioned, she will suffer needlessly and unconscionably," he wrote.
The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to request for comment about the program Friday, but has previously defended it.
In late January, the one-year anniversary of the policy, spokesperson Heather Swift, said in a statement to NBC News that the U.S. and Mexican governments “100 percent support MPP, which is firmly authorized by bipartisan Congressional statute and has allowed the U.S. to provide the opportunity for due process to more than 57,000 migrants.”
“DHS is always looking at ways to expand and strengthen the program to include new locations, populations, and procedures in order to further enhance protections for migrants and ensure safe and lawful migration, while deterring smugglers and traffickers,” she said. “We continually work with Mexico and have provided more than $17 million in aid for safety and security measures. MPP is one of the most important and effective tools we have implemented to confront the crisis on the border and we will continue to strengthen and expand.”
On Friday, Palazzo and Elizabeth are called on the government to allow her and her daughter to stay in the United States and receive the treatment she needs.
“The reason we are putting so much emphasis at this point is this is the third time now that she's coming into the country and she just cannot afford to be returned back,” he said.