Asylum seeker with a brain tumor is freed from immigration detention

Sara Beltran-Hernandez, a 26-year-old mother from El Salvador, was being held in a Texas detention center when she was diagnosed last month with a brain tumor.
(Beltran-Hernadez family)

Ailing asylum seeker Sara Beltran-Hernandez was released Thursday after 15 months in federal detention in a case that was highlighted by opponents of President Trump’s crackdown on immigrants in the country illegally.

The 26-year-old mother from El Salvador, detained in November 2015, was being held in the Prairieland Detention Center in Alvarado, Texas, when she was diagnosed last month with a brain tumor.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE, came under criticism for having her removed last week from a hospital and returned to the detention center.

The government did not contest Beltran-Hernandez’s request to be released on bond at the brief hearing Thursday in front of immigration Judge James Nugent in Dallas. Bond was set at $15,000.


Beltran-Hernandez was to undergo medical evaluations later in the day to determine whether she would be well enough to fly to New York to join her family.

Immigration agents arrested Beltran-Hernandez in November 2015 as she crossed the border from Mexico into Hidalgo, Texas, in an attempt to eventually reach New York. She made a petition for asylum, claiming that she had been badly abused by the father of her two young children and threatened with death by a gang.

Two other attempts to be released on bond were denied.

“She has been locked up for 450 days while her asylum claim is pending,’’ said Eric Ferrero, a spokesman for Amnesty International, which had taken up her case. “Asylum claims should be treated promptly and fairly, and while they are processed people should be treated fairly.”


Although her plight has been linked to Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigration, Amnesty International officials say her troubles started under the Obama administration, which was using detentions as a way to discourage illegal border crossings.

“This case spans two administrations,” Ferrero said. “We are concerned that the Trump administration is taking a bad situation and making it worse with overly aggressive enforcement.”

Beltran-Hernandez’s asylum case most likely would not have attracted attention if not for her sudden medical emergency. She collapsed Feb. 10 at the detention center and was diagnosed afterward with a large pituitary adenoma that was bleeding into the brain, according to her lawyer, Fatma E. Marouf.

Marouf said that Beltran-Hernandez was able to avoid immediate surgery because the bleeding had stopped, but that she needed to be closely monitored in case it resumed.


“She is feeling terrible…. She has constant pain in her head,” Marouf said. “These kinds of tumors are mostly benign, but as they grow that can put pressure on other parts of the brain.”

Immigration officials have disputed the lawyer’s claims. In a statement, they said she was not so ill as to require surgery and that she was not shackled during medical visits, as human rights advocates have said.

“During her hospital stay, ICE officers ensured that Beltran-Hernandez was able to speak to her family and to her attorney of record by phone,” the agency said in a statement Thursday. “She also met with her attorney of record and consular representative in person Feb. 23. Like all detainees in our care, Beltran-Hernandez will continue to have access to 24-hour emergency medical care and access to any required specialized treatment at an outside facility.”


Twitter: @BarbaraDemick