Impact of ‘zero tolerance’ on display in Texas immigration court. One after another, asylum seekers are ordered deported

Vehicles leave the Port Isabel Detention Center, which holds detainees of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Vehicles leave the Port Isabel Detention Center, which holds detainees of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
(David J. Phillip / AP)
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Sitting before an immigration judge in this south Texas detention center Thursday, a Central American mother separated from her son pleaded for asylum.

“Your honor, I’m just asking for one opportunity to be here,” said the woman wearing a blue prison uniform and a red plastic rosary around her neck. “You don’t know how much pain it has caused us to be separated from our children. We’re kind of losing it.”

Judge Robert Powell’s face was stern. During the past five years, he has denied 79% of asylum cases, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.


“What you’re describing is not persecution,” he said.

“I’m asking for an opportunity,” the woman replied in Spanish through an interpreter.

“I’m not here to give you an opportunity.” He ordered her deported.

Immigrant family separations on the border were supposed to end after President Trump issued an executive order June 20. A federal judge in California ordered all children be reunited with their parents in a month, and those age 5 and under within 15 days. On Thursday, the administration said up to 3,000 children have been separated — hundreds more than initially reported — and DNA testing has begun to reunite families.

Port Isabel has been designated the “primary family reunification and removal center,” but lawyers here said they have yet to see detained parents reunited.

To qualify for asylum in the U.S., immigrants must prove they fear persecution at home because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or “membership in a particular social group,” and that their government is unwilling or unable to protect them. Most of the Central American parents detained here after “zero tolerance” fled gang and domestic violence. But that’s no longer grounds for seeking asylum, according to a guidance last month from Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions. Immigration courts are part of the Justice Department, so judges are following that guidance.

Because immigration courts are administrative, not criminal, immigrants are not entitled to public defenders. And so, each day, they attempt to represent themselves in hearings that sometimes last only a few minutes.

The courtrooms are empty. That’s because, like a half dozen others nationwide, the court is inside a fortified Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center. Access is restricted, and may be denied. The Times had to request to attend court hearings — which are public — 24 hours in advance. After access to the facility was approved last week, access was denied to the courtrooms when guards said the proceedings were closed, without explanation.

Detainees have little access to the outside world, including their children. It costs them 90 cents a minute to place a phone call. When they do, they can be nearly inaudible. They receive mail, but when reporters wrote to them last week, the letters were confiscated and guards questioned why they had been contacted, according to a lawyer. Lawyers also said some separated parents have been pressured into agreeing to deportation in order to reunite with their children.


UNICEF officials toured Port Isabel Thursday. A dozen pro bono lawyers visited immigrants. But they were spread thin. None represented parents at the credible fear reviews, where judges considered whether to uphold an asylum officer’s finding that they be deported.

Immigration Judge Morris Onyewuchi, a former Homeland Security lawyer appointed to the bench two years ago, questioned several parents’ appeals.

“You have children?” he asked a Honduran mother.

Yes, Elinda Aguilar said, she had three.

“Two of them were with me when we got separated by immigration, the other is in Honduras,” said Aguilar, 44.

“How many times have you been to the U.S.?” the judge asked.

Aguilar said this was her first time. The judge reviewed what Aguilar had told an asylum officer: That she had fled an ex-husband who beat, raped and threatened her. “He told you he would kill you if you went with another man?” the judge said.

Yes, Aguilar replied.

The judge noted that Aguilar had reported the crimes to police, who charged her husband, although he never showed up in court. Then he announced his decision: deportation.

Aguilar looked confused. “Did the asylum officer talk to you and explain my case?” she said.


The judge said he was acting according to the law.

Although she was fleeing an abusive husband, he said, “your courts intervened and they put him through the legal process. That’s also how things work in this country.”

Aguilar knit her hands. She wasn’t leaving yet.

“I would like to know what’s going to happen to my children, the ones who came with me,” she asked the judge.

“The Department of Homeland Security will deal with that. Talk to your deportation officer,” he said. Guards led her away as she looked shocked, and brought in the next parent.

Denis Cardona, 31, told the judge he fled Honduras to the U.S. with his son Alexander.

“Where is he?” the judge asked.

“He’s here, detained, but I don’t know where,” Cardona said. “I was told he’s an hour away.”

The judge reviewed Cardona’s case. It was his first time crossing the border to the U.S. He had fled threats from the MS-13 gang after a land dispute with a cousin.

“And you did not report this to authorities in your country?” the judge said.

Yes, Cardona said, “but they didn’t listen.”

“It’s difficult for police to get where we were, and also the police do not help poor people,” he said.


Why hadn’t he told the asylum officer all that, the judge asked. Cardona said he had. He leaned his head on his hand. He looked tired.

Moments later, the judge ruled.

“This is a family dispute. This is not grounds for asylum in the United States,” he said. Deported.

Down the hall, Judge Powell heard appeals from separated parents appearing by video feed from Pearsall Detention Center to the west. Though he denied most asylum cases, there are exceptions. Recently, after an asylum officer denied a claim by a Central American woman who said police raped and threatened to kill her, Powell reversed that decision. She can now pursue her asylum claim, though she still hasn’t been released or reunited with her kids.

On Thursday Nora Barahona, of Honduras, told Powell she had fled to the U.S. after her husband beat and raped her, abusing their children. She crossed the border with her 12-year-old daughter, but was separated by immigration officials.

“They told me they had sent her to Florida,” she sobbed.

The judge ordered Barahona deported, as he would a dozen others who appeared before him. He read from a script, telling each that they had failed to meet the requirements for asylum. He ended with: “Good luck in your home country.”