Regardless of what people think of immigration policy in this country, Sara Beltran-Hernandez’s case is unbelievable and unconscionable.
She is the 26-year-old mother of two from El Salvador who fled to the U.S. seeking asylum from horrific violence in her home country. U.S. law and international agreements require that people like her, who are fleeing brutality and persecution, be allowed to seek asylum and that their human rights be protected during that process.
That’s not what happened to Beltran-Hernandez.
Even though she had no criminal record and posed no threat, she was imprisoned in Texas detention centers for 15 months. In February, she collapsed in the prison where she was being held, and she was diagnosed with a large brain tumor that had been bleeding, putting her in serious danger.
Rather than receiving critical health care for her brain tumor in detention, she was given Tylenol by immigration authorities. She was dizzy and faint for days. She had convulsions and her nose bled uncontrollably. When she was finally taken to see a neurologist, her wrists, ankles, and waist were in shackles, and she had to wait for an interpreter to be provided so she could communicate with her doctor.
Beltran-Hernandez’s lawyer appealed a third time for her to be released on bond while her case is reviewed, and Amnesty International USA mobilized people around the country and across the world to demand her release.
On Thursday, after more than 450 days in detention, she was released. She will finally be able to live with her family and get the health care she needs while her asylum claim is reviewed.
Beltran-Hernandez specific case is unique – but her circumstances really aren’t.
There are thousands of people being held in detention centers across Texas right now who came to the U.S. seeking asylum. The U.S. government is supposed to process their claims and only use detention as a last resort if they pose a flight risk or threat to public safety.
That’s not what happens. Rather than reaching the U.S. border and being met with compassion, care and prompt assessment for asylum, they are treated like criminals and warehoused for months or even years as they pursue their claims.
There is record-breaking violence in El Salvador, with homicide rates escalating dramatically in the past several years as people are increasingly caught up in ruthless fights between rival gangs trying to assert control over territories.
In 2015, when Sara fled the country, the United Nations ranked El Salvador as one of the deadliest countries on earth outside of a war zone, with more than 108 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. According to Amnesty International research, the numbers of new applications by asylum seekers from El Salvador increased 96 percent from 2014 to 2015, representing the extent of the country’s current crisis.
This problem didn’t start with Beltran-Hernandez, and it won’t end with her release, either.
Despite overwhelming evidence that many asylum-seekers face extreme violence and potentially death, as in El Salvador, if they are not granted refuge, deportations from Mexico, the USA and elsewhere have increased.
The Department of Homeland Security must immediately change its procedures so that people with asylum claims are not automatically incarcerated. People who pose an imminent risk to public safety should, of course, be handled accordingly. But the vast majority of people seeking asylum can and should be able to begin rebuilding their lives in safety while their cases are reviewed. They can be released on parole, bail or bond, as Beltran-Hernandez now is, or with government supervision while their cases are pending.
These are changes that DHS and Secretary John Kelly have the authority to make – and have an obligation to make – in order to bring the U.S. in line with international standards.
Nobody else should suffer like Beltran-Hernandez did.
Margaret Huang is the executive director of Amnesty International USA