ICE releases gay mom from custody in Louisiana after 6 years

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A single mom detained by U.S. immigration officials for the last six years despite being granted asylum twice was finally released last week after news of her case made headlines across Louisiana. 

U.S. District Court Judge Terry Doughty of the Western District in Lafayette ruled that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) likely violated the due process rights of Jessica Barahona-Martinez by detaining her for such a long period of time. 

Barahona-Martinez, from El Salvador, is safely back with her three children and sister in Virginia, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, which represented her in the case. 

Barahona-Martinez came to the U.S. with her three children in 2016 to seek asylum from allegedly malicious prosecution by authorities in El Salvador. Police in El Salvador publicly accused Barahona-Martinez of gang affiliation and detained her for 10 months, but she was acquitted at trial in 2015, according to the ACLU’s court petition.

A federal immigration judge twice granted her asylum, finding she faces persecution by Salvadoran police on account of her sexual orientation. ICE had continuously appealed those rulings and kept her detained based solely on the accusations from Salvadoran police, according to the ACLU.

Barahona-Martinez fled El Salvador in May 2016 and entered the U.S. with her three kids, then ages 11, 13 and 15. U.S. Border Patrol arrested the family upon entry, but Barahona-Martinez applied for asylum and was released on her own recognizance. For the next year, she lived with her sister in Virginia and complied with all conditions of her release, including monthly check-ins with ICE, the ACLU said. 

The Salvadoran police eventually appealed her acquittal and sought to retry her for the same offense. Because she was in the U.S. at the time, Barahona-Martinez failed to appear for court in El Salvador, prompting authorities there to issue an Interpol red notice, which is a request to law enforcement worldwide to locate and arrest a person pending extradition. 

Gay asylum seeker held in ICE detention for 6 years on false claims, filing says

Seeing the Interpol notice, ICE arrested Barahona-Martinez on June 26, 2017, and had kept her imprisoned without bond until late last week. ICE initially kept her detained in Virginia where her sister and children were living, but in 2020 she was moved to the ICE facility in Basile, Louisiana, just west of Opelousas.

A judge granted her asylum for the first time in April 2018, but the U.S. government appealed and won a reversal from the Board of Immigration Appeals, which remanded the case back to the judge. Rehearing the case with witnesses who testified on behalf of Barahona-Martinez, the judge granted her asylum a second time in November 2019, citing the Salvadoran government’s arbitrary arrest and targeting of LGBTQ+ people.

A Human Rights Watch report from 2021 detailed the Salvadoran government’s own acknowledgment that LGBTQ+ people face “torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, excessive use of force, illegal and arbitrary arrests and other forms of abuse, much of it committed by public security agents.”

ICE appealed the judge’s decision again. On Nov. 5, 2021, in a 2-1 decision, the Board of Immigration Appeals vacated the second grant of asylum, using the Interpol red notice as the basis of their decision, according to the ACLU petition.

In March, Barahona-Martinez’s pro bono attorney challenged the Interpol red notice before the Interpol Commission. Three weeks later, the commission permanently deleted the notice, citing invalid evidence from Salvadoran police and highlighting the country’s abuse of Interpol’s systems in requesting it. 

The ACLU then picked up the case and filed a motion in Lafayette calling for her release. 

According to the court order issued Wednesday, Judge Doughty, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, wrote that Barahona-Martinez “plausibly alleged her prolonged detention violates due process.” He ordered ICE to respond to the allegations by Oct. 2, but the agency decided to release her instead. 

In an email Monday, ACLU spokesperson Aaron Madrid Aksoz said he believes news coverage of Barahona-Martinez’s prolonged detention prompted the government to finally act on a case that appeared stalled. 

“Only after we went public with her story and started direct advocacy with ICE officials — and a federal court stepped in — did we see any action,” Aksoz said. “We believe the press coverage and press inquiries to ICE on this case helped bring needed attention to her case.”

Still, Barahona-Martinez is not completely out of the woods. ICE has not dropped its appeal of her asylum, so her release is temporary pending the results of that case. 

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