People For the American Way

The Story of Yazmin and Mariee Juárez is Devastating, Inhumane, and Happening Every Day

News and Analysis

Members of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform listened in almost haunting silence as Yazmin Juárez, an asylum seeker from Guatemala, recounted the story of her daughter Mariee’s death weeks after their release from ICE custody, an incident that shocked many viewers with its glaring preventability and inhumanity. After experiencing inhospitable violence in her home country, Juárez was faced with the difficult choice of staying in Guatemala and likely facing death or fleeing to the United States to apply for asylum. The decision to embark on the journey to our southern border was a remarkably dangerous one with no guarantee of obtaining legal status in the end, but as Juárez recounted, the crushing instability of her home country made staying put impossible.

When Juárez and Mariee arrived at the border, they asked to apply for asylum and were quickly funneled into the immigrant detention system as they waited for their case to be processed. Mariee was examined by a doctor and found to be in healthy condition with no apparent medical issues or immediate problems. They spent their first several nights in custody in a cell nicknamed “the ice box” because of its frigid temperature and were forced to sleep on a concrete floor with 30 people.

The two were then transferred to a facility in Dilley, Texas where they were crammed into another crowded cell. Juárez, clearly shaken by the experience, described the nauseating conditions in graphic and horrifying detail, noting that many children in the cell with them were visibly ill. The guards made no attempt to separate the sick children from the healthy ones, and it was immediately apparent that no one in custody was receiving adequate care.

Unsurprisingly, Mariee became sick within a week of their detention with a cough and runny nose. After fighting to see a doctor and waiting in line for hours at the facility’s clinic, Juárez was told that Mariee had a respiratory infection and was prescribed Tylenol and honey. The next day, however, Mariee grew visibly worse with a very high fever and diarrhea and vomiting. Again, Juárez stood in line for hours, begging for help and even offering to wear handcuffs if the guards would take her daughter to the emergency room. When Mariee was finally seen, she was given antibiotics after a quick examination. Juárez begged the clinicians to run additional tests and allow her daughter to stay in a more sanitary area until she recovered, but she was refused and sent back into their overcrowded cell with the other sick children.

Shortly thereafter, Juárez and Mariee were released from custody and allowed to stay with family in New Jersey until their asylum claim could be heard in court. Immediately upon their arrival, Juárez rushed her daughter to the hospital where it became clear that her condition was far worse than diagnosed. Mariee died six weeks later, on the day celebrated as Mother’s Day in Guatemala. At this point in her testimony, Juárez choked back tears as she described what it was like to watch her daughter die a “slow and painful” death. She ended her story with a plea to Congress to learn from her experiences and implement policies to ensure that no one in U.S. custody would suffer the way she and her daughter had.

Juárez’s testimony is part of a larger investigation by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform into immigration enforcement and detention on the “impact of the Trump administration’s deterrence policies on the humanitarian crisis at the border, recent reports of dangerous conditions and medical neglect, and the lack of accountability for abuse and misconduct at detention facilities.” After Trump’s long history of racist anti-immigrant rhetoric and his implementation of the “zero tolerance” policy that separated thousands of families, most of the public has known for some time that conditions for asylum seekers in these camps are cruel and inhumane. However, as recent reports have surfaced about the specific atrocities taking place inside the administration’s immigrant detention facilities, the issue has increasingly captured the attention of many Americans who are now demanding answers and changes to the system.

Last month, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General released a  report detailing the squalid conditions after visiting five border facilities and two ports of entry. The inspectors were met with detained immigrants banging on their cells, pressing notes to the windows with messages detailing their time in custody and asking for help. The report noted that many immigrants were denied showers, access to clean water, nutritious meals, and in some cases crammed into cells so tight that there was no room to sit or lie down. Children were held for months at a time and denied hot meals, resulting in many becoming sick with constipation and other health problems.

This report coincided with ProPublica’s breaking story about a secret Facebook group for current and former CBP agents where they joked about the suffering of migrants and made many lewd comments directed at critics who have been outspoken against the abuses at the border. Members of Congress who have recently visited the border confirmed the CBP’s culture of exploitation and unyielding abuses of power. On Twitter, Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, denounced both the “morally bankrupt system” and the “rogue agents” who belonged to the Facebook group and urged all Americans to “help to change this system.” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., described what she witnessed as “systemic cruelty with a dehumanizing culture that treats them like animals.” Their reports detailed the facilities’ filthy living conditions stories of women who had been abused and separated from their children, and a general attitude of debasement toward detained immigrants.

While these reports are horrifying, they are just a few examples of the many atrocities that have been recorded over the past two years under Trump’s rule. Immigrants in custody have long been forced to endure hardships like family separation, untreated medical conditions, and denial of basic services like legal assistance and recreational activities. Even worse is that there have been many allegations of  immigrant children being sexually abused by adult staff in detention centers and at least six children have  died due to lack of care in USCIS custody. The list of abuses could go on for pages, and it would still be impossible to fully detail the culture of corruption and abuse our country has normalized.

While the story of Yazmin Juárez and the death of her daughter, Mariee  is shocking, it sadly leans closer to the day-to-day reality of detained immigrants, rather than an exception. While Juárez has put a face to these abuses, which is a necessary and incredibly brave endeavor, her story has only confirmed what many immigrants, lawyers, and activists have been telling us for years: there is a very real and serious human rights crisis happening at our southern border that will continue without severe intervention from outside the administration.

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