Asylum seeker doesn’t think federal immigration system will change, despite national policy shift

Unsafe and unsanitary conditions remain at Torrance County Detention Center, says migrant recently released from there

By: - July 3, 2023 4:45 am

Migrants wait on the north bank of the Rio Grande, within an area marked by concertina wire. (Photo by Corrie Boudreaux for Source NM)

Dirty bathrooms. Guards who treat migrants roughly. Unsafe living conditions.

This is what asylum seeker Juan Ángel Hernández Castillo said he lived through at Torrance County Detention Center in Estancia, New Mexico.

And despite a recent national Immigrations and Customs Enforcement policy change spurred by another asylum seeker detained in New Mexico, Hernández Castillo isn’t hopeful that the federal agency will change overall.

“I think it’s a lie that they will treat people better,” he said.

Discrimination against asylum seeker with disability in NM leads to national policy change

It’s unclear if the new rules, which can affect how federal officers restrain people who have disabilities, have been enacted at New Mexico detention centers already.

CoreCivic is the company that owns and operates two of three detention centers in New Mexico, including in Torrance County, where federal immigration officials held Hernández Castillo, and in Cibola County, where they held the asylum seeker that caused the national policy change.

Brian Todd, spokesperson for CoreCivic, didn’t respond to an inquiry from Source NM if the updated policy has already been enacted at their facilities.

He did say “CoreCivic employees comply fully with all ICE policies” at the Cibola and Torrance county facilities.

Leaking detainee cell sink and toilet with floor mold in a vacant cell located in an occupied housing unit (left) and housing unit ceiling mold from leaks (right), from a 2022 report. (Caption and photos from the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General)

Todd also said the facility in Cibola County “has not received or held ICE detainees with disabilities.” He didn’t respond to further questions from Source NM on a recent investigation by the U.S. Homeland Security Department that ruled an injury to asylum seeker Edgar Garrido Diaz was classified as a temporary disability while he was held at the CoreCivic-run facility in Cibola County.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement didn’t respond to several inquiries from Source NM for comment.

An injury at a facility with past condition concerns

Hernández Castillo is seeking safety in the U.S. from death threats that came in Honduras after he testified against someone who ran a VISA scam.

Hernández Castillo said after federal immigration officials arrested him in April, they sent him to the Torrance County Detention Center in May. He said the conditions living in the facility were horrible.

“I would not wish my experience there on anyone else,” Hernández Castillo said.

The facility has a history of issues, including unsafe and unsanitary conditions. A federal Department of Homeland Security report from March 2022 detailed water leaks that could lead to someone slipping and falling.

Federal inspectors demand ICE relocate migrants detained in Torrance County

That’s exactly what Hernández Castillo said happened to him in May 2023, over a year after that federal report called for facility operators to improve conditions.

At the detention center in Torrance County, Hernández Castillo’s job was to clean the bathrooms. He said a faulty faucet became a danger in the bathroom, leaking water onto the floor that nobody could see.

Several people reported this, he said, but the facility’s officials didn’t take care of it and multiple people slipped and fell, including Hernández Castillo in late May.

The fall caused his spine to swell and the serious injury left him in a wheelchair for days, he said.

That happened on a Saturday. He said federal officers prepared him for deportation the following day, so he would be sent off on Monday. The officials treated him roughly, he said, and didn’t really consider his injury.

From 5 p.m. Sunday to 4 a.m. Monday, he said he sat in a wheelchair waiting. Hernández Castillo said he “could no longer stand the pain” along his back and told the guards, but they ignored him.

“I was immobilized in a single position in the wheelchair waiting for the process to be completed,” he said.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement were ultimately unable to send him back to his home country because of the injury.

“I think they had no consideration for people,” he said.

Daniela Pino del Pino interpreted the interview with Hernández Castillo and translated the interview recording from Spanish to English.

Hernández Castillo’s experience is similar to that of another asylum seeker, Garrido Diaz, who federal officials held last year at the Cibola County Detention Center. 

Like Hernández Castillo, federal immigration officers tried to deport Garrido Diaz but couldn’t because of an injury he sustained in July 2022 while being detained. He had an ankle sprain, not caused by facility conditions.

While trying to deport Garrido Diaz, federal immigration officers put leg restraints over his ankle injury and made it worse, according to recent investigation results by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

That’s what caused the national rule change, requiring federal officers to now do individualized assessments when putting restraints on people with disabilities. This is something that no longer affects Garrido Diaz since the immigration officials deported him in September 2022.

Hernández Castillo trying to finalize his asylum in the U.S.

The injury Hernández Castillo sustained is the reason for his release from the detention center in Torrance County. 

PJ Podesta is a program manager with Innovation Law Lab, a nonprofit that provides resources for immigrants. He said the Law Lab had previously told the U.S. Department of Homeland Security asylum office that Hernández Castillo should be released from Torrance, and officials granted that request because of the injury.

They released Hernández Castillo on June 12.

Podesta said the Innovation Law Lab also argued that an immigration judge should rereview Hernández Castillo’s asylum claim, which was denied at the Torrance detention center. The office approved that as well, he said.

Later in June, Podesta said an immigration judge looked over Hernández Castillo’s asylum request and said he has “a clear claim to relief.”

So now Hernández Castillo is waiting on the east coast, staying with a friend of a relative, for his asylum proceedings to start. Podesta said Hernández Castillo will argue his case for relief and protection so he can stay in the U.S.

This all came about much differently than Hernández Castillo said he thought it would. He said his injury complicated matters, but it also extends beyond that.

He said he came to the U.S. thinking he could get asylum and work but found that people are unjustly locked up for coming to this country and suffer because of it.

“I came with a different mentality, and I thought everything was going to be different,” Hernández Castillo said. “Up to the moment that one falls in prison.”


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Megan Gleason
Megan Gleason

Megan Gleason is a journalist based in Albuquerque. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico, where she served as the editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. Other work has appeared under the New Mexico Press Association as well as in the Independent, Gallup Sun and Silver City Daily Press.