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Iris Chacon Flores says the five weeks she spent in immigration detention in San Diego County were excruciating, but perhaps the worst part came before she even set foot in the Otay Mesa Detention Center.
Chacon Flores had arrived in Tijuana alone, six months pregnant and requested asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in October 2017.
As she was being transferred from a temporary U.S. Customs and Border Protection holding facility to the Otay Mesa Detention Center, officers told her to stand up, separate her legs – which they forcibly separated further – patted her down and placed chains on her, including one around her pregnant belly.
Chacon Flores remembers crying in humiliation and fear for the damage the shackles could be inflicting on her baby.
“I didn’t feel like they were hurting me, but it felt like they were detaining my baby in my belly,” she said. “That was the most difficult moment for me, and it still traumatizes me to think about. Even my baby in my belly, they tied up. When I turned myself in, I thought I was going to be treated better by immigration officials.”
Once in the detention center, she said, conditions were still bad: freezing cells, inedible food, inadequate medical care. But inside, she met other women whose presence provided comfort, including another pregnant woman from El Salvador, Sandra Mejia Galicias, and Jennye Pagoada Lopez, who had been pregnant upon requesting asylum, but suffered a miscarriage.
Those women, too, have their own horror stories of being detained while pregnant.
Now that they’ve been released and are awaiting their asylum hearings, they’re determined to ease the experience for others who are still inside.
Pagoada Lopez was born in Honduras but grew up in El Salvador. She was four months pregnant when she turned herself in at the San Ysidro Port of Entry to seek asylum. She had traveled north through Mexico in 2017 with a caravan of other migrants who’d banded together, organized by advocacy group Pueblo Sin Fronteras, to make the journey safer.
After she requested asylum, Pagoada Lopez was held for days in a U.S. Customs and Border Protection cell. She began bleeding heavily. Eventually she was transferred to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in Otay Mesa. She said she repeatedly requested medical assistance, but didn’t receive any. Her miscarriage is one of several incidents involving the poor treatment of pregnant women in detention facilities detailed in a complaint filed against ICE last September.
Mejia Galicias, who spoke with Voice of San Diego in December after she had been released from Otay Mesa, was two months pregnant when she requested asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. She also recalled being chained around her waist, even though officials knew she was pregnant, during her transfer.
Mejia Galicias, upon leaving the facility, began speaking out in local news outlets about how she and others were treated.
“I never imagined it would be like that,” Mejia Galicias said. “Because we leave our countries for the crime, the abuse … to be abused here by authorities who are supposedly here to protect people.”
ICE has maintained in several statements that the three women and other pregnant detainees in their care receive adequate medical attention. At a May congressional hearing, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielson said pregnant detainees are provided with adequate prenatal care, separate housing, specialists and counseling.
“They are not only given adequate care in facilities, but it is much better care than when they are living in the shadows,” Nielson told members of Congress.
In the isolated facility, the women leaned on one another. Pagoada Lopez said while she endured bleeding, depression and pain from her miscarriage, her cellmates and other women comforted her, helped her get out of bed, shower, buy additional food from the commissary and more.
She helped them, too. Pagoada Lopez had made some powerful connections during her trip north with the caravan. She helped connect some of the women with organizers from Pueblo Sin Fronteras, and by sharing legal guidance on immigration cases she’d received from the group.
Chacon Flores had arrived alone. She had no money, no sponsor or relatives in the United States to take her in even if she was released from detention. Pagoada Lopez helped connect her with people who eventually found her a sponsor. Chacon Flores and her baby, who was born in February, have been living with the woman since she was released in November.
“When I thought everything was lost, God put these marvelous people in my path,” Chacon Flores said. “When God wants you to be somewhere, there are no borders and angels are put in your path. For me, my angels are the woman with whom I live and Roberto,” she said, referring to Roberto Corona, an organizer with Pueblo Sin Fronteras who has been working with the three women since their release.
Pueblo Sin Fronteras, with the help of other organizations, often tries to provide people with places to stay upon their release from detention or with transportation to get to family members or other migrants seeking asylum.
“I reached out with them to see if we can help or give some information,” Corona said of the three women. “But what they also wanted was to help those who were still inside.”
That’s how the three women came to form Las Luchonas, or the Warriors.
They wanted to raise money for the people inside, who have to pay to make phone calls or to buy things, like additional food or toiletries, at the detention center’s commissary. Detainees who don’t have family, friends or advocates on the outside to add money to their accounts often work for up to a dollar a day to earn money to buy those items. That system is at the center of a lawsuit alleging forced labor at immigration detention centers.
“I was detained for six months,” Pagoada Lopez said. “It was very difficult because there were deficiencies in food, in medical care. Knowing what it’s like inside there, we want to help other people. There are people in there who don’t have family members, who don’t have friends, who don’t have sponsors to help them.”
In their first foray into fundraising, the women set up a table at a larger event to sell food. At the second, they held a small event at Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park that featured live music and Salvadoran food prepared by the women.
“They’re going little by little, developing the fundraising events,” Corona said. “The first fundraiser didn’t make much money, but we bought pots and pans and other things that we won’t have to purchase again, and they’re learning about what they can do better next time.”
It’s yet another example of how the Pueblo Sin Fronteras-organized caravan has empowered migrants through their camaraderie and collective efforts.
Chacon Flores and Pagoada Lopez said that they hope their fundraising can at least provide un granito de arena, a grain of sand, to help.
Even a call to Honduras or El Salvador to tell your family you’re OK costs 85 cents per minutes from the detention center, Pagoada Lopez said.
“And we have to work inside for $1 because we don’t have money,” she said. “We decided to form Las Luchonas for these people inside. We want to fight for them because we were them, we’re still part of them. We feel the pain of these people.”
Mejia Galicias has also given birth since leaving the detention center last fall.
All three of the women are still awaiting their asylum hearings.
To contact Las Luchonas, you can e-mail them at email@example.com.