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

Judge granted her asylum twice, but ICE keeps appealing

By: - September 8, 2023 5:11 pm
An aerial view of the American flags flying over an international bridge as immigrants line up next to the U.S.-Mexico border fence to seek asylum on Dec. 22, 2022 in El Paso, Texas.

An aerial view of the American flags flying over an international bridge as immigrants line up next to the U.S.-Mexico border fence to seek asylum on Dec. 22, 2022 in El Paso, Texas. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

A single mother and asylum seeker from El Salvador has been stuck in an immigration detention center for the past six years despite being granted asylum twice, according to court documents.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana has filed a writ that calls for a federal court in Lafayette to justify why Jessica Patricia Barahona-Martinez continues to be held at the South Louisiana Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Processing Center in Acadia Parish. 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.

A federal immigration judge twice granted Barahona-Martinez asylum, finding that, as a gay woman, she faces persecution by Salvadoran police on account of her sexual orientation. ICE has continuously appealed those rulings and kept her detained based solely on accusations from Salvadoran police, according to the ACLU.

Salvadoran police 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 petition.

Upon her acquittal and release from prison, Barahona-Martinez began receiving death threats from actual gang members who believed she was affiliated with a rival gang based on the publicized claims of Salvadoran police. She 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. However, 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 arrest warrant and an Interpol red notice, which is a request to law enforcement worldwide to locate and arrest a person pending extradition. 

Seeing the Interpol notice, ICE arrested Barahona-Martinez on June 26, 2017. She has been in ICE custody ever since. The agency 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, according to the ACLU petition.

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. 

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 is now asking the Board of Immigration Appeals to reopen Barahona-Martinez’s case and review the new evidence for her release. 

The group’s court filing notes Barahona-Martinez has been repeatedly targeted by other detainees and officers because of her sexual orientation. Her physical health has worsened, and her prolonged separation from family has inflicted emotional trauma on her and her children, it says. 

During her more than six years in ICE custody, Barahona-Martinez has received only one cursory bond hearing at the very beginning of her detention, more than 73 months ago. During that “extremely short bond hearing,” Barahona-Martinez bore the burden of proof, and the immigration judge found her a danger based solely on the Interpol red notice. The court heard no evidence or testimony regarding the validity of the notice nor any other factors that would have been relevant to her release on bond, the petition says. 

The Illuminator reached out to an ICE spokesperson Thursday and Friday and has not yet received any comments regarding the case.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi.