As Robert speaks, the burdens he’s had to bear cause him to speak quickly. He only pauses to take a breath when he can no longer hide his tears.
“I’m a prisoner no matter where I go,” Robert, 40, said. “I’m trapped. I’m tortured in detention, and I’m tortured on the streets of Honduras. I just want to go somewhere without racism. It’s been really difficult.”
In Honduras, Robert was nearly beaten to death in a racially motivated hate crime that left him permanently disabled. After continued threats against his life, he fled Honduras in 2018 but is now detained at Folkston ICE Processing Center in Folkston, Georgia. Once a skilled fiberglass technician who rebuilt commercial vessels, he is now forced to clean the bathrooms of the immigrant prison for $2.50 a day.
His road to detention is paved with a lifetime of pain.
Because Robert and his sister are Garifuna – a minority group of Indigenous people, also known as Black Caribs – they were often the targets of extreme violence and hatred in the coastal town of La Ceiba due to their darker skin tone.
Fearing for his life, Robert traveled to a different Honduran city, San Pedro Sula, to seek safety and a life free of bigotry. But he faced the same hatred and discrimination.
“No matter where I went in Honduras, people told me I was mala sangre, that I’m a cucaracha,” he said in Spanish during an interview from Folkston in October. “They chased me down the street like a perro, calling me a payaso.”
A nasty, vile person they would call him. A cockroach. They chased him down the street like a dog and mocked him for his vitiligo – a disease that causes loss of skin color in blotches – by calling him a clown.
In 2017, racists broke into Robert’s room in San Pedro Sula, ransacked it and threatened to kill him. Terrified and exhausted by endless threats and ridicules, Robert fled to the United States and arrived in September 2018. But when he crossed the border, U.S. immigration officials apprehended him and placed Robert in a hielera – a frigid, cramped holding cell used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) – where he waited for 20 days and slept on the cold, concrete floor. CBP wouldn’t allow him to bathe – or even speak. They gave him precious little food.
He was later transported to Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Mississippi, where he took the interview given to immigrants that determines whether asylum-seekers have a genuine fear of home.
Robert passed the test but was shipped to Folkston on October 26, 2018.
Since then, the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) – a project of the SPLC that provides pro bono legal services to those facing immigration proceedings in the Deep South – has taken on Robert’s case for asylum.
Profiting off pain
After discovering his sister lying naked and bleeding in the streets of La Ceiba in 2017, Robert fell to his knees in tears. His sister had been brutally raped – and there was nothing he could do. The police in his home country weren’t concerned and didn’t even show up to investigate. Police ignored crimes against Garifuna people.
A few months later in La Ceiba, where Robert’s mother, a U.S. citizen, had bought her children a home, Robert discovered that the men who had raped his sister were continuing to rape her, all while her children slept in the next room. His sister was terrified but didn’t know what to do. She and Robert had been harassed by their racist neighbors for so long, the situation seemed hopeless. They had even threatened to burn the siblings’ house down – all because they didn’t want a Black, Garifuna family living in the neighborhood.
After another few months, Robert’s neighbors ramped up their abuse. As Robert walked down the street alone one evening, his neighbors ambushed him and nearly beat him to death with a metal pipe. They fired gunshots at him, calling him a “maldito negro” – an f-ing “n-word.”
He begged for mercy, but they continued beating him before striking his leg, causing a searing pain to erupt that made him collapse to the ground. He was helpless to escape his attackers before a lone passerby – a man in the only other Garifuna family in La Ceiba – stopped the attack. But again, the police did nothing.
At the hospital, doctors told Robert he had to pay in full for the surgery needed on his leg before they would operate on him. So for two days, Robert waited in agonizing pain until the money from his mother’s wire transfer from the U.S. was complete.
Once admitted, Robert needed eight pints of blood, and his leg was infected with gangrene. He spent a month in the hospital and another year in physical therapy. It’s still unknown to Robert if his leg will need to be amputated.
At Folkston, ICE provided X-rays for Robert, which indicated he might suffer from osteomyelitis – an infection of the bone, which could cause him to lose his leg.
But the agency has not provided the tests the doctor recommended to confirm a proper diagnosis. Instead, Robert is forced to work on his injured leg so that he can afford a $5 carton of milk and a $5 packet of vegetables – items he buys from the same for-profit prison operator, GeoGroup, that’s requiring him to work.
The SPLC is suing another private prison operator, CoreCivic, for its practice of forcing detained immigrants to work for as little as $1 a day at Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia.
Robert said he works because he has no other choice. He needs basic necessities from Folkston’s commissary. To boot, Robert suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels, all of which have worsened since being detained. He needs appropriate food to accommodate his diet, but the immigrant prison fails to comply with his dietary needs.
“I work because I have to,” he said. “I need to eat something healthy. The meat has blood in it. The food is horrible, and everything is frozen. I can’t eat anything. I also need soap, but I have to buy it. If I want toothpaste, I have to buy it. [And] if I want to eat a healthy meal, it costs me a week’s worth of work.”
‘You’re just immigrants’
Dressed in the immigrant prison’s drab, navy jumpsuit, Robert swats at flies and wipes his tears as he recounts the pain that led him to escape his home country.
“I’m not going to lie,” he said. “Everything affects me. I’ve wanted to kill myself. I wanted to die. I couldn’t take care of my sister. But God told me to stay. He told me to keep going. I didn’t have any other option but to leave, even though I loved my country.”
As for his leg, Robert was given Tylenol – nothing more – for his pain. SIFI requested parole for Robert in August, so that he could receive the tests the doctor recommended. But the response from ICE is still under review.
This is par for the course. In August, the SPLC filed a nationwide class action suit against ICE over its failure to meet the medical, mental health and disability needs of the people it keeps locked up.
But the cruelest part of Robert’s detention has been the treatment he is forced to endure from some of the guards.
“They watch us suffer,” he said. “They do nothing to help. They scream at us, saying, ‘You’re in America, so you don’t have rights.’ ‘You’re just immigrants!’”
At one point, Robert had saved $6 to buy a new towel from the commissary. After using it once, he hung it on the fence to dry. A guard immediately threw the towel away. When Robert complained that he needed it to shower and that he had worked for nearly a week to buy it, the guard replied, “That’s not my problem.”
“They take away any privilege – the TV, the radio – if we do something ‘bad,’” Robert said.
After the attacks against Robert and his sister, both of Robert’s parents died. He lost the family home. Now, Robert said the only person he considers to be a friend in his life is SIFI attorney Meredyth Yoon.
“I’m so grateful to her,” he said. “She gives me hope.”
“Robert is a wonderful man with a resilient spirit,” said Yoon. “He is kind to everyone. No one deserves to suffer the way he has – especially not because of their race, disability or other immutable characteristics.”
Despite having multiple hearings, Robert is still awaiting a decision on his case from the immigration judge. The thought of deportation greatly frightens him – but he also knows it could be a reality.
“I’m beyond terrified to return to Honduras,” he said. “They’ll murder me. The people are still there, and they’re involved with the police. They’ll come and get me. I’ll have to live on the street again – in unavoidable fear.”
Photo by Saul Loeb/Getty Images