In the age of “zero tolerance,” even the family members of America’s most dedicated citizens aren’t protected.
Take the case of a 28-year-old American citizen from Honduras named Suamhirs Piraino-Guzman and his little brother Yordi. Yordi was recently kidnapped and threatened with murder by Honduran gangs after they discovered Piraino-Guzman served on an Obama administration sex trafficking task force. Despite a U.S. immigration official’s finding that the threats 20-year-old Yordi faced in Honduras represented a “credible fear” – the basis of an asylum claim – the young man is locked up in a Georgia detention facility indefinitely.
But a federal court ruling issued Monday could change all that. U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg ruled that the Department of Homeland Security was wrongly disregarding its own policy – set in the Obama years – which stated that asylum seekers like Yordi who had shown credible fear and are not a flight risk should be released pending their asylum claims. In the previous administration, roughly 90 percent of asylum seekers would have been paroled pending their claim. Under Trump, the numbers have flipped with field offices rejecting 92 to 100 percent of parole applications, according to data included in the ruling.
Whether or not this means Yordi will be released is unknown, but the development serves as a bright spot in a saga that illuminates the plight of Central American migrants and the stark realities of the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
Since Yordi’s detention, his older brother has reached out to former colleagues in key federal agencies in a desperate bid to get Yordi out. But, Piraino-Guzman says, contacts within the Trump administration have been deaf to his pleas.
“It’s a really low blow in the gut,” Piraino-Guzman said. He was especially perturbed that the Department of Homeland Security wouldn’t offer him any help. He had led many trainings for department staff that required him to share the harder parts of his six-month enslavement by sex traffickers. “I have done so much. I really don’t get it,” he said.
In 2004, human traffickers kidnapped the then 14-year-old Piraino-Guzman in his native Honduras. When he awoke he found himself confined to a small room in a San Diego flophouse where he was forced to have sex with paying customers. His captors told him if he tried to escape they would kill his family back home.
“I was afraid for my family,” he said in a 2010 interview. “I didn’t want nothing to happen to them, I was raped to keep them alive.”
When police showed up at the trafficking den’s door six months later, he thought they were angels.
With no family in the country, Piraino-Guzman was placed into the foster care system. When he turned 18, he got himself into a housing program for foster kids who had been “emancipated” from the system. In 2010, then California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger threatened to cut the program, which served more than 2,000 youth like Piraino-Guzman. Despite the personal pain of doing so, Piriano-Guzman decided to share his story with the media, helping to turn the tide and save the program. It was his outspokenness then that got the Department of Justice interested in his work.
When the department called to say they wanted him to train their staff, Piraino-Guzman said he was “not fully ready to say what happened to me.” When the initial wave of media coverage had come out he had lost friends and even his girlfriend.
“At that moment I looked at my principles and values and what I believed in, and telling my story aligned with my belief that I could help others,” he said.
Soon he would lead trainings on child sex trafficking for staff in key agencies including Homeland Security, Justice and State.
In 2015, one of President Obama’s top national security advisors, who had seen Piraino-Guzman conduct trainings for administration officials, made sure that the then 25-year-old was on the list of appointees for an administration task force. In January 2016, Piraino-Guzman was a confirmed member of the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking.
The Spanish language television station Univision ran a story on him including photos of his family in Honduras. The gangs back home saw this as an opportunity.
Piraino-Guzman fielded dozens of phone calls demanding money.
“I am calling to charge you the war tax, so we don’t kill your brother,” Piraino-Guzman remembers being told in Spanish.
The tactics escalated. When they burned a tire in front of their house, Piraino-Guzman moved his family to a different part of San Pedro Sula, a city with a high murder rate and a grim slogan, which roughly translates to “where anyone can enter but only few can leave.”
But the move didn’t stop the gangs, according to Piraino-Guzman. They found Yordi at a local grocery store, assaulted him, then ransacked his house. Piraino-Guzman got his family to move again, but he said that Univision re-ran the piece and the violence started all over again.
The gangs kidnapped Yordi. For the first two weeks, Piraino-Guzman received multiple calls daily. When the calls stopped he thought Yordi was dead. Somehow Yordi escaped, but when he went to look for his family, they had moved again.
Frightened for his life Yordi fled Honduras, finding his way to the Texas border in May. Faced with a months-long wait to have his asylum claim heard at the port of entry, he crossed illegally and sought out Customs and Border Patrol Agents on the other side – who eventually shuttled him to the Georgia facility where he is now detained.
The federal judge’s ruling earlier this week invalidated the Department of Homeland Security’s new practice of keeping asylum seekers locked up while they await a final decision on an asylum claim. This is the exact situation Yordi has found himself in.
In a phone call this week, Jordi told Piraino-Guzman that word of the ruling has spread throughout the Folkston ICE Processing Center in Georgia. According to Yordi, detainees with credible fear claims are clamoring to be released.
“People seeking asylum should have the right to protection,” Piraino-Guzman said. “What the administration has done is trample rules and take out human rights.”
While he said the ruling gives him “hope,” he is also reining in his optimism.
Now, two brothers long separated by distance, violence and the machinations of United States immigration policy wait to see how the next chapter unfolds.
NOTE: This story has been updated. The original wrongly spelled Yordi’s name as Jordi. And Folkston was wrongly spelled Folkstown. Both errors have been corrected.