The Trump administration is asking the First Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday to send three women and two children, all asylum-seekers currently living in Massachusetts, back to Mexico while their asylum applications are processed.
Evila Floridalma Colaj Olmos and her daughter are two of the plaintiffs. The pair made their way from Guatemala to the U.S.-Mexico border last year, hoping to seek asylum.
Speaking over Zoom in her native K’iche’, Colaj says she was confused when U.S. immigration officials escorted her and her daughter over a bridge into Matamoros, Mexico — a border city she had never been to before.
“When they told me, ‘You have to return back to Mexico,’ I didn't know where we were going to go because I don’t know if we have a place to stay or food to eat," she said.
"I didn’t know anything. It’s like I was blind. There were a lot of very difficult situations.”
She was told she needed to wait there for a decision on her asylum application, so, the 26-year-old lived with her 5-year-old daughter in a tent given to her by a pastor.
Colaj and her daughter were fleeing violence at home, where she says they were persecuted for being Mayan. They found only more violence in Matamoros.
“When they told me, ‘You have to return back to Mexico,’ I didn't know where we were going to go because I don’t know if we have a place to stay or food to eat."Evila Floridalma Colaj Olmos
“I was there a long time. In that 10 months I've been through a lot, a lot of bad things. Some things, like, I don’t want to remember. It’s very tough to talk about it," she said.
Court documents say Colaj was attacked and raped near the encampment where she and her daughter were living. She also endured threats of violence and extortion while staying in Matamoros, according to the filings.
In May, the Massachusetts district court ordered Colaj and the other plaintiffs be allowed to stay in the U.S. while their asylum applications play out. Because of the Trump administration policy known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), tens of thousands asylum seekers remain in Mexican border cities while their asylum claims are evaluated.
“We think very much that the strategy here is to make life for asylum-seekers so intolerable that they will give up their claims."Adriana Lafaille, attorney with the ACLU
Adriana Lafaille is a staff attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts. She says instead of allowing asylum-seekers the opportunity to safely pursue a decision in the U.S., which the government is legally bound to do, the Trump administration’s policies are placing people in harm's way.
“We think very much that the strategy here is to make life for asylum-seekers so intolerable that they will give up their claims," Lafaille said.
The ACLU is asking the appeals court to uphold the district court's decision.
But the federal government is arguing Colaj and the other plaintiffs should return to Mexico, saying the lower court’s decision jeopardizes border security. The government says MPP is an indispensable tool in curbing unchecked migration along the southern border.
While thousands wait for asylum decisions in Mexico, Colaj says she and her daughter are lucky to be living with family on Massachusetts’ North Shore.
“I don't know what's going to happen in my future but I don’t want to go back because we don’t know what’s going to happen to us in Mexico again," she said.
Here, there’s a playground nearby where she likes to bring her daughter. But if they had to return to Mexico, she’s worried she wouldn’t be able to keep her daughter safe.
This segment aired on October 6, 2020.