by Douglas Menjivar
Douglas is a member of Freedom for Immigrants’ leadership council. He was detained at both the Livingston Detention Facility and Joe Corley Detention Center, both in Texas. During his time in detention, he experienced sexual abuse which we documented in our 2017 civil rights complaint on widespread sexual abuse in ICE detention.
The following is an excerpt from a memoir Douglas wrote recently. Freedom for Immigrants will release the full publication later this year.
WARNING: The following excerpt contains explicit and disturbing descriptions of sexual assault.
I had faith in God that one day I would leave this prison, and that it would have to be here in the United States, because if I were deported to El Salvador, I would be killed. Of that, I was sure. I was better off locked up than dead. This stayed in my head. The days went by and I didn’t know anything about my case. I had neither an attorney nor friends who could help me.
One morning, I heard someone say, “Menjivar Pineda, pack up your things. You’re leaving.”
I jumped up from my bed and I asked the guard, “Really? Where am I going?”
He told me, “I don’t know, but you’re on this list. You’re leaving. You have 10 minutes to pack up your things.”
I had a little bit of coffee and sugar and a kettle that others had gifted me when they had left. I gave them to a few men who had nothing. I began to cry tears of joy as everyone told me, “God is great, friend. He loves you.” Everyone was giving me their relatives’ phone numbers so I could speak with them once I was out.
I packed up my things as quickly as possible and went to wait by the door with my mat and blue-colored clothes. I put on my best pair of socks because the others were torn in the toes. The color of the socks were orange, just like our boxers. Some guys requested of me, “Please leave me your boxers because mine are torn.” Others took my blankets so they could have two because it was so cold inside that you needed two blankets to cope with how cold it was. We would cover the vent with toilet paper because it was just so cold.
When I was waiting by the door, the guard came and said some other names as well and he told them the same thing, “You’re leaving, get your things ready.” We each called our relatives and told them we were free. I told my friend René.
Then we were taken to where our clothes were stored. The guard ordered us, “You have to change into your clothes.” We did it as quickly as possible. The guard came back and said, “You are all filthy, that’s how you want to be released? You’re like pigs.”
After waiting about three hours in that room, an ICE official arrived and said, “All of you will be transferred to another detention facility.”
We all protested, “The guard said we were free.” He began to mock us.
Another detained individual told him, “We have asylum.”
He responded, “You have nothing, you’re just idiots with a worthless piece of paper. In a few moments we will be taking you to the other detention facility, so be ready to go.” Then he added, “Adiós, wetbacks.”
Some of the detained individuals were looking at others’ pieces of paper to see if they were the same and others were already almost lawyers, they knew everything. I only knew that I was one person more inside the detention facility.
They arrived to pick us up within the hour. We had to leave one by one because the guards had to place handcuffs and shackles on each person. They shackled our legs and hands. You couldn’t even walk. The shackles rubbed against my legs, causing them to bleed. I told the guard that they were hurting me. He said, “Stop complaining and walk.” Then he pushed me and I fell on my knees. The rest of the detained individuals helped me get back up. The guard, annoyed, said, “Here, no one can save you, not even God. I’m the one in charge here and if I want to put chains on your neck, I will do it. You better start walking and do it quickly. Or do you want me to drag you all the way to the bus?”
I responded, “Sir, I can’t walk with these chains.”
He said, “Then why are the rest capable of doing so? You better shut up and walk, fucking idiot.”
Somehow, I was able to get to the bus, and they called us by name. Then the bus started on its way. It was the first day that I could see normal people and cars of all colors. I had already forgotten where I was. It was a whole other world. I could see the sun and the clouds. The wind touched my skin. It was a beautiful feeling of freedom, even if it didn’t last long. But they had taken us out of that detention facility which was very ugly, very sad, or, to use the most apt word — horrible. I don’t wish anything like it or that kind of mistreatment upon anyone. They used to tell us that dogs are worth more than us.
In this moment, I was thinking, oh what I would do to feel freedom again. But I wanted it permanently. Because when I would close my eyes, I could feel something that is hard to explain, my reader friends. You feel as if your heart stops for a moment. I enjoyed this feeling the way a person enjoys eating delicious food that they don’t want to finish or that they could eat over and over again. This trip felt like that, eternal.
I didn’t want to arrive at the other detention facility. I wanted the bus to break down so I could have more time to remain outside. But that didn’t happen. After a while, we arrived at the detention facility in Conroe, the Joe Corley Detention Facility. The guards were waiting for us there. They spoke more Spanish here than in the other one. They placed us in a room where once again they gave us the same blue clothes and the different-colored but otherwise same shoes as those in Livingston. The only thing I could see is that there were more Hispanics here, and some were working where they give out clothes. Many had tattoos. One of them told me this was a prison. “Don’t think too much about it, just be careful because there’s all kinds of people here, even people who come from the big prison,” he said. We stayed there for three more hours waiting to be taken to our cells.
“This is your cell.” Upon entering, I saw a sea of tattoos. I was a little frightened. Some of the guys asked me where I was coming from and where I was from. In Livingston, we were only 24 to a room and here in Conroe we were 36. There was hardly any space to walk, let alone go to the restroom.
The first thing the bosses told me upon entering the cell was, “What happens here, stays here.”
One was more specific and said, “See, hear, and stay silent.”
After they explained the rules to me, they said I had to clean the bathroom and told me the specific days I had to clean it. They told me that if I didn’t clean it, I would have to pay someone else to do it. I said, “How, if I don’t have any money?” Another guy told me to work in the kitchen where they paid $3 a day. I thought, that’s a good idea, that way I can buy a calling card and call René to tell him where I was now. He was my only friend who looked out for me, René. I never heard from everyone else I had thought were my friends. There was my friend José, but I didn’t have his phone number. He couldn’t really do anything but he was always on my mind.
I couldn’t sleep because at night I would hear noises and I couldn’t tell where they were coming from. But after a few days of being there, I was able to sleep. A friend gave me earplugs to block the noises that were coming from somewhere in the cell.
A few days later I woke up suddenly after hearing and feeling that my bunk bed was moving a lot.
I angrily looked down at the bed underneath mine. I had thought that the guy who slept below me was jumping on his bed but that wasn’t it. There were two guys on top of him. One of them was holding his head and the other had his pants down. They were raping the poor guy.
I immediately yelled, “Dammit, leave that guy alone, stop doing that. We are all immigrants.” I jumped from the top bunk to get them off of the guy.
One of them said, “What did we tell you when you arrived? See, hear and stay silent.”
I did what I could to get the two men off of the guy and one of them said, “Stay out of this, asshole.”
I pushed them and got them off the guy.
Afterwards, he got up, put up his pants and said, “I don’t know what to do with these people. They’ve already done this to me several times.”
I asked him, “Why haven’t you told the guards?”
He responded, “I already told one of them and they just make fun of me. I can’t take this anymore.”
I asked him, “And what do the others say?”
He told me, “Nobody wants to say anything. I don’t know why. One thing is that they control the guards. The other thing is that nobody hears anything because they put in their earplugs to not hear anything. Everyone is afraid of doing something or speaking to the guards. In any case, I told them and no one believed me. One of them told me that I was a culero and that if I like it, they can’t do anything about it.”
I was really angry.
It had happened at night. I didn’t know who they were exactly. I hadn’t been there for long. One day, the young man told me, “That guy is one of them.”
I responded, “Which one?”
He said, “The shirtless one.” I looked at the man. I saw the sign on his back from the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang known as “la garra.” I knew who he was but due to security reasons, I won’t write his name.
There were two others who were on the lookout for guards so they wouldn’t arrive when they were in the middle of a fight or doing bad things. They also smoked. I asked myself where they were able to get cigarettes from inside the prison. They would also smoke pot. I asked where they were getting this stuff. He told me, “They pay the guards off. They ask for whatever they want and they give it to them.”
Another detained individual said, “I don’t know where they get the money from but they get it to them. It’s best not to be on their bad side. The guards don’t say anything. Two months ago they hit another detainee and the guards just moved him to another cell. It’s not worth it.”
It was nighttime and they were raping the young man again. I jumped off my bed and fought them off because it was neither fair nor healthy for the boy to be raped over and over again with nobody standing up for him.
0I tried speaking with the guards about what he was suffering. One of them told me, “You’re crazy, that’s not happening here. You better be quiet and I’ll pretend as though we never spoke about this.”
The other guard told me, “We’re not immigration officials. I don’t care about what’s happening inside that cell,” and started to laugh.
I asked him, “Why are you laughing?”
He said, “Because it’s funny seeing you try to do something when you should know you’re in prison and that no one will ever pay attention to you.” I left it there because I knew they would never listen to me and that the ICE officials would never show up.
One day, the young man asked me, “Sir, can you do me the favor of switching beds with me? I can’t stand this anymore.”
I told him, “Alright, let’s switch beds.” And we promptly switched beds.
In a matter of days, before the break of dawn, I felt a hand on my head and a knee on my back. I couldn’t move, let alone breathe. All I could feel was someone taking off my pants. I couldn’t move. I then felt a pain so bad that I couldn’t move. I was trying to free myself but couldn’t. I fought and fought but the person penetrated me and the pain increased. It was a more intense pain than I ever could have imagined. I tried to free myself, fighting more and more until the person finished inside me. I felt horrible.
I immediately stood up and put on my pants and said, “Let’s fight.”
They instead just mocked me. “Run and tell the guard, just like you told them about the young man,” they said. “Let’s see if they listen to you this time. You are old and no one will pay attention to you.”
In this moment, my world came tumbling down. I never thought that these people would do the same thing to me that they had done to the young man. Now I felt just like him, but I wouldn’t remain silent about it.
At this point I was already working in the kitchen. I asked to be able to work without showering first to keep the evidence, because that is what is needed. I told a woman who works in the kitchen, who is Mexican but was born in the United States. I said, "Señora, something has happened to me. There are these people who had already raped another person, and I fought them off, then they raped me, and now I don’t know what to do. I feel so bad, señora. You can help me tell someone on the outside or a police officer, because no one here listens to us.”
She said, “I can’t do anything. It would get me in big trouble. Just leave it. The only thing you can do is talk to an immigration officer. Talk to them.”
I told her, “But they never come to my cell, so I can’t tell them about the people who hurt not only me but the boy as well.”
She responded, “You know that I can’t help you with any of this. It’s just as well that you go to the clinic and tell them to give you painkillers. Go shower, because you have to. I know what it feels like,” she finished, “I'm sorry.”
I felt like I was worth nothing in this place. These people could kill me and immigration officials would never show up. I did what the woman told me. I showered. Meanwhile some of the guys mocked me, “Wash up, because we're going to use you tonight.”
I replied, "We'll see what happens. You grabbed me while I was sleeping, but this time it's going to be different.” They left laughing. I couldn’t sleep. I was all too aware of what was happening.
I asked other detainees if they knew what was happening. Some of them said, “Yes.”
Others said, “I don’t care, we don’t want a problem, this could affect our cases, they said it’s best that we shut up.” They all said the same thing, that they were fighting their cases. I couldn’t do anything besides just stay alert.
Unfortunately, one of them knew my family in El Salvador. I couldn’t do anything.
After a few days passed, I went to the bathroom at dawn and realized one of them was in there with me. In his hand he had a piece of a saw. He put it against my throat and said, "You're going to give me oral."
I said, "No, now I'm awake. You won’t do anything to me again. "
He took the saw and cut me a little under my beard and said, "Do you want to die? You have only one option. You will do it or you will die." At that moment I only thought about my daughters. I did not want to die. I had no choice but to do it. First, I had a saw against my neck, and second, I was alone in the bathroom. I felt that I couldn’t do anything.
Yet somehow I gathered up my strength and I got up and started fighting him until others came and joined him. I tried to run away from them. When I ran out of the bathroom I slipped and crashed my head in a corner of the wall. I tried to get up because I was being attacked and wanted to defend myself. If I didn’t, they would kill me. But when I tried to get up I couldn’t. I felt like I was going to vomit. I could only look at the lights. I felt very weak. One of the assailants whispered in my right ear, "Don’t say anything about what’s happening here, otherwise your nephew will die in El Salvador. And also, we know that you have to return to this same cell. We'll be waiting for you." After that moment, I don’t remember anything else from that night.
Later on I woke up very scared and wanting to fight. I got up and talked to the guard and told him that I wanted to change my cell, that I did not want to return to the same cell. He said, "I can’t do anything." I was very nervous about what they had told me, that they would kill my nephew if I talked about what was going on inside. I was silent, I did not want to talk, the pain in my head was so severe, I could hardly see.
I asked the doctor if they would give me some medicine or if they would sow stitches in my head. He laughed and said, "Where do you think you are? In a private hospital?"
I was once again in my cell. I was helpless. I couldn’t do anything. If they wanted to attack me again, I couldn’t defend myself because I was so weak. I could hardly stand because I would lose my balance. I had no medication and was in very intense pain. I didn’t know what to do. I was just waiting to see what would happen next. I could not even use my hands in that moment. I was helpless. I didn’t even have the strength to speak.
When I next went to the clinic I told everyone what had happened to me. One of them decided that I had just been cleaning the bathroom at dawn when I fell; others told me that I had been fighting with gang members, that I was very lucky that they did not kill me and that the best thing I could do was shut up.
Also in the clinic, the guards were hitting a person who did not have his medication. He kept telling them, “I need my medication.” That was the only thing I heard.
Just then, the immigration boss of the detention facility was passing by. He asked me, "What happened to you?"
I replied, "I was raped inside of my cell. Help me, please.”
He told me, “You're stupid. I have 4,000 stupid people here and you are more stupid than all the others." Then the boss told the doctor, “Don’t give him any medicine. Send him to his cell.”
I asked him, “Aren’t you going to help me? You're supposed to keep me alive and make sure nothing bad happens to me.” He just laughed and left. I was sent back to my cell.
When I arrived, the people who had hurt me just looked at me and huddled their heads together. I decided to shut up because it would be better for my life. I didn’t trust anyone. After what happened, I was destroyed inside. Some people lose a hand or a foot but I lost my dignity, my life, my masculinity. I felt as if something was missing inside me. I felt so bad but then I started to think about the boy they had raped more times than me and I thought about how he felt, I imagined more broken than I did.
He told me, "You see how it feels? I want you to do me a favor. If you get out of here, tell others how they treat us, and how we are never heard just because we are immigrants, even though we are all equal before God.” Then he continued, “Please never be silenced. We are two people who have been raped and nobody has done anything to help us. They'll deport me soon. I signed. I don’t know what to do when I arrive to my country or how I'm going to overcome this. I feel devastated.”
I replied, “You're going to be alright. God will punish the people who hurt us so badly.” I looked at his face and saw that he felt lost. I never looked him in the eyes, I felt too ashamed. He cried every night. I listened to the crying. I made myself seem strong but inside I felt the same if not worse than he did.
I didn’t know what to do to make him laugh or talk more, he just kept repeating, "I can’t believe that this happened." He repeated the same thing many times. I merely grinded my teeth with anger. But on the other hand, he asked God for more strength to keep going. He asked me one day, "Do you think I can be with a woman after what happened?"
I said, "Of course you will. Be strong." I encouraged him and counseled him but I myself was without guidance, because I was asking myself the same thing.
For some reason the judge always delayed my court hearing. I still did not have a lawyer and nobody helped me until a friend introduced me to an attorney named Afton Izen. The first thing she asked me was if I had a family who would take care of the payment. I said, "No, ma'am, I do not have anyone, but can you please help me? I am very afraid to return to my country." She agreed to help me. I was afraid to tell her what had happened to me. I thought that since Immigration would not help me, with her it would be the same. It’d be better to not say anything. Anyway, those who hurt me had told me that if I spoke out, they would kill my family.
When I got back to the boy, he told me, crying, "They’re going to deport me tomorrow. I’ll pray to God for you to be well.” We were just two people consoling one another. "Before leaving, I want to apologize for everything."
I asked him, “Apologize for what?”
"Because they told me to switch our beds after you defended me. I had to do it. If I didn’t, they would kill me. I was already very afraid of them. I’m so sorry. I don’t know how I'm going to live with this, putting you in danger as well.”
I answered, “Don’t worry about me. I only ask that you never do the dumb shit that you say you might do, like take your own life. You know that God has something special planned for you. Just think about your family and how they’d suffer knowing that you’d done that. I know you're young and you're going to have a nice wife, my friend. If they deport you tomorrow, just ask God for more strength, as I do.” But in reality I was more devastated than he was. I did not want to talk with anyone else. I only talked with him.
The next morning, they called his name and confirmed that they were going to deport him. He started crying and told me before he was taken away, "This is what I was asking God. That I’d be taken out of this hell. I can’t take it anymore. I'm going to my country now and I promise never to take my life, I promise.” I was worried because those who hurt us were on the same flight as him. I was worried about what others would say about me once they know what happened to me. I worried about my daughters and friends. I didn’t know if they were going to be able to understand what happened to me.
Mrs. Afton came almost every week to visit others and called on me almost always. I wondered how she was doing and she told me how my case was going, and that Judge Lisa Luis had postponed my court hearing, that I would have to wait longer. I told her, “Thank you for helping me. God put you in my path.” One day when she came to visit, I was on the verge of telling her what had happened to me, but then I changed my mind. I swallowed my words. I was afraid to speak and so kept waiting, until I met another detainee.
I’ll never forget his name. David. He told me that he wanted to go on a hunger strike. He and the others knew they were being mistreated, they were considered to be lesser than dogs, they were never given medicine, the commissary was very expensive, and they wanted better food and better medical care. I felt the same way because I had a very large cut in my head and they never stitched me up nor did they give me pain medication. I said, "I'm going to tell the others in my cell."
“Would you want to talk with a human rights advocate?” David asked me. "Can you tell her about your cut?"
I replied, “Of course.”
"When she comes," he said, "I’ll write your name on the list and they'll call you."
One day, the guard called to me, “Menjivar, you have a visitor.”
I asked him, “My lawyer?”
He told me, “I don’t know.”
I got ready. At the time I thought it was Mrs. Afton but when I arrived, there was a woman with another person. She said, "Hi, I'm Hope Sanford. This is a friend who is an attorney. I want to ask you some questions.”
I said, “Okay.”
The one thing I remember is that she asked me, "How are you being treated here?”
I replied that the food is horrible, the treatment worse. I told her, "I don’t know why they treat us so badly. What have we done? We all have the same color blood." I also told her about my head injury, that they had not taken me to the doctor, and that they had not given me medicine for the pain. I told her that I was suffering inside and that I could hardly see because of the injury and that I felt very weak. I also told her that we were going to go on a hunger strike for better treatment.
I told her that David was going to tell us when, but I was prepared for it, because I wanted my head to be treated. I showed her the cut and she saw how big it was, how it was still raw.
I was also about to tell her what had happened to me. But I didn’t because I didn’t trust anyone.
She finally said to me, "I'm going to leave you my number and address, you can write to me and we can get to know each other better. Alright?” We then said goodbye. She told me, "I will come to see you. You have to put my name on the visitor list.”
I was confused about her. I was happy because a human rights advocate was going to help us but I hadn’t told her everything. I didn’t know whether to trust her or not.
Many people told me that I would be granted asylum. Others told me that the judge assigned to my case was very bad, that she deported everyone. They said that the judge was this way because a Hispanic man had killed her son. That's why she deported everyone.
One day, when we arrived at the kitchen, David said, “Tomorrow, we start the strike.” Everyone agreed. The next day nobody went to work.
The guards knocked on our windows. "Go to work," they said. Nobody went to work.
"We are on strike," we told them. They were very angry.
The detainees put up signs in the windows that read, "We are on hunger strike. We want better treatment. We are human like you. We want medicine and better food. We are fed up with all of the beans, potatoes, rice. We deserve better than this. We do not want more mortadella. The air conditioning needs to be lowered. We are not criminals. Let us out of here. We have children and our families need us.”
There was no breakfast or lunch that day.
After a while the immigration officials arrived and told us, "Those who don’t want to eat will stay here. Those who want to eat, we are going to take you out of this cell.”
Another official asked us, “What do you want in your cell?"
There was a person who spoke English well, his name was Guillermo. He told them everything we wanted. He also told them that we wanted medication because I was unable to sleep because of my head.
The official asked me, "You haven’t been treated? They didn’t give you stitches? Or take you to a hospital?”
I answered, “No, sir.”
He said, "We're going to send you to the clinic now." At this point he took me out of the cell and sent me to the clinic.
When I arrived at the clinic, the doctor saw me and asked, “What are you doing here?”
I told him, "The immigration official sent me and told me you were going to treat my head."
He told me, "Go to your cell. I have an order to not give you any medicine.”
I said, “Then I'll tell the official in my cell that you wouldn’t treat me."
He repeated, “I have an order from the head of immigration, he told me not to give you any medication. Go back to your cell."
When I arrived back at my cell, the immigration officials had already left. I had not been treated. I did not eat because I was angry at them for not giving me medicine.
So a week went by on a hunger strike. I felt very weak and I eventually had to eat. Others did as well. Only my friend David and a few others did not eat. They took them out of the cell and took them to a place where the doctors did check-ups on them.
After another week of them not eating, some were deported. I don’t know what happened to the others. David had been taken away.
In a few days they arrived to take me from the detention facility. They did not tell me where I was going. I ended up in Immigration Court with Judge Lisa Luis. Mrs. Afton arrived and asked me how I was doing and I told her a little better. She told me that that it was very rare to be taken to the Immigration Court in person. She and the judge talked about my case. I didn’t understand very much because they talked so fast.
The only thing I understood was that the judge denied my asylum claim. At that point I wanted to tell her what had happened to me in the detention facility but something inside me told me to shut up because she looked mean. I knew she would not help me.
Afterwards, I asked my lawyer what had happened. She explained, “We will appeal the decision. We are going to send a document to the fifth circuit about your case. You'll be fine,” she told me.
Then she left me with the chains shackled around my ankles and wrists. It's very difficult to walk this way but I had no other choice.