Yordi, 20, is wan after a harrowing escape from horrors in his home country, Honduras.
It is mid-July. He sits in a corporate ICE detention facility in rural Folkston, Georgia, staring into a computer screen that connects him to his 29-year-old brother Suamhirs Piraino-Guzman, thousands of miles away in Seattle.
Tears well in Yordi’s eyes as Suamhirs explains how Atlanta’s immigration court works. Almost no one is released pending an asylum claim – even in a case like Yordi’s. Immigration officials have deemed the young man as having a “credible fear” of persecution back home, the basis of an asylum claim and typically cause for release.
But since Donald Trump took over the White House, immigration courts across the country have increasingly denied bond in cases like this. The practice has become so prevalent that a federal judge ruled that the administration was wrongly controverting its own policy in July. Despite the ruling, there is no guarantee that Yordi will be released any time soon.
In Spanish, over the video conference line, and through his own tears, Suamhirs tells Yordi:
“It’s sad that you need to prepare for something like this. Because the reality is that this situation didn’t have to happen. That’s the hardest part. I don’t understand what God has against our family for the situation to end up like this.”
Three Episodes of Captivity
Yordi’s detention in Folkston isn’t the first time the brothers have been held captive.
In 2004, when older brother Suamhirs was 14, he was kidnapped in the notorious Honduran gangland of San Pedro Sula. From there he was trafficked to San Diego, California, where his new captors forced him to have sex with men and women. They told him that if he tried to run, they would kill his family back home.
When police liberated him, he thought they were angels. With no family in the country, he entered the U.S. foster care system.
By 2010, the then 19-year-old Suamhirs was living in a housing program designed for foster youth transitioning into adulthood. With California still reeling from the recession, then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger threatened to cut state funding to housing programs like Suamhirs’. This prompted the young man to take a stand that would change his and his family’s life in incredible and brutal ways.
He told his story to the press. He decided that sharing the unbelievable pain he had experienced was worth it if he could save a program that helped 1,400 kids like him. A San Diego T.V. news station covered his story in January 2010, and I wrote another story four months later. Suamhirs’ decision paid off, his advocacy helped stop the program from being cut.
But there was another effect of sharing his story with the press – it caught the attention of officials within the Department of Justice, who soon invited him to conduct trainings on human trafficking for department staff. This led to training contracts in the Departments of Homeland Security and State.
In 2013, he was naturalized as a U.S. citizen.
By 2016, Suamhirs had been so successful in his work with federal agencies that he was appointed to a White House task force on sex trafficking – a clear high point in a life unduly apportioned with pain and struggle.
But, one man’s success is another’s sinister opportunity. Months later, the Spanish language television outlet Univision ran a story about Suamhirs’ appointment to the Obama task force, and soon after, an outlet in Honduras ran a story of its own featuring pictures of his family. According to Suamhirs and the statements of witnesses back in Honduras, gangs with loose political affiliations began harassing his family – demanding he pay the “war tax.”
“Ever since Oct. 9, 2016, the entire family has been outraged and threatened frequently,” reads an affidavit from a military police officer who knows the family. “They have been extorted, have had their home ransacked and they have been beaten on numerous occasions. The perpetrators have shot their homes and have even left burnt tires on the front of their house.”
On January 3, 2018, Yordi was beaten badly. A neighbor submitted a statement included in Yordi’s 100-plus page bond packet describing the scene.
“They hit him and took him to his home. Nobody could defend him, because they were too many and then they came out with his belongings.”
Yordi disappeared, kidnapped by the gangs. Soon Suamhirs was receiving calls from Yordi’s captors demanding ransom, he says. When the phone calls stopped in April, he feared his younger brother had been killed.
But somehow Yordi escaped, finding his way to the U.S. border in May. Soon after crossing, he was detained and placed in the infamous Geo Group’s Folkston facility.
August 6, 2018; 7:30 p.m.
It’s well past 7 p.m. but the mercury in Atlanta stands at close to 90 degrees. Suamhirs is driving a rented car, speaking fast while trying to navigate the city’s tangle of freeways. The low evening sun splashes in and out of the windows.
“We are going to go buy clothes for him [Yordi], so he can travel properly and not feel like a criminal,” Suamhirs says.
He is tired and stressed, but hopeful. Since the tearful video conference a month before, pro-bono attorneys with Asian Americans Advancing Justice have negotiated Yordi’s release.
The next day, Yordi’s case will be heard, and if all goes well Suamhirs will have to post bond. The irony of having to pay the U.S. government for his little brother’s release after fielding ransom demands from gangsters in Honduras doesn’t escape him.
“For almost three weeks in April, I was being called and being told that if you want your brother alive you need to pay the war tax,” he says. “And it is parallel to what is happening right now. If I want my brother out, outside and free I will need to pay close to $10,000 for his release, $10,000.”
Less than two weeks earlier, the mother of the woman who Suamhirs calls his adoptive mom passed away. And just an hour before, at a dinner with his de-facto adoptive parents, they told him that she had left him $10,000 in her will.
“The universe works in mysterious ways and today I can say that if his bond is approved, I will be able to bail him out and I will be able to take Yordi back home with me.”
August 7, 2018; 7:30 a.m.
Suamhirs is standing in front of an office building in downtown Atlanta. With the city’s official immigration court overwhelmed, the Department of Justice has opened up shop on the 26th floor here.
“Today is going to be a good day hopefully,” he says. Then he turns toward the door and adds, “Let’s do this.”
In the waiting room, Suamhirs finds a huddle of at least 10 people. There are his American “adoptive parents” Carin and Michael Piraino (the former president of the National Court Appointed Special Advocates Program); a human trafficking official with the Atlanta Mayor’s office; a reporter toting an audio recorder from the news site, The Appeal; Yordi’s legal team; a former Obama administration official who now works at a prominent human trafficking philanthropy; and family friends. A CNN producer will soon join the group.
With the framed photographs of a grinning President Trump and Department of Justice Secretary Jeff Sessions staring down at the group, the atmosphere is happy. People are laughing, a circle of support for Suamhirs and a brother that none of the gathered have ever met.
A few minutes later the group enters the courtroom. A private security guard wearing a “Blue Lives Matter” hat and a tattoo of the Statue of Liberty emblazoned on his forearm flits in and out of the door. The judge is Njeri Moldanado, appointed by Justice Secretary Loretta Lynch in the waning days of the Obama administration.
Cases fly by – averaging four minutes – until the docket lands on Yordi. He is seen on a large screen, sitting in an austere room in Folkston, more than 250 miles to the south and east.
Suamhirs’ lawyer, Vân Huynh, confers with the government attorney. She hands him the lengthy bond packet, which he clearly hasn’t read. Over mutters, they come up with a bond amount: $7,500. When Yordi says his full name, it is the first time the assembled supporters hear his voice. It is strong and clear.
The judge tells him that his bond has been approved. Yordi raises his hands above his head in joy. He will be released. The group comes up with an elaborate plan to get him to the airport and then to Seattle.
All Suamhirs has to do now is go to the bank, get a cashier’s check and post bond.
August 7, 2018; 2:45 p.m.
Suamhirs is sitting in the back of the rental car. He is at a breaking point.
Between tears he says something like:
I don’t understand all these people and God. What did my family do to deserve this? I can’t take it anymore.
Since the scene at the courthouse, the hope that Yordi would be released that day or the next has quickly evaporated. First, an official at the Atlanta Immigration Court denied the bond check because it wasn’t written out properly, forcing Suamhirs and a handful of his supporters to rush back to the bank.
When he got back he spent more than two hours waiting to post bond again, only to be told that the paperwork from the annex where the case had been heard hadn’t made it the two miles to the immigration court.
Now he is on his way to the airport, exhausted and defeated. The lawyers say that Yordi may be transported to Jacksonville, Florida, instead of Atlanta and that nothing will happen until Suamhirs posts bond back in Tacoma, Washington.
He walks into the security line to board his flight. Yordi still waits in Folkston.
August 9, 2018; 3:30 p.m.
Yordi is released and transported from Folkston to the Jacksonville bus station. He checks into a hotel.
August 11, 2018; 9 a.m.
Yordi will board a flight for Seattle.
On the other side, he will find the Pacific Northwest in the balmy beauty of high summer.
In 1999, Suamhirs’ and Yordi’s father left the family home. While this meant respite from the abuse that Suamhirs says left him with 57 scars, it also meant the 9-year-old had to take over as primary caregiver to his three younger siblings.
“Since Yordi is the youngest of four brothers, I have always felt the need to protect him,” Suamhirs wrote in an affidavit submitted alongside Yordi’s bond packet. “I remember taking care of Yordi every morning. I bathed him, I clothed him and got him ready to go to school.”
When Yordi lands in Seattle, he will find that same older brother – ready to keep his littlest brother safe.
Fostering Media Connections’ Bryan Curiel contributed to multimedia production for this story.