HOUSTON - The weeklong prison detention of a Ukrainian woman who is married to a U.S. citizen in El Paso, Texas, has shed light on the difficulties of enforcing U.S. immigration law at a time when border agents are overwhelmed by a surge of migrants from Central America. While some immigrants are released to await a hearing, many others languish in detention.
Former U.S. Marine Brian Price and Oleksandra Bronova, a native of Ukraine, were married quite literally on the U.S.-Mexico border, standing at the midpoint of the bridge that connects the cities of Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas.
Bronova had been living in Mexico, waiting for her resident visa to be approved; but, a friend who works in the system told them she might gain entry if she and her husband presented a marriage certificate at the border. Brian Price said the friend warned them that Bronova might be briefly detained and she was.
"She was a little shaken, but we knew that this could happen. We had discussed it," said Price. "Even that morning, on our way to the bridge, I said, 'Hey, do you want to turn around? I can turn around right now or we can go through with it.' And she said, 'No, we have to try.'"
But instead of keeping her in the processing center, which was overcrowded, the border agents sent Bronova to a prison used for hardcore criminals.
"I wasn't expecting to be in a maximum security prison and be forbidden to call. So the whole week I was there I was not able to make any calls and nobody could call me," said Bronova.
Oleksandra, who already spoke Ukrainian, Russian, English and Italian, learned Spanish while living in Mexico and that helped her befriend many women detainees from Central America.
"They said that they have troubles in their country. It is not very stable and very corrupt. The same things they were telling me about their countries' corruption, I can say about Ukraine," she said.
Price called members of Congress, the governors of Texas and New Mexico and a reporter for a local television station. The day after the TV report ran, officials released Oleksandra.
Her attorney, Cynthia Lopez, said all of Price's efforts paid off.
"He was talking to everybody. I mean, if it wasn't for that, she would have sat there for months," said Lopez.
The first thing Bronova did after being released, according to Price, was pull out a list of names and numbers her Central American friends had given her before she left prison.
"When she left, the first day-and-a-half she spent calling these people's families in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, letting them know where their family members were," said Price.
While Bronova now lives at home with her husband in El Paso, she said she is closely monitored by immigration officials and cannot go far from home. Still, Lopez said most of her clients wait in detention for months.
"I haven't seen anybody get released other than children. I mean, there was a woman in here who was breastfeeding whom they wouldn't release. The deportation officers are not letting them out, the judges are not letting them out," said Lopez.
Officials of the U.S. immigration agency, known as ICE, cannot comment on specific asylum cases, but an ICE spokesperson in Houston told VOA that every effort is made to provide a fair process for anyone seeking asylum and a safe, secure and humane environment for those who are detained.