Use this button to switch between dark and light mode.

Thousands of Migrants Held as Material Witnesses

October 04, 2023 (1 min read)

Sarah Cutler, Steve Eder and Robert Gebeloff, New York Times, Oct. 3, 2023

"Several months ago, as a federal judge worked through a docket of smuggling cases in the bustling border city of Laredo, Texas, three people were escorted into the courtroom. Because they were undocumented immigrants, the judge explained, they would be sent to jail. But they were not being charged with a crime. Instead, they would be compelled to testify against the people accused of helping them enter the United States. The hearing took less than five minutes. The immigrants never spoke, not to ask questions or explain why they had made the illegal journey across the Rio Grande. They were then taken to jail, where they joined a long list of people — nearly 104,000 since 2003 — detained as so-called material witnesses in federal criminal proceedings. While the law allowing the detention of witnesses in criminal cases dates back to George Washington’s presidency, its modern use has been most prevalent along the Mexican border as successive administrations have prioritized the prosecution of human-smuggling cases, according to an analysis by The New York Times of U.S. Marshals Service data obtained through a public records request. ... Over the past decade, border towns in southeastern Texas have held more of the witnesses — and held them longer, on average — than anywhere else in the country, the Marshals’ data shows. The material-witness law in that region — part of the federal Southern District of Texas — has been administered haphazardly, often with little regard for due process, a review of the detentions by The Times found. ... A 26-year-old Guatemalan woman was jailed near McAllen as a witness in 2014 when she was five months pregnant, according to court documents and case notes shared with The Times by her immigration lawyer.  She gave birth while in custody, bound with zip ties and with U.S. Marshals standing watch in the delivery room. Two days later, she left the baby with the doctor at the hospital as the agents led her back to jail. “She cried inconsolably,” according to her lawyer’s notes, reuniting with the baby only two months later.  Ultimately, the smuggler in her case pleaded guilty, so she never gave testimony and was released after 180 days in detention — the same length of time as her smuggler’s sentence."