A Guatemalan migrant who was shot in the head, then detained for months by the US, has been granted asylum, marking a major victory for an indigenous man whose story sparked widespread outrage.
Rolando, 27, won his asylum case on Tuesday after a lengthy trial in San Diego about the persecution he faced in Guatemala, which included physical abuse by police and attempts on his life after his father’s murder. Rolando first spoke to the Guardian last month about surviving a gunshot wound to the head and fleeing to a US port of entry, which resulted in his long-term detention and a series of medical crises behind bars.
His case caught the attention of lawmakers , rights groups and news organizations across the country. His Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) medical records showed that he was repeatedly bleeding from his eyes, ears and nose, and sometimes losing consciousness – and that medical staff were mainly responding by prescribing him ibuprofen. He was also placed in solitary confinement.
“It’s really exciting,” said Anne Rios, his attorney with Al Otro Lado, an organization that provides services for migrants on both sides of the border. “Many people are fighting so hard to win their case, and when it happens, it’s almost like they are in shock, which is what I found with him. It’s also about what’s next.”
Rolando, who asked not to use his full name to protect his safety, has no family, continues to suffer from undiagnosed and serious medical conditions and only speaks limited Spanish, since his native Mayan language is Qʼeqchiʼ.
“He still has a very long journey in front of him,” said Rios, who said she was working to find him a permanent home and is exploring options across the US. “It’s really about where he can go to be safe and comfortable.”
Ice had repeatedly refused to release Rolando from the Otay Mesa detention center in San Diego while his asylum case was pending this year, even though he had presented himself at a port of entry, had no criminal record or immigration violations, and was suffering from complex and potentially life-threatening medical crises. Al Otro Lado was able to get him released in September, but only after paying a $5,000 bond, covered by the organization’s revolving fund.
At trial, the US continued to argue that he should be denied asylum and sent back to Guatemala despite forensic evidence of the torture he survived, as well as the detailed claims of violence he faced as an indigenous Guatemalan, Rios said. Rolando told the Guardian that returning to Guatemala would mean a certain death. A judge ultimately sided with Rolando and granted asylum.
Ice has repeatedly defended its healthcare, saying all detainees receive timely access to medical services and treatment. A spokeswoman declined to comment on Rolando’s case on Wednesday.
His victory comes as the Trump administration has continued its aggressive attacks on migrants and efforts to dramatically restrict asylum seekers with policies that advocates say are escalating humanitarian crises.
Rios said she was grateful that Rolando’s story had spread and that she wanted people to know his case was common.
“This is very difficult work,” she said, noting that people like Rolando can struggle to get legal representation and support. “This is not an isolated case. We have thousands of people in detention and tens of thousands of people stuck at the border.”