Pregnant woman kidnapped and tortured as she immigrated to U.S.

7 years ago by: OIL PRINCE
-- (m) at 10-04-2013 04:33PM (7 years ago)

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For three days, a pregnant Salvadoran woman was held captive in a mobile home in the Texas borderland, her dreams of reuniting with her family on Long Island replaced by fear of violent death.

“They were threatening me with a gun, pointed right to my stomach,” Zoila Figueroa said of the two men who abducted her after she sneaked across the U.S.-Mexico border near Hidalgo, Tex., in March 2012.

“They threatened me. They said if my husband didn’t pay ransom they were going to take out my baby. They were going to take out the baby alive and then they were going to kill me.”

Her captors freed her unharmed after her husband, who lives in Roosevelt, L.I., paid $3,990 in ransom. She later delivered a healthy baby boy, her third child.

Now, a year later, Figueroa, 28, is plagued by mental scars from the ordeal, and faces an uncertain future in America. Her lawyer believes she qualifies for a “U” visa, a special type that gives undocumented immigrants who are crime victims a chance to become legal residents if they cooperate with police. They must also prove they suffered mental or physical abuse.

U visas were created in 2000 to make immigrants less fearful of reporting crimes, and to assist law enforcement in solving crimes involving immigrant victims.

But while Figueroa’s experience seems to make her a textbook example of a victim who would qualify for a “U” visa, her case has come to symbolize the arbitrary nature of the program, which requires police or prosecutors to sign a certificate proving that the victim has cooperated with investigators.

She has cooperated extensively with authorities in Hidalgo County, Tex., but they have refused to approve the needed paperwork — leaving her in danger of being deported. She must check in with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency on Thursday .

“This is a perfect example of how someone is not being protected even though they need it,” said her lawyer, Bryan Johnson.

Law enforcement agencies are not required to participate in the program. Experts say that getting one of the 10,000 U visas granted each year depends heavily on attitudes in the city or police department where the crime happened.

Figueroa had lived illegally in the U.S. for years before she returned to her native country with her son, who was born in the U.S. and is therefore an American citizen. He is severely autistic, and she thought spending time in El Salvador with family would help him. But crime in the Central American country worried her, so she put her son on a plane back to New York, and paid two “coyotes” $1,500 to guide her across the Rio Grande and into Texas.

Once at the border, the smugglers drove her part of the way across a bridge linking Reynosa, Mexico, and Hidalgo. They stopped near a gate on the bridge, and forced her to climb down a rope leading to a sugar cane field underneath the span. She shimmied down at least 20 feet of the rope, but lost her grip and fell to the ground, injuring her back. The two men blindfolded and gagged her, took her to the trailer, tied her up and threatened her life.

After Figueroa’s husband paid for her freedom, she contacted the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office. She provided investigators with the names and descriptions of her captors, whom she overhead calling each other “El Jefe” and “Juan,” Johnson said. She tried to pick the men out of a photo lineup.

“They even showed me a cell phone photo of the place, of the trailer, and I said, ‘Yes, that’s the place,’” Figueroa said.

Her husband went with sheriff’s officers in an effort to find the mobile home. Yet Hidalgo County eventually closed the case, unsolved.

An officer told Johnson they weren’t the primary investigative agency handling the crime. The lawyer countered that they need not be the main agency in order to document her cooperation, Johnson said. Then an officer questioned whether Figueroa was a victim at all, Johnson said. The Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office did not return a call seeking comment.

Following her ordeal, Figueroa was diagnosed by a psychiatrist as suffering from posttraumatic-stress disorder, panic disorder and agoraphobia, a fear of open or public spaces.

“Since I’ve been back from there, I haven’t done anything but cry. I shut myself up inside and am depressed,” she said .

“I feel like I’m being harassed, that they are insulting me all the time. I feel really, really bad.”