Note: Following this story’s publication, Victor Valladares Diaz was deported to Honduras.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was set to deport a double amputee to Honduras without one of his prosthetic limbs, until The Daily Beast reported the man’s story.
After his left arm and leg were amputated when he fell from a train carrying him northward, 36-year-old Victor Valladares Diaz spent two years recovering in a Mexican hospital before he was well enough to reach the U.S. border in December 2017. Despite passing a credible fear interview, Valladares Diaz has been held in a privately run detention center ever since, where his prosthetic limbs were taken from him after being damaged during his apprehension.
As a result, Valladares Diaz was confined to a wheelchair for nearly half a year, and even faced disciplinary actions for not being able to stand, according to his attorneys.
Now, Valladares Diaz faces imminent deportation after his bid for asylum was rejected because the United States doesn’t believe his disability will put him at risk of persecution. Hours before he was due to be removed from the country, however, ICE had not yet returned his prosthetic arm after taking it for repairs more than a year ago.
“He’s been consistently denied the right to apply for protection based on his disability,” said Alicia Perez, one of Valladares Diaz’s attorneys. “The judge wouldn’t consider the fact that he’s lost an arm and a leg—we’re deporting this double-amputee who’s never gotten to say why he would be in danger.”
“We’re better than this,” Perez said. “We protect people because we’re an awesome country, and this is a guy who needs protecting.”
Hours after first reporting Vallardares Diaz’s story, The Daily Beast was contacted by the office of a member of Texas’ congressional delegation. Speaking on background, the official told The Daily Beast that Vallardares Diaz would be fitted with a prosthetic within hours.
Valladares Diaz and his legal team are still pleading for members of Congress to intervene in his deportation, however, and remain worried that his disability will leave him defenseless against the criminal gangs that have made Honduras one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
“The disabled are easy targets—he literally can’t run,” said Matthew Hoppock, one of Valladares Diaz’s attorneys. “He’s easy to hold for ransom and take money from family members, especially since they live in America and are thought to be wealthy.”
With few options left in an immigration court system that has been paralyzed by the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, Valladares Diaz’s legal team weren’t even been able to track down his prosthetic arm before his removal, which remains scheduled for Friday.
“Because of the shutdown, I can’t reach the DOJ attorney on the case. I've emailed her but I get a bounceback message saying she can’t respond,” said Hoppock on Thursday morning. “That entire communication line is closed right now.”
“I have contacts at ICE who are nonessential, but I can’t ask help them for help, and they can’t look up the case, because they’re on furlough,” Perez said. “This is the real crisis at the border.”
Valladares Diaz first came to the United States with his family in 1998, when he was 16 years old. Like many Honduran immigrants at the time, Valladares Diaz and his family were granted temporary protected status shortly after Hurricane Mitch devastated the country that year, leading to a regional humanitarian crisis that has persisted for decades. Temporary protected status allows citizens of countries affected by natural disasters or violent conflicts to legally reside in the United States on a temporary basis.
Valladares Diaz’s family settled in Florida, where he went to school, started a small business, and even obtained a Social Security card. But when his temporary protected status was discontinued without notice in 2010, Valladares Diaz was returned to Honduras.
“I went to renew my TPS that was renewed every year, but then it was not renewed and I had no permit,” Valladares Diaz told an asylum officer in December 2017. “Then I tried to renew it and they gave me one for six months only… then they didn’t give me another, and then I was deported.”
Leaving behind a mother and a sister, who remain legal U.S. residents, Valladares Diaz attempted to make a life in a country he hadn’t seen in more than a decade. But Honduras had become a much more dangerous place since he was a child: a prolonged economic crisis means that a fifth of Hondurans live on less than two dollars a day, and fewer than one in ten violent crimes are ever solved.
Valladares Diaz himself soon became part of that statistic, when he was mugged, robbed, and hit with a machete by the violent gangs that have driven thousands of people to flee the country. Those gangs, often working in concert with local law enforcement, view Honduran residents of the United States as potentially wealthy—and, therefore, as potential targets for kidnapping, robbery, and extortion.
“For fear that something else would happen to me, like they could kill me, I went to live somewhere else,” Valladares Diaz said in that 2017 interview. But after he tried to open up a business selling second-hand clothes, gang members attempted to extort him into sharing his profits—and threatened to kill him if he didn’t pay up.
Valladares Diaz returned to the United States in 2014, pleading asylum to escape the very real threat of violence in Honduras, but his case was denied, and he was deported two months later. Facing increasing threats—Honduras has one of the highest violent crime rates in the world, and cartel violence frequently goes without police interference, if not direct police involvement—he once again began the journey to the U.S. border.
“His only hope was to rejoin his family in Florida,” said Hoppock.
Desperate to be reunited with his mother and sister, Valladares Diaz took the fastest route north: a network of train lines known in the region as “El Tren de la Muerte,” or “The Death Train.” The trains are as popular as they are dangerous, with an estimated 500,000 people riding atop them every year in hopes of getting out of the region, risking loss of life and limb as they move from train to train more than a dozen times over the course of the 1,450-mile trail.
In October 2015, midway through his journey, disaster struck. Valladares Diaz fell from one of the cars, and his left arm and leg were amputated under the wheels of the train.
After more than two years recovering in a Mexican hospital, where he was given a humanitarian residence permit due to his condition, Valladares Diaz re-entered the United States by foot on November 18, 2017, lawfully walking across the international bridge to the Laredo, Texas, port of entry, where he requested asylum. The crossing, he hoped, was the final step in a journey that took him nearly three years, and for which he had paid a terrible price.
Valladares Diaz was found to have a credible fear of torture if he returned to Honduras, according to records reviewed by The Daily Beast, in part because of heavy discrimination against the disabled there.
“Now I feel that people will see me different because of my physical condition,” he told his asylum officer. “In my country people are not so intellectual, like in the U.S.”
Despite having direct relatives willing to sponsor him in the United States, Valladares Diaz has been held in the Webb County Detention Center in Laredo, Texas, for more than a year. Webb is operated under contract by CoreCivic, the second-largest private prison company in the United States, which has been accused of a host of human rights abuses, including forcing its inmates to work for toilet paper and wages so low that advocates compare the conditions to slave labor.
One of those abuses, Valladares Diaz’s attorneys said, began the moment he was detained at the border in 2017.
“When he was tied up in the back of a transport vehicle, his prosthetic arm was damaged, and it was taken from him,” Perez said. “To this day, it has not yet been returned.”
After his prosthetic leg was taken by ICE agents for repair, Valladares Diaz was given a crutch designed for use by elderly, two-legged people.Despite his numerous complaints, his leg was not returned to him for more than five months, and he was forced to use a wheelchair. In the meantime, he was written up for disciplinary violations after not being able to stand during head count.
“When he didn’t get up to stand in line for counts, an officer wrote a complaint about him, even though he could be seen there lying in his bed, because he doesn’t have access to his leg,” Perez said. “He actually got a disciplinary complaint for not standing up in line for count!”
“It’s just so typical of how fucked up his treatment has been.”
Had Valladares Diaz known that he might come close to never getting his prostheses back, Hoppock said, he might have kept silent about the damage.
“He wouldn’t have asked for help if he had known—being in a federal prison in a wheelchair is tough circumstances.”
The Daily Beast’s requests for comment as to the conditions of Valladares Diaz’s detention were answered with an automatic email noting that due to the government shutdown, all of ICE’s public affairs officers have been furloughed.
“If you still require a response, please resubmit your query upon the government re-opening,” the email concluded. “Thank you!”
In December, his claim for asylum was denied on the grounds that his fear of harm is not due to membership in “a particular social group,” which Valladares Diaz’s legal team say is outrageous.
“The judge wouldn’t consider the fact that he’s lost an arm and a leg,” said Perez. “We’re deporting this double-amputee who’s never gotten to say why he’d be in danger.”
Hoppock filed an appeal with the Department of Justice’s Board of Immigration Appeals, which was denied. In the decision, the BIA ruled that “physical disability is not a basis to grant… asylum or withholding of removal to Honduras.” A motion for a stay of removal submitted to the conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals was met with a one-sentence denial.
Absent the Supreme Court granting a stay, Hoppock said, Valladares Diaz is likely to be deported by Friday morning—but the shutdown has complicated efforts to coordinate that deportation.
“Usually ICE would coordinate with with us—normally that person would tell us logistics about when he would be removed,” Hoppock said. “Unfortunately, that person is being furloughed.”
Valladares Diaz’s lawyers have filed a flurry of last-minute appeals, but now see public pressure as one of their client’s last hopes.
“ICE doesn’t care if it looks bad,” Perez said. “But if they get political pressure from people that matter more to them than the public’s opinion, that might help.”
“This is a call-your-congressperson situation,” echoed Hoppock.
If he is deported as scheduled, Valladares Diaz has made it clear that he fears being even more vulnerable to violence and exploitation in Honduras than before.
“With my condition, it is difficult to live there,” Valladares Diaz said in his asylum interview. “There are no places for disabled there, the highways are very bad and there are no sidewalks… you are discriminated against because you are disabled.”