Hussein Mohamed took a hard road to America. Born into a minority clan in a nation rife with ethnic conflict, the boyish 24-year-old with gangly limbs and intense brown eyes describes fleeing his village in Somalia in 2012 after gunmen threatened to kill him. Mohamed says he was forced to quit his jobs as an English teacher and taxi driver and escape to neighboring Kenya. After making his way to South Africa, he forked over his life savings to human smugglers, who shipped him across the Atlantic to Brazil and guided him north through the jungles of South and Central America into Mexico.
When he finally arrived at a border crossing in Brownsville, Texas, last summer, Mohamed thought he'd safely reached the end of a harrowing 10-month journey. He had no inkling of the ordeal awaiting him on the other side of the Rio Grande.
Mohamed approached a U.S. Border Patrol agent and recounted his story. He explained that he wanted to seek asylum, a classification of refugee status granted to people who arrive in the United States having fled persecution in their homeland. He immediately was handcuffed and placed in immigration detention: a cold, cramped cell at a privately owned and operated prison facility. Soon after, along with hundreds of other detainees, he was herded onto a cargo plane and transferred without explanation to a jail in Newark, New Jersey.
Eight months later, Mohamed is seated in the jail's makeshift visitor center, a stuffy gymnasium with rows of plastic chairs and tables arranged on the basketball court. It has been more than a year since he spoke with his family in Somalia, and he fears the worst. He knows exactly one person in America, a fellow Somali immigrant who lives somewhere in California. He dreams of moving there, finding work, maybe starting a family.
Instead, he likely will be deported, shipped back to the war-torn country on the Horn of Africa he worked so hard to escape. Mohamed's request for asylum was denied because he lacks a passport or other documents to confirm his identity. He has filed an appeal, and his detention ticks on indefinitely.
There are no statutory limits to the amount of time a non-citizen like Mohamed may be held in immigration detention. When the process goes smoothly, asylum seekers tend to be released in a matter of weeks. Many end up imprisoned for much longer. About 6,000 survivors of torture — exiles from Iran, Myanmar, Syria, and other brutal regimes — were detained in immigration jails while seeking asylum during the past three years, according to a 2013 report by the Center for Victims of Torture.
"It's really tragic," says Amelia Wilson, staff attorney for the American Friends Service Committee, a faith-based organization that aids asylum seekers. "They're fleeing persecution, and many of them have just fled institutions of incarceration in their home country. Through guile or luck or the right contacts, they manage to get out of their country. They come here and they're promptly detained. They're shocked. They're not criminals. In fact, they're following the legal procedure the government has put in place for them to get protection."
Over the past five months, Voice Media Group visited detainees at two immigration detention centers and conducted extensive interviews with outreach workers, attorneys, academics, and other experts on the asylum process. The investigation revealed how a process created to save innocent lives has come to embody some of the worst aspects of American immigration policy: The nation's system of mass deportations and incarceration has devastating consequences for vulnerable individuals who seek nothing more than safety and a new beginning.
The immigration overhaul the Senate passed in June 2013 addresses several issues with asylum, but the legislation remains stalled in the House of Representatives. Raising concerns about fraudulent claims, some Republican leaders now are pushing draconian measures that would put even more asylum seekers behind bars. House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia, has said the asylum system is "exploited by illegal immigrants in order to enter and remain in the United States."
"The tone of immigration politics, even when it comes to asylum seekers, has gotten really vicious." Staunchly on the other side of this argument is Alina Das, co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the New York University School of Law: "People generally have forgotten what it means to be seeking asylum in our country. It's really disturbing, and I think it's a sad commentary on how easily a minority of elected officials can hijack an issue that should really speak to core American values."
Though the political climate looks bleak for advocates of asylum reform, an ongoing pilot project offers a glimmer of hope. The project allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials at facilities in New York City, Newark, San Antonio, Chicago, and Minneapolis-St. Paul to release select detainees seeking asylum into a program coordinated by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. As of March 31, the program has helped secure temporary housing and social services for 32 people, including survivors of torture, victims of domestic abuse, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, all of whom would otherwise have remained jailed indefinitely.