Longform

Detention and Deportation Await Those Seeking Asylum in America

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Since June, Pillay has participated in the LIRS pilot program, coordinating with community members (mostly churchgoers) willing to host an immigrant. In seven months, she has found shelter for seven asylum seekers. "We rely on the kindness of strangers," she says. "You're asking somebody not to charge any money or anything. It can be a burden sometimes. We have to rely on the generosity of host families."

Pillay's counterpart in New York is Jamila Hammami, director of the Brooklyn Community Pride Center's Queer Detainee Empowerment Project. Hammami says detention for LGBT asylum seekers can be especially nightmarish. LGBT detainees are 15 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than their heterosexual counterparts while incarcerated, according to a 2013 report from the Center for American Progress. They're also more likely to end up in solitary confinement, a tactic that keeps them separated from other inmates.

"They're victims of torture and persecution, but when you're put in a detention center, you're not safe there, either," Hammami says. "It's like being in a microcosm of the community that you're trying to flee. The psychological damage is huge."

Clement Lee, a staff attorney at Immigration Equality, a nonprofit group that advocates for LGBT asylum seekers, describes situations in which detainees live in perpetual fear of having their sexuality revealed, knowing it will lead to physical and verbal abuse by guards and other inmates.

"When I talk to clients by phone, they're looking over their shoulder left and right to make sure nobody is listening," Lee says. "I have to encourage clients to use code words when talking to me about being gay or transgender. This is a country that offers humanitarian protection, but they don't feel safe even when they're applying — there's something a little disjointed about that."

Finding housing for parolees is half the battle. Asylum seekers aren't allowed to seek employment until 180 days after they've filed their application, and bureaucracy and backlogs can delay work authorization for months. Legally barred from finding a job, they are forced to subsist on handouts.

"I had no idea how vast or complex the asylum-seeker process really was," Hammami says. "I thought it was like, they come here and we help them with housing and they can work. I completely found out that's not the case at all. It's horrible. Horrible, and so incredibly complex."

One of Hammami's clients in Brooklyn is a soft-spoken 29-year-old Nigerian woman who asked that her name not be published because she fears people from her homeland may still be trying to track her down. Born into a devoutly Muslim family, she entered an arranged marriage at age 19. When her husband died five years later, the families ordered the young widow to remarry her brother-in-law. Tamara says her stepmother was abusive and threatened to harm her if she did not obey.

"[My husband's family] gave her land and properties and money," the asylum seeker says. "She knew if I'd leave, they'd want to get all that back from her."

With the help of a sympathetic family friend, she hatched a plan to escape. She booked a flight to New York and arrived at JFK Airport in June 2012, afraid, confused, and alone. She wound up in detention for four months. After she was released, Hammami's organization provided a small stipend, but, despite having earned her GED and completed a variety of certification courses, she hasn't been able to achieve her goal of becoming a nurse, owing to a misspelling of her name on her immigration paperwork. Because of the typo, she has been unable to obtain a state ID, and without that, she can't enroll in nursing school.

Hammami recently helped this woman find work as a server at a restaurant in Brooklyn, and she hopes to enroll in nursing school in the coming year. Though still bitter about her months in detention, She says the tribulations were worth it in the end:

"The good thing is, I'm free from everything now. The good thing is the freedom. I'm finally able to think straight. The people here, they're accommodating. People don't even know you, but they just want to help you."

Not every asylum seeker is as fortunate. Of the roughly 68,000 people who applied for asylum in 2012, only 29,000 had their requests approved. Reasons for rejection can run the gamut from security concerns to fraudulent claims, but in many cases the decision whether to approve an application appears to be cruelly arbitrary.

A series of reports by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University "found extensive disparities in how the nation's immigration judges decide the thousands of individual requests for asylum that they process each year." In New York, where judges decide one out of every four asylum cases in the United States, the disparity has improved in recent years but still remains an area of concern. One judge approved just 5 percent of asylum cases in a single year. Another judge in the same building approved 67 percent of such cases.

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Keegan Hamilton
Contact: Keegan Hamilton