"In the perverse way the system works right now," LIRS attorney Megan Bremer explains, "if you come to the border and ask for asylum, you're considered a defensive asylum applicant. If you actually leave the airport — I don't know where you go — but the next day, you go to the immigration office and ask for asylum, then you're affirmative. It makes no sense."
Bremer says the results of the ongoing pilot project with ICE prove that asylum seekers should not be incarcerated. "The people [who] are being referred [by ICE officials], they represent no danger to our community," he insists. "They have credible claims. They would be released except for the lack of community ties."
It costs about $160 a day to keep each asylum seeker in immigration detention. It costs nothing to release them on parole to the nonprofit groups participating in the LIRS pilot program. Bremer says the fiscal considerations are helping "put feet to the fire" to prove to Congress that the program is safe and saving taxpayers money. The federal budget for immigration detention and deportation stands at $2.8 billion a year, with less than $100 million devoted to alternatives to detention, such as electronic ankle monitoring.
Bremer says the lack of federal funding for the pilot program "really limits the ability to deepen the capacity or scale up across geographic areas. It's not going to grow to meet the need without deeper pockets."
To secure additional funding after the pilot programs in New York, New Jersey, and San Antonio end in June, Bremer and other advocates must convince politicians like Goodlatte, ICE officials, and the general public that asylum seekers deserve compassion. Misconceptions about the asylum process and suspicions of fraud make matters difficult.
The uncomfortable truth is there is no surefire way to prevent fraud. The very nature of asylum essentially requires officials to take people at their word. Documents and witness testimony are available in some instances, but short of personally traveling to conflict zones like Syria or lawless corners of Somalia and Pakistan, there often is no way for officials (or journalists, for that matter) to independently verify the facts as asylum seekers tell them.
A 31-year-old Pakistani man named Khan who's incarcerated at a New Jersey detention facility says he has spent the past seven months behind bars waiting for a decision on his claim. He says he was forced to flee his home in Pakistan's tribal region after the Taliban executed his parents and threatened to kill him, his wife, and their children.
"The Taliban, they killing all the time," Khan says. To emphasize this point, he lifts his hands and makes a tat-tat-tat noise as if hoisting a machine gun. "The Taliban doesn't know the word 'sorry.' You may be fine for one year, two year, three year, four year — then maybe 15 years they come for you."
Khan explains that a judge had asked him for police reports of the killing and death certificates for his parents, but the records either didn't exist or were impossible for his friends and family in Pakistan to obtain.
Khan tells his tale the same afternoon Mohamed speaks of his escape from Somalia. As the African describes walking through a Brazilian jungle with human smugglers and dodging bandits along the migrant trail in Central America, he is clearly aware of how implausible it sounds.
"I tell the truth," he interrupts himself to declare. "I cannot lie before God."