By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
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 this past 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 was immediately handcuffed and placed in immigration detention: a cold, cramped cell in 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 will likely 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. Approximately 6,000 survivors of torture — exiles from Iran, Myanmar, Syria and other brutal regimes — were detained in immigration jails while seeking asylum over 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, which owns the Dallas Observer, visited detainees at two immigration detention centers and conducted extensive interviews with outreach workers, attorneys, academics and other experts on the asylum process. Our 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 are now 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," says Alina Das, co-director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the New York University School of Law. "People have generally 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 LGBT individuals, all of whom would otherwise have remained jailed indefinitely.
While I am not a Muslim, I fully understand how difficult it is to find asylum in Dallas, an asylum already and all by its lonesome. I am a Liberal (in Texas, that is pronounced LIB-RUL), and living here in the Conservatronic Zombie Death Machine called Dallas (actually a suburb of Mexico City), I find the xenophobia of this part of the country to be unamenable for much of anything positive and life-affirming.
I did help a refugee from Afghanistan learn to produce research papers once, and he was quite kind to me. We had a ritual: Search for the best hamburger in Dallas, and when he invited me to an Afghan wedding, I was thrilled. I have never in my life seen such a beautiful wedding, green, meaning fecundity in a desert land, being the predominant color. I was the only white American in the room, yet those fine people were so hospitable towards me that I felt truly honored--especially when the father of the bride asked me to precede him in the wonderful Afghan buffet that proceeded after the wedding.
As far as I am concerned, Dallas is a Taliban of the mind, and someday, if I get-up the money to escape this inherently unfriendly city, I will finally find my freedom and the right to express myself without being banned, and thus will join the increasingly lengthening conga-line of expatriate Dallasite artists and writers who have found this so-called city to be a living hell for those of us who happen to be creative and not interested in the only thing that matters at all in Dallas:
Bling. Rhymes with "ding"--as in "ding dong". Any questions? And Dallas? Try to be friendly to foreigners. I'm a foreigner myself: I hail from the United States of America, and that, my friends, is not ideologically correct in the Elitist Republic of Public Dallas, not by any means or measure, not by rhyme nor reason.
It's disheartening not to see a good discussion of this issue in the Comments section. I'd like to learn about this topic from both sides, but that doesn't seem possible. I do know we all came from immigrant families, so now what? We're less agricultural, cities are broken and cash-strapped. I don't know the answer, but I'm sure some people deserve asylum. How do we know which ones? How can we find out the truth?
Netherlands has passed laws that if you do not learn the native Dutch language, as an immigrant, you will be deported. End of issue.
This highlights one of the problems with seeking asylum in the US. Our right-wing, anti-immigrant psychos are going to try to harass them every bit as much as the creeps from whom they were seeking asylum in the first place.
So what now? Homosexuals can seek asylum in the USA just because of their sexual preference? What the heck? You know people, America is not the only place in the world to escape your "persecution". Oh, that's right. We have all the free stuff. Maybe some of you are just seeking asylum to escape the persecution of having to work!
International law clearly states that an asylum seeker must declare himself and seek asylum in the first safe country he comes across. Technically, he never even had to leave Africa, making this whole story a sham.
Well, if we weren't filling the country up with Mexican peasants, their might be room to hear legitimate appeals. But for now, Hussein has been crowded out in our quest for dishwashers, gardeners, and democrat voters.
@gordonhilgers I never thought of Dallas proper being the heart of the Metroplex zombie kill zone. I hope the (loud) xenophobic part of Dallas represents only a minority.
@nptexas that's a very good question nptexas. The system has very strong safeguards against Fraud. The government is represented by lawyers that vigorously contest asylum cases. The Department of Justice does forensic examinations of documents. In addition, it is NOT easy to tell a detailed story of what happened to you over decades, put that story in writing and then be cross examined on that story. Lies come out under scrutiny. Finally non profit agencies that take these cases really do commit substantial resources before accepting a case. thanks for asking such a honest straightforward question
@bvckvs I am convinced that Beavis is actually one of the DO employees and their task is to post stuff at a 3rd grade level of intelligence with the only purpose of stirring things up.
@bvckvs Your so predictable and tiresome.
Perhaps the whole system is a Rube Goldberg monstrosity that neither party wants to fix because its broken nature can be milked for political benefit.
I posted a chart earlier to illustrate convoluted process and the all-seeing subject matter editors deleted it.
@bvckvs Yeah...the right wing sickpsychos were ALL OVER obama's illegal relatives who are living of the taxpayers illegally. liberalism is an illness of the mental capacity.
@SamHouston then make sure you land in Detroit or Chicago
@jnbary11 actually that's not what international law says. Asylum seekers have very harsh treatment all over the African continent.
@rusknative Not sure what your point is? I am already here. 4th Generation Texan, part Native American. I can't get much more here.
@jnbary11 @bill.holston1 thanks for the response. But El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are not safe places. This is why we get such a huge increase of applicants from those countries. People come to America for asylum because they honestly believe we are a land of freedom. In my experience they believe in American values much more than native born Americans. We have two former asylum clients currently serving in our military, proud to serve.