For years, Michael, a journalist, wrote about political corruption and injustice afflicting the Kurdish people in the Middle East, where he was born. A Kurd himself, he covered social and legal issues and human rights abuses for several news outlets.
But then attempts to silence him started: intimidation, trips to court and orders to stop or he would be punished.
Even after the threats started, he kept writing. Serious, systemic corruption can be as bad for citizens of a country as genocide, he believes.
“If you have genocide you will destroy a lot of people. And if you have big corruption, same thing. You will destroy a lot of people,” he said.
"Kurdistan" is an ethnic region spread across four states, whose residents have long been discriminated against by the governments of the countries in which they reside. Michael asked the Observer not to use his real name or specify exactly where he's from, because he worries about family back home.
In 2014, convinced he would be killed if he stayed in his home, Michael left his parents, brothers and sisters and came to the United States, choosing this country because of its reputation for freedom and law.
“Everywhere when you talk about America, right away they want to think about democracy, they gonna think about system," he said. "So because of that I came to here, and I thought we had system and law and immigration will treat with me based on law."
Journalists who are critical of regional and state governments often face retribution for speaking up, said Günes Murat Tezcür, the director of the Kurdish Political Studies Program at the University of Central Florida.
In 1948, the United Nations enshrined asylum as a fundamental human right with its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, stating, “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”
But Michael's story is an example of just how difficult it's become for asylum seekers to reach the safety theoretically afforded by those words. In Michael's case, miscommunication, red tape, government errors and delays left him unable to earn a living. Advocates agree that while Michael's case is an extreme example, many asylum seekers face multiple complicated hurdles when they try to navigate the system.
When Michael arrived in the U.S., he invoked that right for asylum in Seattle. He knew just three words of English: taxi, hotel and SIM card, and had with him enough money, collected from family and friends, to live off of for a little while. He set about teaching himself English and tried to work through the U.S. asylum process.
Those seeking asylum in the U.S. must show proof of a credible threat back home. Claims take months or years to process, but while their cases wend through the American legal system, asylum seekers can apply for a work permit, which will allow them to earn income while they wait for a decision.
U.S. immigration regulations require asylum seekers to wait six months after filing for asylum before applying for a work permit, which then takes another few months to process. But Michael has been waiting for his permit for years, tangled up in a system that has left him unable to support himself.
A proposed rule change, announced last month by the federal government, could make situations like his a whole lot worse. The new rule would require asylum seekers wait a full year after applying for asylum before even applying to work.
In Seattle, Michael waited for his work permit to come in the mail. Months later, it was denied, erroneously, on the grounds that he had not waited long enough to apply, according to his attorney, Martha Penturf. He waited 164 days, 14 more than the required 150, she said. He reapplied and continued to wait. Eventually, he traveled to Texas.
After two years in this country with no work permit and no way to earn a living legally, Michael ran out of money.
Desperate, he decided to try to start over in Canada.
Canada Closes the Door
Without a visa to enter Canada, Michael walked to the border and applied for asylum.
He is not a lawbreaker, he said, slowly, making sure each word comes out clearly. He just didn’t think he had any other options.
“I don't like to do anything illegally, but it was for survive. When I went there, I didn't connect with any smuggler or anything like that,” he said.
In Canada, his asylum claim was denied because he had a pending claim in the United States. The U.S. and Canada have an agreement that asylum seekers entering one of the two countries from the other can be sent back to the first country.
Not long after Michael arrived in Canada, the call came. A friend back in Texas had received Michael’s work permit in the mail.
On the phone, his friends assured him that if he came to the U.S. border with his work permit, border officials would let him back into the country. Finally he would be able to work. Plus, they said, if he came back, in six months he’d get a green card too. The friend in Texas mailed him the work permit.
Convinced that he could finally work in America, when his permit arrived, Michael tucked it in his pocket and headed for the border. As he got there, he was pulled aside by border agents. He told them his story. But they said there was nothing they could do, they would have to take him to a detention center in Washington state.
Michael recalls them taking the work permit and tearing it up. His asylum case was canceled too. He begged to be allowed to stay in Canada, promising not to try to enter the U.S. again. The men said no.
“‘This is our law,’” he recalled them saying. “‘We didn’t make the law, and we have to take you.' And they took me.”
The detention center looked like a prison to Michael. Inside, he was put in a cell with another detainee. A window looked out onto the rest of the complex, but none faced daylight outside.
The center was cold. Detention center staff restricted where he could wear his detention center-issued jacket. At night, he couldn’t always get warm enough to sleep. The food was almost inedible, and although he had a little money in his pocket, it took days to get food ordered from the outside. Several times a day, Michael was sent to his room to sit on his bed so the facility staff could count the detainees. For half an hour each time, he sat still on his bed with his hands clasped in front of him.
“Detention center, 100%, it was jail. It was prison. Only name is different,” he said. “I told myself I'm not worthy for this place. I knew I went for Canada illegally. But I didn't go for drug. I didn't go to kill somebody. … I'm just looking for asylum. I'm just looking for safety."
Michael couldn't bear the thought of staying locked up like that.
“I was like, I'm going to kill myself. I don't want to stay in this world anymore,” he said.
With the strings of his uniform he strangled himself until the guards intervened.
When a doctor came to see Michael, he made Michael promise not to kill himself. In exchange, the doctor said immigration officials would try to help him get out of the facility.
Michael promised. But he was told that he would need to pay $10,000 to get out.
The money would be a bond of sorts, which judges can grant to immigrant detainees if they are deemed not a flight risk, Penturf explained.
Michael knew that his family back home had struggled to make ends meet since he left, but he called them anyway. They collected money from neighbors and friends, and Michael’s friends from Seattle sent him money too, he said.
Forty-seven days after entering the detention center, Michael paid out $10,000 and was free to go.
As the guard escorted him out, Michael asked over and over about his work permit. He recalls the guard ignoring him. Finally, as they came to the last door, the guard responded.
“He said, 'Go and talk with your lawyer, if you have a lawyer. We will not give you your work permit, OK? Get out,'” Michael said.
The door slammed. Michael was free, but with no money and no work permit, he had few options. A friend bought him two nights in a hotel and a plane ticket to Texas.
Back to Square One
In early 2017, nearly three years after he first stepped into the United States, Michael started over. Friends set him up to rent part of an apartment, but he had no money.
“Every day I wake up, I go to that neighborhoods and I was very hungry, and I went for markets, I went for restaurants, I went for any places. When I see, I went inside. I told them I need work,” he said.
Michael knew that under-the-counter work was illegal, but he didn’t know what else to do. But with no papers, no one would give him a job, even one paid in cash.
He was depressed and anxious.
Eventually Michael found DASH, a Fort Worth-based organization that offers asylum seekers housing and help while they wait for their work permits. With the help of a volunteer lawyer, he applied for a renewal of his work permit.
After months of waiting, word came back: Michael’s permit was ineligible for the extension. Even though he was previously granted a work permit, because he left the country, which effectively voided his first asylum case, his permit could not be used or extended.
Michael had to start from scratch. Again.
With the help of his lawyer, Michael filed a second asylum claim in May 2018. The case is now in immigration court. This claim is a defensive asylum claim, which is what is filed after official deportation proceedings start. It’s the only kind of claim he can file now.
Desperation brought Michael to the country and drove him to try again in Canada. But that attempt cost him the first step of the asylum process. Now, his case will work its way through immigration court.
So far this year, the Dallas court has approved just 13% of defensive asylum cases to come before it. According to Syracuse University, which tracks asylum cases, Texas' asylum application approval rate is much lower than the national average. Of the cases heard in Texas courts this year, just 24.3% were granted, compared with the 67.9% approved nationwide. About 39% of defensive and 61% of affirmative cases have been granted so far this year.
Whether asylum is granted depends on the judge. Texas has fewer pro-immigration judges than many other states, said Felix Villalobos, a lawyer for the Dallas-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services.
He is disturbed by the perception that people who come to the country seeking asylum are looking to abuse the system.
“When you talk to persons that are seeking asylum, they are really fearing for their lives or the lives of their families. …The majority of them are coming because they don’t have another choice,” Villalobos said.
Today, Michael lives in a three-bedroom apartment in Fort Worth with five other asylum seekers. They sleep two to a room. To pass the time waiting for work, Michael volunteers. So far, he’s put in more than 1,500 hours with local organizations.
“I was like, let me help this country. Let me prove for them that even you hurt me, but still I want to help you,” he said.
In July 2018, nearly four years after he first entered the U.S., Michael had a moment of hope when he got a court date to see an immigration judge. But this appointment was just to set an interview date — the day on which a judge will decide if his asylum claim is strong enough to grant him permanent residence in the country — for 2022, four more years down the line.
There is a huge backlog of cases in Texas immigration courts. In January 2018, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services changed the order in which cases are heard in court. Now, the most recently filed cases are the first ones heard, which has made the wait even longer for those already working their way through the system. And Michael's date could move at the last minute, since courts often reschedule and change set court dates, Villalobos said.
In November 2018, Michael filed for a new work permit. The next month, his application showed online as approved.
Penturf was thrilled by how fast the approval came, sure that Michael would be able to work soon.
But no permit came in the mail. By February, Michael learned that the permit had been sent out with an incomplete address on it. It had been returned to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services as undeliverable.
Finally, last summer, after months of waiting and unanswered questions, his work permit arrived. But a work permit is not enough to get a job. It has to be accompanied by a Social Security number. Typically, those arrive a few days after the work card, said Munatsi Manyande, executive director of DASH.
“The way the system is supposed to work is, as soon as you’re approved, you’re guaranteed to get a Social Security number,” he said.
But in mid-November, the Social Security office was still unable to give Michael his number because of some error in the system, Penturf said.
It's critical for Michael to be able to work, not just so he can support himself while he waits, but for the good of his mental and physical health. If he's stressed and depressed, he won't be able to present a clear case for himself when it's time to appear before the immigration court, Penturf said.
Although she’s seen plenty of hiccups in immigration and asylum proceedings, Penturf has never seen the complications strung together one after the other the way they have been for Michael.
In the time he’s been waiting, Michael has watched dozens of other DASH clients move through the asylum system, get work permits and Social Security numbers, find jobs and move out, Manyande said. No one seems to know why Michael keeps waiting.
“It’s definitely unusual. It doesn’t make sense,” Manyande said.
Michael still struggles with anxiety and depression, and he sees a doctor regularly. Recently, he developed a severe, debilitating stomach irritation, brought on by the stress. Anytime he thinks about what he’s been through and what he’s still waiting to hear about, his stomach aches.
In late November, more than five months after his work permit showed up in the mail, Michael’s Social Security card arrived. But Michael isn’t sure how much he’ll be able to work, because his health has deteriorated so far.
Sitting outside his apartment on a balmy November day, little lines are visible at the corners of Michael’s eyes. It’s been five years since he started the asylum process and since he saw his family. He’s 32 now. In 2022, when he has his immigration interview, he will be 35. It will have been eight years since he came to the U.S.
Michael used to be known for his smile, but now he says it’s often forced — a necessary social behavior. But still, he dreams that someday he can go back to being a journalist here in the U.S.
In the meantime, he’s just hoping to be treated fairly by the U.S. immigration system.
“All of us, we are humans,” Michael said. “Today I am immigrant. We have no guarantee who will be immigrant tomorrow.”
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