No Asy­lum

A Man­i­toba bor­der town strug­gles with the in­flux of mi­grants es­cap­ing Trump’s Amer­ica

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Michael Lista

Ahmed’s odyssey be­gan with a kiss. It was just one kiss, on Septem­ber 2014, with a man in a park­ing lot of a night­club in Ac­cra, Ghana. Ahmed no­ticed a group of men across the way point­ing at them. Ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity is il­le­gal in the West African coun­try, and some cit­i­zens have formed vig­i­lante squads. His friend bolted, and Ahmed jumped in his car. The men gave chase and fol­lowed Ahmed back to his house. As he tried to open his front gate, they at­tacked. They beat him, slashed and stabbed him with knives. When they smashed his head into a wall, he blacked out, and they left him for dead.

The next day, Ahmed de­cided to leave his coun­try for­ever. He es­caped to neigh­bour­ing Togo. But af­ter hid­ing out for a few weeks, Ahmed re­al­ized that if he ever wanted to love again, he’d have to flee Africa en­tirely. From Togo, Ahmed flew across the At­lantic to Ecuador. He con­sid­ered seek­ing asy­lum there, but couldn’t speak Span­ish, and so wouldn’t be able to work. He re­solved to push north and make a refugee claim in Amer­ica. From Ecuador, he crossed into Colom­bia, where at the bus sta­tion in Cali, he was robbed of all of his be­long­ings, in­clud­ing his pass­port. He had, though, kept a pho­to­copy of his birth cer­tifi­cate and some cash in his sock, which the thieves over­looked. He en­tered Panama with other mi­grants: the plan was to cross the Panama Canal at night to avoid bor­der pa­trols. They set out on two boats with only small out­board mo­tors: there were sev­en­teen mi­grants on Ahmed’s boat, and thirty-four in the one be­hind. The boat be­hind Ahmed’s cap­sized. As far as he knows, ev­ery­one drowned. “God loves me,” Ahmed thought to him­self.

For three days and nights, they walked through the Pana­ma­nian jun­gle. One of his fel­low mi­grants was bit­ten by a spi­der and be­came par­a­lyzed. There was noth­ing they could do to help, so they left him there. At the edge of the jun­gle, they were picked up by the au­thor­i­ties. Af­ter be­ing pro­cessed, they were bussed to Panama City and re­leased. From there, the group went to Costa Rica. They paid coy­otes $20 to take them on horse­back through the moun­tains into Nicaragua, then took a bus to the cap­i­tal, Managua. It was rain­ing, so Ahmed slept at the sta­tion. Af­ter an eigh­teen- hour bus ride through

Hon­duras to the Gu­atemalan bor­der, he slept at an­other bus sta­tion, then got on an­other bus, this one headed to Ta­pachula, Mex­ico. When he got there, he was ar­rested and de­tained for five days. The au­thor­i­ties re­leased him and told him he had thirty days to make his way into the United States.

For the first time in his jour­ney, Ahmed felt re­lief. The worst of his eight-month odyssey was be­hind him, and a new life in Amer­ica was within his grasp. He spent $120, nearly the last of his cash, on a three­day bus ride to the bor­der town of Mata­moros. From there, he walked half an hour through car­tel coun­try to the bor­der sta­tion at Brownsville, Texas. Af­ter in­tro­duc­ing him­self to the guards, he said that he was seek­ing asy­lum. They searched him, put him in full-body shack­les, and even­tu­ally trans­ferred him to York County Pri­son in Penn­syl­va­nia, a pen­i­ten­tiary that also houses de­tained mi­grants. There he lan­guished for months, pre­par­ing his claim.

Through the sum­mer and fall of 2016, Ahmed watched im­ages of Don­ald Trump’s cam­paign on the pri­son tele­vi­sions. In or­der for his asy­lum claim to be pro­cessed, Ahmed would need to present the judge with doc­u­men­ta­tion that proved Ahmed was who he said he was. But thanks to the rob­bery in Colom­bia, the only ID he had left was the pho­to­copy of his birth cer­tifi­cate. Ahmed wasn’t al­lowed to call home from the pri­son to ar­range for re­place­ments, and he had no money left to hire a lawyer. When he re­quested le­gal aid, he was told staff were too busy to help. So when he ap­peared in im­mi­gra­tion court, he had no of­fi­cial doc­u­men­ta­tion and no rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Al­though the judge ac­knowl­edged that Ahmed had a cred­i­ble fear of per­se­cu­tion in his home coun­try, he or­dered that Ahmed be de­ported back to Ghana.

In the mean­time, he was re­leased from Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment (ICE) cus­tody and given six months to gather the doc­u­men­ta­tion nec­es­sary for his re­turn to Ghana. A friend liv­ing in Minneapolis, whom Ahmed had met in pri­son, sug­gested that he do what thou­sands of other were now do­ing: flee from the US into Canada. Ahmed learned, how­ever, that he couldn’t sim­ply turn up at a Cana­dian bor­der post and claim safe haven — if he did that, he would be turned away with­out a hear­ing and sent back to Amer­ica for de­por­ta­tion. He needed to smug­gle him­self into the coun­try.

Ahmed made his way to Minneapolis, where he planned the fi­nal leg of his jour­ney to the small bor­der town of Emer­son, Man­i­toba — the clos­est cross­ing point, ac­cord­ing to the maps he con­sulted on­line. His friend gave him $300, which paid for a bus ticket to Grand Forks, North Dakota, about an hour and a half south of the bor­der. Af­ter his bus ar­rived at the de­pot, he called to let his friend know he’d ar­rived and was about to set out.

That’s when an­other man, Adams, walked up to Ahmed and told him that he’d over­heard him speak­ing on the phone in the same Ghana­ian di­alect that was his own mother tongue. Adams had fled Ghana af­ter a dis­pute with his un­cle over some fam­ily lands. The un­cle had threat­ened to kill Adams, and used his in­flu­ence with Ghana­ian au­thor­i­ties to make him awanted man. Adams had flown to Brazil and then, like Ahmed, made a trip up the con­ti­nent. He was de­tained in an ICE pri­son for fif­teen months be­fore ul­ti­mately hav­ing his asy­lum claim denied.

Ahmed was amazed to hear some­one else speak­ing the Hausa di­alect, and told Adams that he was head­ing to the Cana­dian bor­der. “What a co­in­ci­dence,” Adams said. He was do­ing the same. As it came up on eleven o’clock at night, the weather started get­ting colder. Ahmed was wear­ing only a long-sleeved sweater — no­jacket, no gloves, no hat. Adams was sim­i­larly dressed, but at least had a hat. They de­cided to hire one of the taxis queued at the de­pot. Adams turned to Ahmed and said, “If some­thing hap­pens, maybe one of us will sur­vive.”

Be­tween the two of them, they put to­gether the $500 the driver wanted. Even­tu­ally, the driver let them out in a field and pointed them to­ward lights on

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