The Walrus

No Asylum

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

- 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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