Else­where there’s a long read on the US’s no­to­ri­ous El Paso Pro­cess­ing Cen­tre, as seen through the eyes of a Syr­ian asy­lum seeker.

A Syr­ian refugee seek­ing asy­lum in the US was un­lucky enough to try to en­ter at El Paso, Texas

The Guardian Weekly - - Contents - By Jus­tine van der Leun

When Was­sim Isaac, a phar­macy owner in his home coun­try, crossed from Mex­ico into El Paso ju­ris­dic­tion in 2016, lit­tle did he know he was en­ter­ing one of the worst places in the US to seek asy­lum.

The El Paso Pro­cess­ing Cen­tre, in­for­mally known as the Camp, is a sprawl­ing, walled com­pound of cin­der-block build­ings and trail­ers tucked be­tween the land­ing strip at El Paso In­ter­na­tional air­port and the Lone Star golf club. The camp houses around 800 im­mi­grants at any given time – some await­ing de­por­ta­tion, some their hear­ings or ap­peals. Some pass through for a day; oth­ers stay for years.

Was­sim Isaac, a 32-year-old Syr­ian with gin­ger hair and im­pec­ca­ble man­ners, had been at the Camp for over a year by the time we met, in De­cem­ber 2017 – his asy­lum de­nied, his ap­peal wend­ing its way through the sys­tem. Isaac, who asked that I not use his real name, had been the owner of a phar­macy back in Syria, and de­scribed him­self as a col­lege-ed­u­cated, law-abid­ing church­goer. When he first ar­rived at the Camp, he asked him­self how he had come to be in­car­cer­ated. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment (Ice) des­ig­nates the Camp as a “hold­ing and pro­cess­ing fa­cil­ity”, but as far as Isaac could tell, it was a prison. “Like in the movies,” he said flatly.

He would be stuck in the fa­cil­ity for who knew how long, hav­ing been re­fused asy­lum for rea­sons he couldn’t quite grasp. The judge had ini­tially im­plied that Isaac, a Chris­tian flee­ing both mili­ti­a­men and Is­lamic ex­trem­ists, had a con­vinc­ing case, but then, in an abrupt about-face, de­nied him. “Is it per­sonal? No,” Isaac said, per­plexed. “Re­lated to the law? Po­lit­i­cal?”

He con­cluded that try­ing to make sense of his predica­ment was an ex­er­cise in fu­til­ity. He de­cided in­stead to look at his cap­tiv­ity from the US gov­ern­ment’s point of view. “In their opin­ion, I make a crime be­cause I come here with no visa,” he told me. “I con­vince my­self. I say: ‘OK, I am il­le­gal. I am il­le­gal.’”

In fact, Isaac had not com­mit­ted a crime. He had not slipped into the coun­try out­side a des­ig­nated port of en­try – a mis­de­meanour or, if done re­peat­edly, a felony. In­stead, on 2 Oc­to­ber 2016, Isaac joined a throng of peo­ple in the pedes­trian lane of the Paso del Norte In­ter­na­tional Bridge, which di­vides Mex­ico’s Ci­u­dad Juárez from El Paso, Texas – the same bridge that Cus­toms and Bor­der Pro­tec­tion (CBP) of­fi­cers, out­fit­ted in riot gear, have bar­ri­caded, in prepa­ra­tion for the ar­rival of the Cen­tral Amer­i­can mi­grant car­a­van. Be­low the bridge runs the bor­der be­tween the two na­tions: a trash-clogged trickle of the Rio Grande, no deeper than a pud­dle. When Isaac reached the front of the line, he used bro­ken English to in­form a bor­der agent that he was a Syr­ian na­tional seek­ing pro­tec­tion. In do­ing so, he be­haved in ac­cor­dance with in­ter­na­tional hu­man-rights law and US im­mi­gra­tion law. He also crossed into the El Paso ju­ris­dic­tion, which, un­be­known to him then, is one of the worst places in the US to seek asy­lum.

Im­mi­gra­tion courts are ad­min­is­tra­tive bod­ies, di­vided into re­gional dis­tricts that have de­vel­oped starkly dif­fer­ent pat­terns of ad­ju­di­ca­tion. Be­tween 2012 and 2017, for ex­am­ple, judges in the New York City court ap­proved around 80% of ap­pli­ca­tions for asy­lum, ac­cord­ing to a Trans­ac­tional Records Ac­cess Clear­ing­house (Trac) anal­y­sis of gov­ern­ment data. In Mi­ami, the ap­proval rate was around 30%. In El Paso, it was just 3%. Asy­lum seek­ers in El Paso then find them­selves – sim­ply by virtue of be­ing there – trapped in a ju­ris­dic­tion that con­sis­tently re­fuses re­lief, and has done so for years.

Lo­cal ac­tivists and lawyers con­tend that asy­lum seek­ers in El Paso also face bleak cir­cum­stances on other fronts, in­clud­ing lim­ited ac­cess to le­gal help, a lack of trans­la­tors for non-Span­ish speak­ers, and in­hu­mane con­di­tions at CBP and Ice hold­ing fa­cil­i­ties. Com­pound­ing this pat­tern is the vol­ume of cases at hand: be­tween 2000 and 2018, El Paso had the na­tion’s third-high­est num­ber of de­tainees in im­mi­gra­tion pro­ceed­ings. As Car­los Spec­tor, an El Paso im­mi­gra­tion lawyer, put it: “As an asy­lum seeker, you de­scend into hell by com­ing here.”

At the Camp, the ther­mo­stat al­ways hov­ers around 20C. Speak­ing through a crackly phone across a thick pane of glass, Isaac re­called how, at the be­gin­ning of his in­tern­ment, he felt per­pet­u­ally cold, but af­ter six months got used to it. He wore a frayed, Ice-is­sued jump­suit, but was im­mac­u­lately groomed and un­err­ingly pleas­ant, speak­ing English that had be­come nearly flu­ent dur­ing his time in Texas.

Isaac shared a dorm with 60 other de­tainees. His bed was a lower bunk, with a re­volv­ing cast above – some­times some­one would ar­rive at 2am and leave at 6am, on the way to the plane or bus that would de­port them. Ini­tially, these strangers ro­tat­ing in and out kept Isaac awake, but soon he barely stirred when a new­comer climbed the lad­der.

Isaac’s days took on a dreary rhythm: his shift in the laun­dry at 6am, break­fast at 7am, lunch at 10am, din­ner at 5pm. The food was al­ways the same: por­ridge, eggs, mys­tery-meat mac­a­roni, jelly, milk, ham sand­wich, crisps. Wa­ter­melon once a week. Burg­ers twice a month.

At first, Isaac counted ev­ery minute, ev­ery hour, com­par­ing the time. When he woke at 5am in the US, it was 1pm in Syria; when he ate at 10am in Amer­ica, it was 6pm in Syria. He called his brother in Cal­i­for­nia daily, at 50 cents a minute. His brother di­alled their par­ents, with Isaac on speak­er­phone. But af­ter a while, Isaac stopped call­ing so much. It wasn’t so bad in­side, he ex­plained, as long as he didn’t think about his fam­ily, his friends, his coun­try, his ca­reer, the past or the fu­ture. “I have my life here; I have to live,” he told me. “I can’t com­pare my life be­fore and my life now.”

Mod­ern refugee law was cod­i­fied by the United Na­tions af­ter the sec­ond world war, when coun­tries grap­pled with

‘Im­mi­grants don’t vote, and they’re not ci­ti­zens. The in­ter­est groups that Con­gress re­sponds to are not there’

the fact that they had turned away Jews and oth­ers flee­ing per­se­cu­tion and death. To prove that they are a refugee and de­serve asy­lum, a per­son must demon­strate that they have been per­se­cuted on ac­count of their race, re­li­gion, na­tion­al­ity, po­lit­i­cal opin­ion or mem­ber­ship of a par­tic­u­lar so­cial group. Isaac wouldn’t be a refugee if he had sim­ply fled likely ex­e­cu­tion. He needed to prove that he had fled likely ex­e­cu­tion be­cause he was Chris­tian.

There is no jury in im­mi­gra­tion court, and in­di­gent im­mi­grants are not pro­vided with at­tor­neys. The judge is the sole de­cider, bound by statute and prece­dent, but also free to ex­er­cise dis­cre­tion in ap­ply­ing the law. Judges are tasked with as­sess­ing the facts and de­ter­min­ing the cred­i­bil­ity of a case that usu­ally hinges on one per­son’s pur­ported ex­pe­ri­ence. Re­spon­dents can rarely pro­duce eye­wit­nesses or po­lice re­ports from a for­eign coun­try. Many cases, then, boil down to a few ques­tions: can the re­spon­dent make a com­pelling claim? Can they se­cure a lawyer? And is the judge mo­ti­vated to find a way to ap­prove or deny?

Im­mi­gra­tion judges have enor­mous power, but not much in­de­pen­dence: they are not mem­bers of the in­de­pen­dent ju­di­ciary, but are ex­ec­u­tive-branch ap­pointees, em­ployed by the Ex­ec­u­tive Of­fice of Im­mi­gra­tion Re­view (EOIR), part of the Depart­ment of Jus­tice (DoJ). An im­mi­gra­tion judge is para­dox­i­cally ex­pected to act in a ju­di­cial ca­pac­ity while fol­low­ing the or­ders of their su­pe­ri­ors – a long chain of com­mand, at the top of which sits the at­tor­ney gen­eral.

Cur­rently, that of­fice is held by Jeff Ses­sions, who has called the Im­mi­gra­tion Act of 1924 – which lim­ited the num­bers of Ital­ians, Jews, Africans and Mid­dle East­ern­ers per­mit­ted to en­ter the US (while ban­ning Asians) – “good for Amer­ica”. Ses­sions is also in charge of ap­point­ing new im­mi­gra­tion judges, the re­cruit­ment stan­dards for whom are al­ready murky.

The fact that this sys­tem has not faced a ma­jor over­haul is largely due to a lack of mo­ti­va­tion and dearth of re­sources. “Con­gress is re­spon­si­ble for the im­mi­gra­tion-ad­ju­di­ca­tion sys­tem, and when there is po­lit­i­cal will to do so, they will re­form it,” said An­drew Schoen­holtz, pro­fes­sor at Ge­orge­town Law School. “Im­mi­grants in re­moval pro­ceed­ings don’t vote, and they’re not ci­ti­zens. The in­ter­est groups that Con­gress re­sponds to are not there.”

In El Paso, asy­lum seek­ers con­tend not just

with a hos­tile ad­min­is­tra­tion and a prob­lem­atic larger sys­tem, but with a no­to­ri­ously un­for­giv­ing lo­cal ad­ju­di­ca­tion ap­pa­ra­tus. When I met Isaac, he could re­mem­ber only two peo­ple who had been granted asy­lum that year, and men­tioned friends with whom he worked in the laun­dry room – from Iraq, Iran, Ar­me­nia, Bangladesh – who had been de­tained for two or three years.

De­spite hav­ing plunged into what schol­ars call an “asy­lum-free zone”, Isaac held out hope. All things con­sid­ered, he seemed to have the kind of case that could rise above the grim sta­tis­tics. For one, he could prove that he was who he said he was.

Judg­ing a true refugee can be es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult when a per­son’s iden­tity is hard to ver­ify. Many asy­lum seek­ers claim to have lost a pass­port on the jour­ney. Oth­ers come from coun­tries with bro­ken in­fra­struc­tures, and so their doc­u­ments are hard to val­i­date. But Isaac ar­rived from Syria, a coun­try with a rel­a­tively de­vel­oped pre-war in­fra­struc­ture. He was able to pro­duce a pass­port, a birth cer­tifi­cate, an ID card, high school and univer­sity diplo­mas, univer­sity records, a bap­tism cer­tifi­cate, a let­ter from his home­town priest, a busi­ness li­cence and a mil­i­tary re­cruit­ment book­let.

Asy­lum law was de­signed for some­one just like Isaac – a tar­geted re­li­gious mi­nor­ity from a coun­try in the midst of a civil war. Paul Wick­ham Sch­midt, a re­tired im­mi­gra­tion judge who sat on the Ar­ling­ton, Vir­ginia, bench for 13 years, told me that in his ex­pe­ri­ence, it was sim­ple and ex­pe­di­ent to grant asy­lum to a per­son who so clearly fit­ted the def­i­ni­tion of a refugee.

More promis­ingly, Isaac was able to hire a lawyer, and a good one at that. Isaac’s brother hired Jes­sica K Miles, a 34-year-old Al­bu­querque na­tive, who heads up the El Paso branch of Noble & Vrapi. Vrapi, who had been Miles’s law pro­fes­sor, hired her out of school in 2014, hav­ing seen in her, he said, “a rare pas­sion and fiery re­solve”. Miles was aware of El Paso’s abysmal rates. But she was con­fi­dent that she could win Isaac’s case.

In a small, wood-pan­elled court­room in­side the Camp, Miles ar­gued that Isaac qual­i­fied as a refugee on two grounds: as some­one per­se­cuted be­cause of his re­li­gion, and as a mem­ber of a par­tic­u­lar so­cial group, which she clas­si­fied as “Syr­ian men sub­ject to a con­scrip­tion or­der who have fled the coun­try”.

The pros­e­cu­tor’s main ar­gu­ment was that Isaac was pos­si­bly ly­ing, be­cause it ap­peared that he had not been en­tirely con­sis­tent with his story. She pre­sented a state­ment Isaac had made at the bor­der, with­out an in­ter­preter, dur­ing his first hours in the US. The three-page doc­u­ment, recorded by two un­named CBP agents, tells a vari­a­tion of Isaac’s nar­ra­tive. The main facts are not ter­ri­bly dif­fer­ent from the story he would tell for the next year or so: he was at­tacked in Syria for his Chris­tian­ity; fun­da­men­tal­ists and gov­ern­ment sol­diers alike tar­geted him; he was ex­torted, as­saulted, threat­ened; and he fled. The pros­e­cu­tor did not chal­lenge Isaac’s Chris­tian­ity or iden­tity, but fo­cused on in­con­sis­ten­cies over how he had ob­tained his visa to Mex­ico. The bor­der agents had writ­ten that Isaac had ob­tained it “fraud­u­lently”.

Rea­son­able peo­ple un­der­stand that those run­ning for their lives are some­times un­able to go through of­fi­cial chan­nels to get visas, or must lie to save them­selves. Isaac had ad­mit­ted to any­one who asked that he had ob­tained a fake proof of em­ploy­ment to get into Mex­ico. “I had to do it be­cause my life was in dan­ger,” he ex­plained in court.

“The bor­der in­ter­view is not a mod­ern prac­tice,” Bradley Jenk­ins, an at­tor­ney at Catholic Le­gal Im­mi­gra­tion Net­work, told me. “It’s a smoke-filled room. You don’t have coun­sel. It may or may not be in­ter­preted. It’s rarely recorded. It’s a tran­script, and as we have oc­ca­sion­ally seen, it’s not re­ally a tran­script at all. Some of­fi­cers see what they

can get away with putting in there.” In one case, a ver­i­fied tran­script os­ten­si­bly re­flected a ver­ba­tim in­ter­view with a mi­grant who ad­mit­ted that he had en­tered the US to find work; upon closer scru­tiny, that mi­grant was a tod­dler.

None­the­less, many judges give these state­ments se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion, cast­ing doubt on an im­mi­grant’s cred­i­bil­ity be­cause their story dur­ing a brief bor­der in­ter­view, of­ten not in their na­tive lan­guage, is not pre­cisely the same as their even­tual tes­ti­mony in court.

In spite of this, the judge seemed to re­gard Isaac’s case favourably. Isaac and Miles left the court feel­ing op­ti­mistic. From then on, ev­ery day, Isaac called a 1-800 num­ber for de­tainees and lis­tened for an up­date. For nearly two months, noth­ing. Then, in early July, the sys­tem an­nounced: “Or­der of re­moval.” He hung up and called back. “Or­der of re­moval.”

Isaac called Miles, who rushed to the down­town court­house and re­quested a copy of the de­ci­sion. She flipped through the first 10 pages out­lin­ing the judge’s rea­son­ing un­til she found her way to the last page.

“Be­cause re­spon­dent did not cor­rob­o­rate his tes­ti­mony with rea­son­ably avail­able cor­rob­o­ra­tive ev­i­dence re­gard­ing im­por­tant facets of his tes­ti­mony, along with mak­ing clearly in­con­sis­tent state­ments to var­i­ous law en­force­ment en­ti­ties over time, re­spon­dent has failed to meet his bur­den of proof … For these rea­sons, the court will deny his ap­pli­ca­tions for re­lief in the form of asy­lum, with­hold­ing of re­moval and pro­tec­tion un­der the Con­ven­tion Against Tor­ture … re­spon­dent is or­dered re­moved to SYRIA … ”

Miles drove to the Camp, where she sat across a ta­ble from Isaac. He did not blame her for the de­feat. Rather, if there was any way to win, he was con­fi­dent Miles would find it. If he was des­tined to be sent back to Syria, it wouldn’t be for her lack of try­ing. Miles of­fered to han­dle Isaac’s ap­peal for free. She didn’t want fi­nan­cial con­sid­er­a­tions to fac­tor into his de­ci­sion to try to save his own life. She told him to take a week to de­cide.

That night, Isaac lay in his bunk and thought about his sit­u­a­tion. He loved Syria, at least as it had once been, and he hoped to re­turn. Sev­eral im­mi­gra­tion at­tor­neys told me about de­tained clients who, de­spite hav­ing cases that might win on ap­peal and de­spite fac­ing pos­si­ble death or tor­ture in their coun­try, buck­led when a judge de­nied their asy­lum claims. Hope­less, and un­able to bear liv­ing be­hind bars, they stopped fight­ing and went home. In­deed, part of Isaac wanted to take the de­por­ta­tion or­der, just to get out of de­ten­tion, but he felt that if he were mur­dered upon his re­turn, his par­ents would suf­fer too much. Two days later, he called Miles, thanked her, and said he would stay in the Camp and wait for a de­ci­sion on the ap­peal.

Dur­ing the hear­ing, the judge him­self had ad­mit­ted Isaac had a good case. Isaac had a top-notch pri­vate lawyer and am­ple ev­i­dence to sup­port his claims. Plus, he fit­ted neatly into the def­i­ni­tion of a refugee. And still, Isaac re­mained in cus­tody. His loss, then, sug­gested a larger, mys­te­ri­ous prob­lem with the El Paso sys­tem.

Im­mi­grants find them­selves in El Paso in sev­eral ways: they present them­selves at the bridge, as Isaac did; are ap­pre­hended when sneak­ing across the bor­der; are ar­rested dur­ing a traf­fic stop or raid and taken into Ice cus­tody; are taken into Ice cus­tody from a lo­cal jail; or are trans­ferred from a fa­cil­ity in an­other dis­trict. Other im­mi­grants are paroled or bonded out else­where and then move to New Mex­ico or west Texas; these un­lucky in­di­vid­u­als are re­quired to have their hear­ings in an im­mac­u­late court­room in the El Paso city cen­tre, where they are heard by judges with denial rates above 97%.

But the de­tained pop­u­la­tion moves around, which of­fers ac­ci­den­tal in­sight into the ef­fects of judges. De­tainees in the Camp and the West Texas De­ten­tion Fa­cil­ity, in the tiny town of Sierra Blanca, have their cases heard by the El Paso judges. How­ever, some im­mi­grants are fun­nelled to Otero, a re­mote, pri­vate New Mex­ico de­ten­tion cen­tre, and Ci­bola, a for­mer New Mex­ico state prison run by the pri­vate firm CoreCivic.

The im­mi­grants who land in Ci­bola and Otero are largely from the same pool as those who go be­fore El Paso judges, but their cases are de­cided by dif­fer­ent ad­ju­di­ca­tors. In spring 2017, Ses­sions an­nounced that in or­der to deal with the grow­ing back­log on the bor­der, he would send a “surge” of judges to briefly sit at bor­der courts, in­clud­ing Otero. Mean­while, when Ci­bola opened, its cases were piped to Den­ver judges.

I re­ceived and re­quested 2017 data on asy­lum cases for these two courts. Al­though the num­ber of cases is too small to be sta­tis­ti­cally sig­nif­i­cant, they pro­vide some in­sight into how judges’ de­ci­sions di­verge from those of the reg­u­lar El Paso judges, de­spite the­o­ret­i­cally see­ing the same pop­u­la­tion. At Ci­bola, where cases were heard by four Den­ver judges, the denial rate was some 47 points be­low the reg­u­lar El Paso rate. At Otero, where cases were heard by vis­it­ing judges from across the coun­try, the asy­lum-denial rate was 27 points lower than El Paso’s.

Isaac’s plight, then, was im­pos­si­ble to pin to par­tic­u­lar case facts or fac­tors. Rather, he was liv­ing the ef­fects of a cul­ture that de­vel­oped over time, and that per­vades zones like El Paso. In these ar­eas, systemically low grant rates seem to stem less from the char­ac­ter­is­tics of each case and more from a dam­aged ecosys­tem. In El Paso’s case, de­ter­rent CBP and Ice prac­tices, com­bined with high rates of denial in a court staffed en­tirely by for­mer pros­e­cu­tors, most of whom had worked for Ice, ap­pear to have cre­ated a self-per­pet­u­at­ing cy­cle.

“In most courts, peo­ple talk,” said Sch­midt, the re­tired judge. “Judges have an idea of what cases their col­leagues are grant­ing and deny­ing. If you grant cases, you give at­tor­neys ideas of what win­ning ar­gu­ments may be.” But if each judge only grants two asy­lum claims a year, there is no road map for how to win.

The ap­par­ent con­sis­tency of the ide­ol­ogy and work back­ground of the El Paso judges also likely feeds into this cy­cle. A 2007 study, Refugee Roulette: Dis­par­i­ties in Asy­lum Ad­ju­di­ca­tion sug­gests that one way to al­le­vi­ate dis­par­i­ties be­tween judges would be to have judges on ei­ther end of the asy­lum-denial spec­trum speak to one an­other about their ap­proaches to ad­ju­di­ca­tion. “In El Paso, we lack a sin­gle dis­sent­ing voice,” ob­served John Ben­jamin Moore, an im­mi­gra­tion at­tor­ney. “They hire only peo­ple from the pros­e­cu­tion.”

One could ar­gue that the El Paso ju­ris­dic­tion per­ceives it­self as ex­ist­ing on the front­lines of an im­mi­gra­tion cri­sis. In April 2017, two weeks be­fore Isaac’s case was heard, and some 480km west in Ari­zona, Ses­sions called the

south-west bor­der “ground zero” in the fight against “crim­i­nal aliens and the coy­otes and the doc­u­ment-forg­ers [who] seek to over­throw our sys­tem of law­ful im­mi­gra­tion”. These peo­ple, surg­ing into US ter­ri­tory, would, he stated, “turn cities and sub­urbs into war­zones … rape and kill in­no­cent ci­ti­zens and … profit by smug­gling poi­son and other hu­man be­ings … It is here, on this sliver of land, where we first take our stand.”

Per­haps a cul­ture fix­ated on purg­ing “crim­i­nals and coy­otes”, rather than pro­tect­ing refugees, has be­come en­trenched in El Paso. Im­mi­gra­tion judges are not im­mune to the ef­fects of that cul­ture, which could im­pact their ad­ju­di­ca­tion of cases from other parts of the world, caus­ing a cas­cade of col­lat­eral dam­age.

Al­though he had de­cided to ap­peal, Isaac was re­signed to his con­tin­ued con­fine­ment, con­vinced that the en­tire im­mi­gra­tion ap­pa­ra­tus had con­spired to place pro­tec­tion out of reach. In the mean­time, Miles spent her nights and week­ends re­search­ing and writ­ing Isaac’s brief, an ex­haus­tive 42-page ar­gu­ment. She enu­mer­ated the ways in which Isaac had pre­sented cred­i­ble and con­sis­tent tes­ti­mony and ev­i­dence, high­lighted the flaws of the bor­der state­ment and dis­sected how the judge had erred, cit­ing dozens of prece­den­tial de­ci­sions.

Miles doubted that Isaac would win asy­lum on ap­peal, be­cause she couldn’t pin­point how he had lost; she had been con­vinced that the orig­i­nal case was air­tight, yet Isaac had been de­nied any­way. But she was com­pelled to do ev­ery­thing in her power. For her, it as­sumed the same ur­gency as fight­ing a death-penalty case for an in­no­cent man. In Oc­to­ber, she sent the fin­ished prod­uct to the Board of Im­mi­gra­tion Ap­peals (BIA), the na­tional body of judges that de­cides im­mi­gra­tion-re­lated ap­peals and sets prece­dent for the courts.

In the­ory, the BIA ex­ists to pro­vide checks and

bal­ances, in­creas­ing con­sis­tency and re­duc­ing the pos­si­bil­ity that judges are bi­ased or mak­ing un­law­ful de­ci­sions. How­ever, Sch­midt, who headed the BIA for six years, said that to call the board fair and ad­e­quate would be re­duc­tive, and that im­mi­grants and lawyers were right to doubt its im­par­tial­ity. Of the BIA’s 16 cur­rent mem­bers, all have long­stand­ing ca­reers as gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees.

Just af­ter I left El Paso, I put $25 on a phone ac­count so that Isaac could call me from the Camp, but we never had a chance to use it. The fol­low­ing week, Miles re­ceived a slim en­ve­lope from the BIA. She tore it open.

“The Im­mi­gra­tion Judge’s ad­verse cred­i­bil­ity find­ing is clearly er­ro­neous,” it read. “The Im­mi­gra­tion Judge did not ques­tion the re­spon­dent’s Chris­tian­ity or na­tion­al­ity. Rather, the cred­i­bil­ity find­ing was based on tan­gen­tial is­sues re­gard­ing how the re­spon­dent ob­tained his visa.”

Af­ter more than a year at the Camp and a de­por­ta­tion or­der, Isaac had won asy­lum. He would be re­leased and given law­ful per­ma­nent res­i­dence and a work per­mit, and could even­tu­ally ap­ply for US cit­i­zen­ship. Miles sped to the Camp. Af­ter she de­liv­ered the news, she and Isaac both awk­wardly at­tempted to sti­fle their tears.

Af­ter his re­lease, Isaac’s ex­is­tence re­mained pre­car­i­ous. Two months into his new life, he was stopped, and be­cause he did not yet have a state ID, he pre­sented a form, which had a cler­i­cal er­ror. He was held in the air­port for hours un­til the au­thor­i­ties were sat­is­fied that he had le­gal sta­tus. “Here in the US, there is democ­racy, but we still have fear,” he said. “I got asy­lum, but if they want to make a prob­lem, they can.” He was ter­ri­fied that the small­est mis­step, no mat­ter how ac­ci­den­tal, could sig­nal the dif­fer­ence be­tween free­dom and im­pris­on­ment – and from there, be­tween life and death.

To beat the ex­treme odds in El Paso, Isaac had spent 15 months in de­ten­tion and paid thou­sands of dol­lars in le­gal fees to an elite lawyer who then worked dozens of pro-bono hours on his ap­peal. This feat re­quired an enor­mous amount of ev­i­dence dis­creetly sent over­seas by fam­ily mem­bers, the emo­tional and fi­nan­cial sup­port of his brother and his lawyer, and the where­withal to with­stand a com­plex, hu­mil­i­at­ing process. How many asy­lum seek­ers could or should have to en­dure such an or­deal in or­der to gain in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised rights that are in­tended to pro­tect the per­se­cuted?

Other asy­lum seek­ers I had been track­ing were less for­tu­nate. “I think in El Paso, they want to see that peo­ple died,” a young Sal­vado­ran told me. He was an Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian who used to preach to lo­cal kids. Gang­sters had shot at him with a ma­chine gun, killing a pedes­trian stand­ing nearby, and had mur­dered his 15-year-old friend. The man, his mother and his brother made their way to the US. De­spite hav­ing a de­voted pro-bono lawyer, he lost his asy­lum case and ap­peal, on the grounds of cred­i­bil­ity – the judge be­lieved he had in­vented the threats. His mother also strug­gled to find le­gal re­lief in El Paso. “Maybe if I died, and then my mom asked for asy­lum, maybe then she can get pro­tec­tion,” he told me calmly. “They tried to kill me, but I didn’t die, so it’s not good enough for them.”

‘Maybe if I died, and then my mom asked for asy­lum, maybe then she can get pro­tec­tion. They tried to kill me, but I didn’t die’


Asy­lum seek­ers at the Paso del Norte In­ter­na­tional Bridge, in Ci­u­dad Juárez, Mex­ico on the bor­der with El Paso, Texas. Right, an Ice de­ten­tion fa­cil­ity in Wil­lacy County, Texas


No refuge De­ten­tion cen­tres like this one in Cal­i­for­nia line the south­ern bor­der of the US


Cut off Few of those held in im­mi­gra­tion cen­tres have the doc­u­men­tary proof or fi­nan­cial and prac­ti­cal sup­port to fight their cases

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