"This is a humanitarian crisis," Shulruff says. "We have all these asylum seekers being held on the government's dime who go before a judge who denies all of them a bond."

As a result, Shulruff says, the Central American detainees are consenting to being deported so they can hurry up and get out of the Broward Detention Center. "They have been in custody for one to two months," she says. "They would rather be sent to their home country because of the fear of being detained even longer, knowing they are going to lose their asylum case anyway. It's a very big problem."

A series of reports by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University "found extensive disparities in how the nation's immigration judges decide the thousands of individual requests for asylum that they process each year." One New York judge approved just 5 percent of asylum cases in a single year, while another judge in the same building approved 67 percent.

Cecilia Cortes is in detention indefinitely, even though she had lived in Florida for ten years and her children are citizens. The family fled from drug-related gang violence in Mexico.
Courtesy of Javier Galvan
Cecilia Cortes is in detention indefinitely, even though she had lived in Florida for ten years and her children are citizens. The family fled from drug-related gang violence in Mexico.
Women wait outside the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach, where 700 detainees are housed. Most do not have criminal records.
Jacob Katel
Women wait outside the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach, where 700 detainees are housed. Most do not have criminal records.

The inherent randomness is commonly known as "refugee roulette." Analyzing more than 270,000 decisions by immigration judges and asylum officials over a four-and-a-half-year period, one study concluded that "in many cases, the most important moment in an asylum case is the instant in which a clerk randomly assigns an application to a particular asylum officer or immigration judge."

Jaya Ramji-Nogales, a professor at Temple University and coauthor of the refugee roulette study, says the problem boils down to a matter of time and resources. Immigration judges typically lack both. Facing a backlog of more than 354,000 cases — an 85 percent increase from five years ago — judges are forced to make snap decisions about complex legal issues that can have life-or-death consequences. A recent Washington Post story quotes one immigration judge who describes the current system as "like doing death-penalty cases in a traffic-court setting."

"In comprehensive reform, we see money for night-vision goggles at the border, everything the border patrol could possibly want," Ramji-Nogales says. "But we don't see the same funds directed to immigration courts. That's huge. Who wants to be the person in this political climate that says, 'Let's pour money into immigration court'?"

Every asylum seeker has a heartbreaking story to tell. Unfortunately, the tales aren't always true. In 2012, federal prosecutors in Manhattan filed an array of charges against 30 attorneys, paralegals, interpreters, and others accused of helping dozens of Chinese immigrants file fraudulent asylum claims. One lawyer was caught on tape telling his client to "just make it up" if immigration officials probed for details of the forced-abortion narrative he'd scripted for her.

The high-profile Chinatown case has contributed to backlash against asylum seekers that advocates fear could have tragic consequences for those with legitimate claims.

The elected official leading the campaign against asylum seekers is Bob Goodlatte, Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. On February 11, Goodlatte presided over a hearing ominously titled "Asylum Fraud: Abusing America's Compassion?"

"Our nation's record of generosity and compassion to people in need of protection from war, anarchy, natural disaster, and persecution is exemplary and easily the best in the world," Goodlatte began. "We grant asylum to tens of thousands of asylum seekers each year. We expect to continue this track record in protecting those who arrive here in order to escape persecution. Unfortunately, however, because of our well-justified reputation for compassion, many people are tempted to file fraudulent claims just so they can get a free pass into the United States."

Goodlatte claimed that a whopping 70 percent of asylum applications are fraudulent and stated that "the rule of law is being ignored, and there is an endemic problem within the system that the [Obama] administration is ignoring."

His "70 percent" statistic comes from a 2006 report from the Government Accountability Office on benefit fraud. The authors analyzed 239 asylum cases and concluded that 29 of them — or 12 percent — were fraudulent. To reach the alarming 70 percent figure, Goodlatte included an additional 138 cases from the report that exhibited "possible indicators of fraud."

Anyone who sets foot in this country and seeks asylum is detained, if only briefly. But the differences in how some are treated can seem arbitrary and unfair. Applicants considered "affirmative applicants" — meaning they applied within a year of arriving, possess proper identification, and followed regulations — are rarely detained for any length of time. "On the other hand," a draft Homeland Security report reads, "many defensive applicants" — including people who failed to apply for asylum within a year of arriving in the U.S., even some who passed a credible-fear interview — "are detained for at least some portion of the processing of their immigration cases."

Those "defensive applicants" counted for more than 23,000 cases of detention in 2012. They include individuals like Hussein Mohamed, a young Somali detained in New Jersey. His mistake was to walk across the border and immediately approach a border patrol agent to ask for asylum. By crossing on foot and essentially turning himself in, Mohamed became subject to "expedited removal," a type of deportation proceeding with mandatory detention.

"In the perverse way the system works right now," Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service attorney Megan Bremer explains, "if you come to the border and ask for asylum, you're considered a defensive asylum applicant. If you actually leave the airport — I don't know where you go — but the next day, you go to the immigration office and ask for asylum, then you're affirmative. It makes no sense."

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KennyPowersII topcommenter

Laws and sanctions go hand in hand. Without sanctions laws and rules are merely suggestions.