Longform

Seeking Asylum in U.S., Immigrants Become Long-Term Detainees Instead

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"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."

The uncomfortable truth is there is no sure-fire way to prevent fraud. The very nature of asylum requires officials to take people at their word to a certain extent. Documents and witness testimony are available in some instances, but short of personally traveling to conflict zones like Syria or lawless corners of Somalia and Pakistan, there is often no way for officials (or journalists, for that matter) to independently verify the stories asylum seekers tell them.

A 31-year-old Pakistani man named Khan incarcerated at a New Jersey detention facility says he has spent the past seven months behind bars waiting for a decision on his asylum claim. He says he was forced to flee his home in Pakistan's tribal region after the Taliban executed his parents and threatened to kill him, his wife, and their children.

"The Taliban, they killing all the time," Khan says in broken English. To emphasize this point, he lifts his hands and makes a tat-tat-tat noise as if hoisting a machine gun. "The Taliban doesn't know the word 'sorry.' You may be fine for one year, two year, three year, four year — then maybe 15 years they come for you."

Khan explains that a judge had asked him for police reports of the killing and death certificates for his parents, but those records either didn't exist or were impossible for his friends and family in Pakistan to obtain. It's likely impossible to verify his story without visiting his village to investigate.

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Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado