Opinion: Seeking Refuge, Legally, and Finding Prison

The Big Ideas: What Is Power?

Power is condemning lawful asylum seekers to a system designed for criminals.

By Francisco Cantú

Mr. Cantú is a former Border Patrol agent and an author.

May 31st, 2019

Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

For more than seven months, Ysabel has been incarcerated without bond at an immigrant detention center in southern Arizona, part of a vast network of for-profit internment facilities administered by private companies under contract with the Department of Homeland Security.

I visit Ysabel (who has asked not to be identified by her real name for her protection) every two weeks as a volunteer with the Kino Border Initiative, one of a handful of migrant advocacy groups running desperately needed visitation programs in Arizona, including Mariposas Sin Fronteras and Transcend. As volunteers, our primary role is to provide moral support; facilitate communication with family members and legal service providers; and serve as a sounding board for frustration, confusion and, often, raw despair.

Ysabel and the other asylum seekers we visit often ask for simple forms of support, such as small deposits into their commissary accounts to let them call relatives or purchase overpriced goods like dry ramen, tampons, shampoo or headphones for watching telenovelas. They often ask us to send them books in Spanish — one of the few things that they are permitted to receive through the mail without clearance from a property officer. Large-print Bibles are the most popular, along with books of song and prayer, bilingual dictionaries and English course books, romance novels, and other books that provide ways to pass the time — word puzzle collections, coloring books, books for learning how to draw and instruction manuals for making origami figurines.

Ysabel arrived at the United States border last October after leaving her home and two children in eastern Venezuela. The region she fled was plagued by disorder long before the more widely reported upheavals of recent months, suffering frequent power outages, widespread violence and unrest, and severe shortages of food, water and medication. In the years leading up to her flight from the country, Ysabel told me that she had been kidnapped, robbed at gunpoint multiple times and shot at during an attempted carjacking.

Like millions of her compatriots, Ysabel became disillusioned after her government failed to provide even the most basic security and public services. She joined a local opposition movement, and after participating in several antigovernment demonstrations, she was marked as an enemy of the governing regime. After her house was raided by Venezuelan intelligence forces, she decided to leave for good.

To get to the United States, Ysabel went to Caracas before embarking on nearly three weeks of circuitous travel via airplane, car, bus and taxi. She journeyed through Panama City, Bogotá, Cancún, Mexico City and Mexicali, before finally arriving in San Luis Rio Colorado, a Mexican border town adjacent to Yuma, Ariz., where she presented herself to be considered for asylum at the designated port of entry.

Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

Ysabel, it should be noted, has now been detained for more than half a year despite following American immigration and asylum laws to the letter. When interviewed by officials from the Department of Homeland Security, she was quickly found to have a legitimate fear of returning to Venezuela. Nevertheless, like tens of thousands of asylum seekers like her, she has been made to endure the suffocating precarity of our criminal justice system despite never having committed, nor ever being accused of, a crime.

Instead of appearing in criminal court, those who seek asylum in the United States undergo civil proceedings. Public defenders are not provided in civil court, so most migrants and asylum seekers receive no legal counsel as they fight their immigration cases, instead relying entirely on pro-bono legal services like The Florence Project, Arizona’s only nonprofit dedicated to representing migrants. According to a 2016 report by the American Immigration Council, only 14 percent of immigrant detainees are represented by an attorney — a number that has likely fallen with recent increases in asylum seekers arriving at the border. The overwhelming majority of those without lawyers — almost 91 percent — have their cases rejected.

America’s immigration system takes the myth of due process and turns it on its head. Instead of a presumption of innocence, migrants face the assumption of inadmissibility. They are tasked with demonstrating that they face a certifiable risk to their lives, though in most of their home countries there are few tangible ways to document their plight. Asylum seekers are thus saddled with a confounding burden of proof in an entirely unfamiliar legal system.

Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

Our detention and deportation system is further obscured by a Kafkaesque, multi-agency bureaucracy that must be navigated in a language foreign to most of those ensnared in it. Even along the border with Mexico, prison guards and judges often do not speak or understand Spanish, distancing them even further from the population over whom they wield staggering control. This, in turn, exacerbates the vulnerability of detainees and their families, who are commonly preyed upon by lawyers, bail bondsmen and a microeconomy of individuals offering dubious document preparation, translation support and myriad other “services.”

In Arizona, the immigration judges who decide cases inside detention facilities are often notorious for their hard-line approach. For instance, from 2013 to 2018, one southern Arizona judge, John W. Davis, denied 96.9 percent of his cases, granting only nine asylum claims out of the 291 that came before him (the nationwide denial rate during this same period was dramatically lower, at 57.6 percent). In one two-year stretch, Judge Davis ordered the deportation of every single asylum seeker who entered his courtroom.

Despite all the odds stacked against her, Ysabel was granted asylum by a federal immigration judge in February, winning her case even without a lawyer. When I visited her a few days after the decision, she was visibly changed, carrying herself with a lightness I have rarely seen inside the walls of the detention center. After half a year suffering the oppression of uncertainty, a path had finally been laid out before her. Any day now, she told me, she would be released, the exit door into America finally opened.

Days and weeks passed, however, and still the door remained inexplicably shut. Week after week, I arrived at the detention center expecting Ysabel’s name to have disappeared from our list, only to find her sitting again in the visitation room among the other women seeking refuge — mothers, grandmothers, sisters, daughters. Each time we spoke, her freedom seemed to be slipping further away. The government had asked that her release be delayed while officials prepared an appeal. The deadline to file came and went without Ysabel receiving any updates regarding her case. Finally, she heard that the government had indeed filed its appeal, but she was given no follow-up court date — the one piece of information that allows detained asylum seekers to build a potential timeline for their near future, the single point around which some glimmer of hope might coalesce.

Ysabel’s case, I later determined after an hour of being referred from one phone line to another, had been transferred to the Board of Immigration Appeals — America’s highest administrative body for interpreting and applying immigration law. When I finally got ahold of someone from the office to inquire whether a court date had been set for Ysabel’s case, I was told that there was none. Instead of holding hearings, the court decides most cases behind closed doors, usually based solely on “paper review.” When I asked if the office could estimate how long it might take for a decision to be reached, I was told bluntly “there’s no timeline for the board.”

The power the government wields over Ysabel’s fate is difficult to fully grasp. The purgatory she and other asylum seekers are made to endure often lasts for months or even years. All across the country, migrants like her are being shut off from public view in hundreds of facilities that are largely unaccountable to the outside world. Few other countries are engaged in imprisoning noncriminals at such a scale: According to the Geneva-based Global Detention Project, the American immigration detention system is the largest in the world, and one of the few that locks up migrants in criminal-style prisons.

An internal report conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2009 plainly states that the agency’s detention model “relies primarily on correctional incarceration standards designed for pretrial felons,” standards that, ICE admits, “impose more restrictions and carry more costs than are necessary.” But these costs represent immense profits for the private detention industry: In fiscal year 2016, roughly two-thirds of all detained migrants (more than 260,000 people) were held in for-profit facilities, generating more than $4 billion in revenue.

Prolonged detention magnifies the most dehumanizing elements of the migrant experience — the commodification of bodies that occurs as migrants are trafficked, the dangers they endure along our militarized border and the criminalization thrust upon them from the moment they cross it. All of that is concentrated within the walls of the detention center. The women I meet feel this keenly. “I hope I can soon leave these four walls,” they tell me, because within them, “it’s like we are animals.”

The acute power of this dehumanization is also meant to serve as a tool of deterrence. Deterrence, after all, has become the underlying philosophy of border enforcement — the ever-growing danger and expense of crossing our Southwestern deserts, the horrifying prospect of parents being separated from their children, the destabilizing uncertainty of being imprisoned with no end in sight. All of it is meant to discourage, dissuade and ultimately break the spirit of the would-be migrant.

One of the women I visit regularly, a 57-year-old grandmother from Guatemala, recently admitted to me that she was considering dropping her asylum claim in order to be deported as soon as possible. The power she felt crushing her after more than half a year of detention was becoming even more unendurable than the overwhelming fear that led her to flee her home in the first place. “No puedo aguantar mas,” she told me — “I can’t take it any longer.”

This, I wanted to tell her, was the system working as it was designed. Instead, I told her not to lose faith, not to give up, wondering all the while if the refuge she sought here might be withheld from her forever.

Francisco Cantú is a former Border Patrol Agent and the author of The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches From the Border.

Founder of the Politics for the People free educational series and book club for independent voters. Chair of the New York County Independence Party.

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