Asylum under Siege

by Rev. Jack Amick, 
director of global migration at UMCOR
staff liaison from UMCOR to the NJFON Board of Directors.

Unfortunately, the United States seems to no longer be the place of welcome it once was.   Every week, I learn of at least one official US policy or practice that makes migrants suffer.   It seems that the very concept of asylum is under siege here in the United States.

Of course, the vast majority of asylum seekers are told they have to stay in Mexico and await asylum proceedings in Mexican border towns.   Conditions in the encampments that have developed near the border crossings are very unhealthy.  Furthermore, the cartels are preying on these extremely vulnerable people.

For those lucky enough to be allowed to apply for asylum inside the US, the barriers are still quite high.

Recently, a Washington Post reporter broke the story of an unaccompanied minor who fled a gang in Honduras because the gang was about to force him to commit murder.   This young man sought refuge in the US and claimed asylum.   In detention, he was invited to speak confidentially with a therapist about his traumatic experience.   The therapist was under contract with the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the office in the US Department of Health and Human Services that manages resettlement of unaccompanied minor refugees and asylum seekers.

When the young man went to his asylum hearing, he was questioned by the judge about statements he had made to the therapist.   ORR had released the therapy notes to ICE.  This was not an anomaly.  Apparently, the administration, concerned about the danger of young people coming to the U.S., changed the policy back in 2017 such that ORR is now required to turn over these therapy notes to ICE.

Secondly, church agencies that support asylum seekers tell me that asylum requests will now be automatically rejected, without a second chance, if asylum applications contain any errors or omissions.   If you don’t complete a question that isn’t applicable, you can be deported.

Finally, but probably not the last bad immigration news I will hear this month, is the manner in which people seeking asylum, and are being held in detention.  The US government has made it a crime to seek asylum in the home of the free and the brave.

Last week, with the NJFON Board, I  had the opportunity to visit a detention center outside of Houston.  I had to be buzzed through 6 doors and gates to visit with the “inmates,” as the warden called them.   We were shown an electronic tablet that each detainee is issued.   The detainees can purchase music and video services for rates significantly higher than on the open market. Receiving or sending text messages on the tablets costs 15 cents each either direction.

There are jobs inside the prison (truly what it is), if “inmates” want to “volunteer,” by which they can earn $1-$3 per DAY, depending on the job. The warden noted that this was higher than national prison standards.

There is a list of pro-bono lawyers whose numbers are “cleared,” with whom detainees can call or text.  When I asked if the messages are saved, the person running the tablet concession said, “Oh, not a problem.  We can print every message.”   So much for client- lawyer confidentiality.    We have criminalized asylum.

But what sticks with me most from the visit, is what one young man from Cameroon said to me, “We came to America because we thought this was a safe place for us to come and that we would be welcomed here.   They want to fly us back to Cameroon, where we will be killed.   They shouldn’t waste the money.  They should just find a small bit of land and bury us here and take the money they would have used on the airplane ticket and give it to the poor.”

We may or may not be able to help the young Cameroonians we met, but we can open the door slightly for other asylum seekers.   One thing I have learned by serving as the UMCOR staff liaison to the NJFON Board is that having a lawyer increases an immigrant’s chances of getting approved for asylum by at least five times.   The situation for most asylum seekers is pretty bleak.   Denial rates at immigration courts in Atlanta, where I live and work, are 98%.   Having an attorney at least cracks the door of possibility open a little wider for the asylum seeker.

Fortunately, there is a glimmer of good news. UMCOR, NJFON, and Church World Service have embarked on a bold 3-year, $1.8 million experiment to see if we can’t open those doors a little wider.   This grant provides for coordinated legal and resettlement services (enrolling immigrant children in school, assistance finding housing, access to health care and trauma support).  We are trying this project in Houston, Miami, and Newark.

Please keep this program and all the great work these organizations do to care for asylum seekers and other refugees and migrants in your prayers and on your list of organizations to support financially. But mostly, keep in your heart and mind and prayers the Cameroonians and all those everywhere who seek asylum.


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Immigration Issues