For Many Refugees, the Journey to America Ends in a Cold Jail Cell

While the United States decides their fate, asylum seekers sit in immigration detention.

"She is not a law enforcement priority and we don't anticipate she'll become one," Javier explained.

"If she was not an enforcement priority, the government didn't need to put her into removal," he said, clearly annoyed.

"We no longer wish to proceed," Javier responded, curtly.

Benicio "Benny" Diaz, staff attorney at American Gateways in San Antonio, spends a lot of his time visiting detention centers.
Courtesy of American Gateways
Benicio "Benny" Diaz, staff attorney at American Gateways in San Antonio, spends a lot of his time visiting detention centers.

"Is this because of her age? Is there a difference between someone who is ten years old and someone who is 16 years old?"

The judge would eventually relent, but he voiced the same frustration in his next case. It involved a younger girl with a similar pink sweatshirt and a similar story. Nine. Honduras. Fled violence, arrived alone.

Again, Javier said the government didn't want to proceed. Again, Sims asked why the government had detained her in the first place, though surely he knew the answer,.

"The law requires us to detain her," Javier said.

"But does the law require you to put her in proceedings?" Sims asked.

"Prosecutorial discretion is available to us."

"There's been a change in circumstances?"

"Yes," she said. "A change in our desire to prosecute the case."

Javier was clinging hard to those words, "prosecutorial discretion." They're part of President Obama's strategy to slow deportations, which, to the chagrin of his supporters, have risen to record levels during his presidency. They're also vital to the government's efforts to unclog the immigration legal system, where the average case takes 19 months and more complicated ones take several years. Sims appears to despise the use of discretion, routinely ignoring attempts to cooperate by opposing attorneys. That drives lawyers crazy, including the government's.

The day the little girls in pink saw their cases dismissed, at the insistence of ICE and over Sims's clear frustration, most of the kids got what they asked for. Within days the news had already swept through immigration lawyers' offices across the city: Sims was off the juvenile docket. With no explanation, the Justice Department had reassigned those cases to a different judge.

Officials declined to say why, but lawyers in Dallas have a hunch. Not long before reporters started showing up in Sims's courtroom, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, a national trade group, had filed a complaint with Sims's bosses. Then, in January, at least two private attorneys sent complaints of their own, identifying a handful of juveniles whom Sims had ordered removed over the objection of ICE.

Whatever motivated the change, it was no small undertaking. Practically overnight, thousands of cases were moved from Sims's docket.

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." In New York, where judges decide one out of every four asylum cases in the United States, the disparity has improved in recent years but remains an area of concern. One judge approved just 5 percent of asylum cases in a single year. Another judge in the same building approved 67 percent of such cases.

The inherent randomness is commonly known as "refugee roulette," a phrase coined in a 2008 Stanford Law Review report. Analyzing more than 270,000 decisions by immigration judges and asylum officials over a four-and-a-half-year period, the authors 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."

Benicio "Benny" Diaz, a staff attorney at American Gateways in San Antonio, a nonprofit agency that works with refugee and asylum seekers, spends a lot of his time visiting detention centers when he isn't taking on clients' cases. While waiting for their cases to be heard, some are able to get out of detention through parole or by bonding out.

But it's not easy. In order to qualify for parole, asylum seekers are required to confirm their identity and show proof of "community ties," which, practically speaking, entails proving they have a friend or family member with a spare bedroom. It's harder than it sounds: Documents may have been lost, stolen or confiscated, and asylum seekers seldom have local contacts to rely on.

And there's a trade-off, Diaz says. Asylum seekers who are not in detention can expect to have their hearings pushed back even further — by months or years, he says.

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 — it was the subject of a front-page story in The New York Times, headlined "An Industry of Lies" — 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, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. On February 11, Goodlatte presided over a hearing for the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security ominously titled "Asylum Fraud: Abusing America's Compassion?"

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Wonder how many immigrants seeking asylum are from countries that have been wrecked by U.S. intervention? Yeah yeah, I know the U.S. has not caused all the problems in unstable countries, but not for lack of trying.


To All,

May I suggest that all of these people who  are whining/whimpering/ about "the poor, pitiful refugees" start PAYING FOR their expenses from their own pocket instead of expecting the taxpayers to pay?

When we adopted our daughter from overseas about 2 decades ago, we were REQUIRED by the US Government to assure that she "would not become a burden on the public".

Until/Unless the "immigrant advocates" start PAYING for the people, who they whine about, themselves  I'll believe NOTHING that they bray about. = "Put your money where your mouth is".

yours, tn


@texasnative46 - Perhaps the U.S. should stop wrecking so many countries, stop inducing factional civil wars that increase refugees, etc. That would save money enough to provide healthcare and advanced education for Americans - like other first world industrial countries provide. Several of the smaller, weaker countries the U.S. helped to wreck lately even provided healthcare and advanced education for their people - well, they don't so much now, since the U.S. wrecked their infrastructure and shattered their societies, e.g., Iraq, Libya.



Perhaps the people should go to India, or China for work...Here illegals are not welcome ..but jailed..
  In reality who knows they are criminals or not?   God bless the good folks who really need help.


The GOP has gotten really good on sitting on a lot of issuies


Asylum advocates ignore reality and dwell on sentimental stereotypes.


Accepting any refugees who are practicing Muslims is suicidal. They aren't the victims - they are the aggressors. We should be accepting the Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and other non-Muslims that the Muslims persecute in every Muslim-run country.


@ad1389 - The U.S. encourages factional conflict in the Middle East because it keeps the people divided. When the factions within a state are united they have a history of wanting more control of their natural resources and less external influence, e.g., Iraq, Libya, etc.

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