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A Well-Founded Fear of Persecution: Cruel Setback for Asylum Seeker

 

Christ of the Immigrant Lines
             by L. V. Díaz

Every day at Casa Juan Diego we encounter a world economic system that is out of balance. On one hand, we live in one of the world’s most affluent cities in one of the world’s most affluent nations. It is hard not to notice that many people in Houston, including us Catholic Workers, have more than we need. On the other hand, we share our lives with people who have nothing or almost nothing.

One of the things we share is food. We share meals with our guests living in community with us in one of our Houses of Hospitality, of course, but as many of our readers know, we also try to provide food to those in need in our larger community. So, we take sandwiches and water around to day laborers, give out food at the door, and on Tuesdays distribute groceries to hundreds of people who line up outside our Women’s house, on Thursdays at our Casa Maria house. Anyone who is poor can come for food, for rice and beans and vegetables.

For the past few weeks, there have been two new young men, teenagers, in our Tuesday food distribution line. They have no family with them, and apparently do not know anyone in line. We do not ask people in the food line where they’re from, but judging from their accents I would guess they are from Central America.

Holly, another Catholic Worker, and I were greeting guests in the line and helping them to sign in when I handed the clipboard to the two young men. We try to be careful not to inadvertently shame or embarrass someone who cannot read or write, but I handed over the clipboard too quickly. The more outgoing of the two, smiling and eager to please, took it, and wrote slowly, pressing the pen down hard on the paper. He handed back the clipboard with a relieved smile and I accepted it with a great show of thanks and appreciation. He had written both their first names in the script of a child, crooked and barely legible. If they had been to school at all, it was not past the first or second grade.

As they moved forward in the line, all I could say to Holly was “this breaks my heart.” How in the world are these young men, children really, going to make it here? The gap between life in Houston and in rural Central America is almost unimaginable. In the best of times the transition is very difficult, and this is not the best of times for immigrants.

In fact, the circumstances facing immigrants from Central America today are increasingly reminiscent of the founding days of Casa Juan Diego, when our guests were mostly Central Americans fleeing death in the civil wars that were convulsing their countries. Those civil wars may be over, but parts of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras today are still among the most dangerous places on earth. Many of our guests fear that if they go back, they will be killed.

According to law, refugees seeking asylum are not to be sent back to countries where they have well-founded fear that they will be persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Individual claims to asylum are decided either by the Asylum Office or Immigration Court, both of which are components of the executive branch of the government, specifically of the Justice Department. Therefore, an asylum seeker’s chances of being granted asylum very much depend upon the political climate at the time of their application and on the inclinations of the Attorney General and the President.

The political climate for asylum seekers is worse now than it was when Casa Juan Diego was founded in the 1980’s. Then, as now, the executive branch of the U.S. government was doing everything it could to avoid awarding asylum to Central Americans, even those who clearly met the legal qualifications. A class action lawsuit filed by a group of religious organizations, however, resulted in a 1985 settlement requiring the federal government to obey its own laws and grant asylum where it was justified. To ensure this happening, the settlement required a stay of deportation until the applicant could have a new hearing, voided the results of any previous court, and restricted the government’s ability to lock up asylum seekers awaiting their new hearing. A year later, in 1986 President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, legalizing the status of about 2.7 million undocumented immigrants, allowing them to remain in this country and to work legally (ABC, 2008).

So how did this “amnesty” work out? Nationally, the crime rate of those who were legalized, already lower than the crime rate of native born Americans of the same age, went down a further three to five percent. The economy in general picked up. But the most impressive results were the effects on those who were legalized, and their families. It turns out, not surprisingly, that having the right to be here and the right to work made a huge difference on just about every measure of well-being (Badger, 2014). This was certainly the experience at Casa Juan Diego. We can testify that undocumented status is bad for you and your children in just about every way, but that it can be corrected by legalization. The problem is that for many of our guests, under current law, there is no path to legalization, no line to get into.

Traditionally, Catholic Workers do not ask a lot of questions of our guests, other than some version of “what is it that you need the most right now?” For most of them through the years the answer would probably be a place to stay while they got their lives together: healed their mind and body, got a job, found a place to live, contacted relatives. For asylum seekers, though, the answer to that question is more fundamental. Most need a place to stay and a job, certainly, but their most pressing need right now is safety.

Life without safety, without security, has a nightmare quality. You can have food on the table and a place to sleep out of the rain, but if you are terrified that you might be sent back to your death, life is very difficult. Every setback is a traumatic event, literally a matter of life and death.

The calls to “build the wall,” to ban certain refugees until we are no longer afraid of them (which apparently means never), to deport, deport, deport – this climate has ratcheted up the fear to an almost unbearable level. In the Women’s House, it is not unusual at times that half of the guests are applying for asylum. Many believe that their very lives, and those of their children, rest on the results of their asylum petition. Their fear is that they will not get a fair hearing before the Court. This fear has skyrocketed because of what they see on television, hear from their friends, and closer to home, what happened to their fellow guest, “Lydia.”

Lydia’s story of persecution, how she escaped the certain death of herself and her child, is a story of heroism and what can only be divine intervention. Her asylum case has slowly but steadily progressed through the immigration court system, until a recent final hearing and ruling by the judge. “Asylum granted” was all I heard before the screams of joy erupted. With one caveat, however, that the government could appeal, and they had 30 days to do so.

We waited. No letter came. Hope and confidence grew. We had a celebration dinner on the 30th day. There was a lot to celebrate. She had made it! After horrors that can barely be imagined, she was, finally, at last, safe.

Well, no. Turns out the government had 30 days to file an appeal. When the letter arrived was not their problem. The letter came after the celebration dinner and after what we thought, erroneously, was the deadline, but what it said was what mattered. The government was going to appeal the immigration judge’s decision.

Lydia handed over the letter with a trembling hand. We were crushed, and for a time, broken by the news; there is no other way to explain it. The letter, sent at the last minute, seemed an unbearable cruelty. I have often seen Lydia in a state of grief and fear. She frequently is processing some trauma from her past. Her fear of persecution is well-founded, indeed. But I have never seen her like this.

So, what does our faith teach us about the situation facing asylum seekers? After all, immigration law is complicated, and the political issue of refugees is complex. Reasonable people can, and do, have different opinions.

But one thing is clear. Every part of the immigration system now feels meaner, crueler and more dangerous to those caught up in it. What our system lacks, above all, is mercy. Mercy for Lydia and her child, mercy for the men and women that have helped to build this country, but are not authorized to be here, mercy for our leaders, mercy for us all.

Lord, have mercy.

References

American Baptist Churches v. Thornburgh (ABC) Settlement Agreement, (Updated 2008). United States Citizenship and Immigration Services | USCIS.

Badger, Emily (November 26, 2014). What happened to the millions of immigrants granted legal status under Ronald Reagan? The Washington Post.

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Houston Catholic Worker, July-September 2017, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3.