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Seeking asylum, locked up by Trump


By Aadhithi Padmanabhan and Paige Austin

The Trump administration is locking up some of the world’s most vulnerable people and throwing away the key.

This summer at the New York Civil Liberties Union, we began hearing that the federal government was detaining asylum-seekers indefinitely at its large detention facility outside Buffalo in Batavia.

These are all people who fled persecution in their home countries and presented themselves at the U.S. border seeking protection. Initial government screenings found they had a significant possibility of winning asylum, a form of legal protection that would allow them to rebuild their lives in America.

As part of a release process called parole, federal policy directs that asylum-seekers be released from custody while awaiting their asylum hearings — at significantly less cost to the taxpayer — as long as they are not dangerous and are likely to show up for court.

But under Trump, parole has come to a virtual halt. So asylum-seekers languish in jail as they wait on the notoriously backlogged immigration court system to decide their cases.

We’ve been to Batavia and have interviewed dozens of asylum-seekers from around the world who are imprisoned there. All of them came to America seeking refuge, only to end up in a remote detention center, alone and afraid.

One was 22-year-old Ahmed (to prevent retaliation, we’re withholding his full name), who escaped Somalia last year after the militant group Al Shabab — the same group blamed for killing nearly 300 people in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, this past weekend — killed his wife, father and brother in a bomb attack.

After a treacherous, months-long journey from Africa through South and Central America, Ahmed arrived at the Texas border, where he presented himself to authorities and asked for protection.

The Trump administration claims — including to the Supreme Court earlier this month — that asylum-seekers like Ahmed are routinely released from custody while their asylum case is pending. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Ahmed came to the U.S. just three days before Trump became President. When he was processed and transferred to Batavia, one of his jailers told him, in Ahmed’s words, “There is a new President now and parole is stopped.” Pressed further, the officer said, “I guarantee that they will deny you.”

The government’s own data shows the parole grant rate plummeting after Trump’s inauguration this year, so that only about one in 10 asylum-seekers at Batavia received parole.

And Batavia is no outlier. Human Rights First released a report last month documenting how the government rarely paroles asylum-seekers at detention facilities across the country.

Like many impoverished asylum-seekers, Ahmed does not have the money to hire a lawyer to prepare for his asylum hearing. He is now stuck, far from his relatives who live in Minnesota. He bears the burden of proving — from jail — that his life is in danger in Somalia.

At Batavia, there are dozens of people like him who are facing the most important hearing of their lives alone and behind bars.

“I earn $1 a day at my job in this jail, and the $5 I earn in a week does not pay for even a two-minute call to Africa,” one told us. “The expense of calls and lack of internet makes it much harder for me to prepare my asylum case.”

“The judge has asked me to bring proof,” another said. “From inside the jail I cannot contact anybody to get this proof.”

One Cuban man described how his imprisonment was reactivating trauma from his torture as a political prisoner. A Haitian man who walked much of the way from Brazil to Texas with his pregnant wife was separated from her when he was transferred to Batavia. A few months later, he missed the birth of his daughter in a Florida hospital. A Gambian man with a perforated eardrum was in agonizing pain when we met because he was not receiving adequate medical care in custody.

They are all suffering at the hands of a country they believed would protect them.

We’re suing on behalf of the asylum-seekers at Batavia to ensure that they receive a fair chance at release from custody. We cannot allow the Trump administration to destroy the freedom that has for so long made this country a beacon of hope for people fleeing persecution.

This was originally published in the New York Daily News on Oct. 17, 2017.

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