As a soon-to-be immigration lawyer (I've passed the bar but haven't sworn in), I work with refugees on a daily basis. I, myself, am an Iranian asylee here in the U.S., which means I hold a green card. I sought asylum in 2012, after the Iranian Ministry of Defense threatened to arrest me were I to ever return home one day — all because my job at the time involved documenting the country's humans right violations since its revolution in 1979. From where I stand today, it doesn't look like I'll ever be able to visit my home again — where my family still resides, where my favorite cat still lives, where all my childhood memories were formed.
I find myself explaining the difference between an asylum seeker and a refugee to those who work outside of immigration law a lot. I tell them it is simply a matter of locale: refugees are those trying to leave their home countries for a less dangerous life elsewhere. Asylees, like myself, ask to stay in countries once they’ve already arrived.
So, with that in mind, here is how some often-misunderstood parts of our immigration system actually work.
The Refugee Vetting Process Is Already Highly Rigorous
The refugee vetting process is extremely stringent and painful. For example, an Iranian friend of mine came to America via Turkey, where she first had to plead her case to the UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, in Ankara. There, she was questioned at great length — about her religion, her affiliations to ISIS (she stated repeatedly that she had none), her family and friends' affiliations, her political ideas, whether or not she’d ever participated in protests or any anti-government activities — the list goes on. I think it’s particularly important for people to understand that refugees are already being interrogated about their religions in the current vetting processes, that these “religious tests” some politicians have decried as unconstitutional already exist.
It was the UNHCR that decided this woman would take refuge in America — it was not the woman’s decision. That’s a fact I can’t stress enough. Even liberals tend to assume that refugees come to this country in order to exist in a more accepting, politically-amicable climate. That’s totally naive. Refugees don’t decide where they get to go. They can make a request, but ultimately, it’s the UNHCR’s decision. Once this woman’s case passed through the UNHCR, she then had to apply for refugee status via the consular process at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara. Mind you, all of this took a lot of time, and with no guarantee that her refugee application would ultimately pass. Finally, 18 months later, she boarded a plane to Philadelphia, where she knew no one personally.
Undocumented Migrants Are Some Of The Most Compromised
On the other side, there is the arguably more (perhaps “most”) hellacious plight of undocumented migrants. I work with these individuals the most, many of whom made the dangerous decision to cross into America “illegally” in order to flee abusive, life-threatening circumstances in their home countries — servitude, mass executions carried about their respective governments, gangs — only to arrive in America to be treated like dogs. Actually, dogs might have it better, to be honest.
These individuals are asylum seekers, like me. But unlike me, they didn’t come to America on a visa. They came over via a process referred to in immigration law as “EWI” — “entry without inspection.” This literally means that an officer did not inspect and allow these individuals entry into the U.S., thus making their passage through a criminal act.
Most of these individuals with whom I work — and they’re primarily women and children — come from Latin America. For example, I know a woman who came from El Salvador not too long ago, where in order to simply leave her country, she first had to pay nearly all of her money to the Coyotes (smugglers) to get her out. Before reaching the States, this woman, like many who make the journey, was raped. I even know some immigrants who were made to be slaves, to work for free in places for months before they were allowed to proceed onward toward the U.S. border. It’s horrific. And it happens all the time.
After all that, many of these women and children finally cross over — only to be detained.
America's Detention System Is Brutal
Once detained, they are all subjected to what’s called a “credible fear interview” by U.S. immigration officials. They are asked why they’ve come, and are given the opportunity to establish credible fear of persecution upon return to their home countries. There is a base problem with the “credible fear interview:” it’s an interrogation process forced upon an individual who is severely traumatized, doesn’t understand the language being spoken, who likewise does not have a lawyer present. While they have a right to counsel, that usually doesn’t happen for a few days after they’ve crossed over — if proper attorney arrangements are followed up with in the first place. I've learned through many first-person accounts after the fact that oftentimes undocumented migrants aren't offered counsel at all.
If these individuals don’t “pass” the credible fear interview, they can request that an immigration judge review their denial. But if the immigration judge denies this review, the individual will be expeditiously removed within hours or, at most, a few days, during which time they’ll be placed in a detention center. And here is where I’d like to offer some statistics: The U.S. government has the largest detention system in the world — there are more than 900 of such institutions in America with locations in roughly 25 states. These centers house more than 33,000 people per day. Almost three-quarters of those detained are housed in centers that are run by or in conjunction with private contractors. That’s right, the immigration detention system here is very much a profitable one. In fact, it’s worth billions.
I’ve interviewed detainees at these facilities who claim they were abused, degraded, and borderline tortured. One woman with whom I once worked was pregnant when she was detained. She allegedly wasn't fed for so long that she started bleeding. She also claimed that the officers also wouldn't allow her to sleep and would nudge her awake when started to nod off, telling her not to get too comfortable because she wasn’t staying in the United States. Finally, she was admitted to a hospital for the bleeding where, thankfully, a nurse took mercy on her, gave her food, and let her sleep.
If the undocumented migrants who’ve just crossed over do pass the “credible fear interview,” they are put into “removal proceedings” (while still detained) where they will be released as “aliens” into the United States, meaning they could still be subject to deportation, but not without a hearing first — a.k.a “due process.” Much like prisoners, these individuals could potentially be released on bond.
"Catch & Release" Is A Myth & "Extreme Vetting" Already Exists
While President Trump has promised to end the U.S. immigration system’s “catch and release” process, what he doesn’t understand is this: it’s a myth. The entire process I just explained is anything but “catch and release.”
Once free on bond, these individuals are usually subjected to frequent visits from immigration officials. They are sometimes expected to report to the authorities on regular, pre-negotiated bases. If at any point during this process they miss an appointment, they could be subject to detention at one of the aforementioned facilities. With the language barrier as a major problem, many “aliens” at this stage of the process mess up and miss an appointment — not because they meant to, but because they didn’t understand an appointment had been made in the first place. And should they find themselves relegated to a detention center, they’ll likely face a grueling wait time to have their cases heard by a judge. For example, Arlington Immigration Court in Arlington, Virginia has a current backlog of immigration hearings all the way to 2022.
President Trump's concept of "extreme vetting" already exists — so whatever he touts in his bombastic speeches to the public is, at this point, pure rhetoric. What he's really doing is persecuting already-persecuted individuals again. It feels sadistic to me. The U.S. should remain a beacon of hope for refugees and asylum-seekers, not an unattainable goal because of security concerns. And quite frankly, it's my duty as a U.S. immigration lawyer to make sure that happens.
As told to Abby Higgs