My Grueling Search for Asylum From an Undeclared War

This is an excerpt from Asy­lum for Sale: Prof­it and Protest in the Migra­tion Indus­try, co-edit­ed by Siob­hán McGuirk and Adri­enne Pine and pub­lished by PM Press.

My jour­ney toward becom­ing an asy­lum seek­er began with a series of vio­lent assaults in my home­town of Tegu­ci­gal­pa, Hon­duras, where I was a small busi­ness own­er. One day in 2015, I noticed I was being fol­lowed by a group of men on my way to and from work. This con­tin­ued for a while, until they attacked me twice in one week. Even as part of the anti-gov­ern­ment resis­tance move­ment and a gay man, noth­ing like that had ever hap­pened to me before. I was afraid, so I moved to a new apart­ment. The same men found me soon after and attacked me for a third time.

Even­tu­al­ly, the vio­lence sub­sided. Then, the fol­low­ing sum­mer, I was car­jacked. My boyfriend and I imme­di­ate­ly report­ed it to the police, but car­jack­ings are extreme­ly com­mon in Hon­duras. Insur­ance com­pa­nies find rea­sons not to pay out on the claims, as they did with me once my car was found, aban­doned and wrecked. Then, two weeks lat­er, my boyfriend received a Face­book threat from a fake pro­file say­ing that they were going to kill both of us. The mes­sage said, You’re dat­ing José. Get ready, because we’re going to kill you both.”

This type of vio­lence has always been well-orga­nized in Hon­duras. It most­ly comes from the state and nation­al secu­ri­ty struc­tures. They decide who the vic­tims and per­pe­tra­tors are, and where to sow fear. Hon­duras is in a state of unde­clared and unrec­og­nized war.

After the car­jack­ing and Face­book threat, I was afraid and thought about leav­ing Hon­duras for the first time. I had suf­fered five vio­lent inci­dents in one year. The sixth came soon after.

When I first opened my store, Frank, a big guy from my neigh­bor­hood, showed up every day ask­ing for work, so I hired him. He was a hard work­er, but open­ly homo­pho­bic, right-wing and anti-com­mu­nist. While we nev­er spoke about pol­i­tics, but he knew my fam­i­ly was with the resis­tance move­ment. Frank quick­ly became hos­tile. He dropped hints about work­ing as a hit­man. He would sneer at my pol­i­tics, and make com­ments about my store behind my back, like this place is full of faggots.”

Wor­ried about my safe­ty, I fired Frank. He then start­ed com­ing around and threat­en­ing me. It became clear that I hadn’t real­ly employed him to pro­tect my busi­ness from out­side dan­gers but to keep it (and me) safe from him.

I knew my life was in dan­ger. I had to leave Honduras.

The Con­se­quences of Fear

I knew noth­ing about asy­lum back in Tegu­ci­gal­pa. Seek­ing asy­lum is not some­thing any­one wants to do. There is so much stig­ma against immi­grants from Latin Amer­i­ca in the Unit­ed States. I didn’t want to go there. But it was my best option.

I left Hon­duras in fear and shock. When your sit­u­a­tion is that fucked, you can’t pre­pare as if you were calm­ly apply­ing for a visa. After arriv­ing in New York City I was told it was a good place to seek asy­lum, but I couldn’t get sup­port. I went to LGBT orga­ni­za­tions, spoke with pro bono attor­neys, and even vis­it­ed the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty (DHS). No one would help. A woman work­ing at DHS told me: Asy­lum is for Rus­sians and Chi­nese peo­ple, not for Hondurans.”

So I went online, print­ed and filled out the forms, and stuck every­thing in the mail. Then I trav­eled back to Hon­duras to clear out my apart­ment, take care of my busi­ness and employ­ees, and pick up my per­son­al doc­u­ments. In my rush to leave I had left behind a mess that was affect­ing my fam­i­ly. Between the mug­gings, the car­jack­ing, mov­ing to new apart­ments to escape my attack­ers, and flee­ing, I had racked up a debt of over $12,000. I was afraid to go home but thought I could avoid dan­ger by stay­ing just a few days. I had no idea I wasn’t allowed to go back home after sub­mit­ting my asy­lum application.

When I arrived at the Atlanta air­port for my flight con­nec­tion back to New York, air­port secu­ri­ty searched and inter­ro­gat­ed me. I was held for twelve hours and made to do a cred­i­ble fear inter­view on the spot. After­ward, I was giv­en a choice: vol­un­tary depor­ta­tion to Hon­duras or speak with a judge in two weeks. I chose the lat­ter. They put me on a bus. I had no idea I was being trans­ferred to one of the worst immi­gra­tion pris­ons in the country.

Deten­tion

On Sep­tem­ber 9, 2016, I arrived at Atlanta City Deten­tion Cen­ter. It was awful. One Guatemalan man went to the emer­gency room, and we nev­er saw him again. His par­ents didn’t hear any­thing either. I lat­er found out that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment in Atlanta paid $78/​day for each ICE detainee. Atlanta made $7,020 off my suf­fer­ing, and mil­lions of dol­lars per year from the jail. I am glad that May­or Keisha Lance Bot­toms decid­ed to shut it down in 2019.

I was put in a cell with two small bunk beds and a tiny win­dow. It was awful. The entire prison was about 6,500 square feet, with no out­door recre­ation­al area. Most of the time we were locked in our cells. The food was ter­ri­ble, and it was nev­er enough. 

Dai­ly life was rough. When I arrived, a Venezue­lan inmate told me, It’s not going to work out for you. Give up and go back to Hon­duras.” Oth­er inmates were placed in soli­tary con­fine­ment for up to twelve days.

The view from my cell window

In immi­gra­tion prison, every­thing is expen­sive, from attor­neys to phone calls to extra food. I spent over $500 in three months there — mon­ey I had to bor­row. There is mas­sive mon­ey in asy­lum. The state pays cor­po­ra­tions to pro­vide food and ser­vices. Cen­tral Amer­i­cans and Mex­i­cans make up the major­i­ty of peo­ple in immi­gra­tion deten­tion. Some peo­ple end up in prison for minor traf­fic infrac­tions, like dri­ving with­out a license. In Geor­gia, if you don’t have papers, things like that can put you in prison for years.

In deten­tion, vio­lence was an every­day real­i­ty. It was over­crowd­ed. Peo­ple were trans­port­ed there from all over the coun­try. You saw the guards’ hatred in their eyes. Some pris­on­ers were allowed to bring in razor blades and knives. They con­spired with the guards to get pris­on­ers they didn’t like sent to soli­tary confinement.

My cell, unlike the oth­er ones in the prison, had a mix of asy­lum seek­ers com­ing from abroad, and out­bound depor­tees detained on crim­i­nal charges, some of whom were dan­ger­ous. One of these, a pris­on­er who was in league with the guards, had already harmed anoth­er inmate. Short­ly after­ward, as I was lin­ing up for my din­ner, he loud­ly said to me: Let’s see who’s next.” He’d been caught before, dur­ing one of the mid­night inter­nal raids, with a knife made from razor blades.

With­out access to lawyers and being pro­fi­cient in Eng­lish, I decid­ed to pre­pare my case myself. I spent a lot of time in front of the jail com­put­er, research­ing immi­gra­tion law. I helped oth­er pris­on­ers write let­ters in Span­ish and Eng­lish, and explained aspects of their cas­es to them. It became my cur­ren­cy. One guy who had bul­lied me stopped when he real­ized I could help him, but I still feared for my life.

I also read books and wrote about my expe­ri­ences to pass the time. Oth­er­wise, I would have died of depres­sion. It was 45 days before I final­ly saw an immi­gra­tion judge.

Court­ing Deportation

On Novem­ber 6, 2016, I arrived at immi­gra­tion court, just 15 min­utes from my prison. I knew my case was com­pli­cat­ed — a mix of polit­i­cal oppres­sion, extor­tion, and homo­pho­bia. Plus, I was rep­re­sent­ing myself.

Every­one was sur­prised that I had come to court alone and even more sur­prised that I spoke Eng­lish. I stood in front of the judge in hand­cuffs. Always hand­cuffs. He was vis­i­bly impressed at my appli­ca­tion. I had expect­ed him to set my asy­lum hear­ing date a month lat­er at the begin­ning of Decem­ber. Instead, he con­grat­u­lat­ed me on my papers and set my hear­ing date for Jan­u­ary 25. An addi­tion­al two months in jail, even with every­thing in per­fect order.” I couldn’t believe it.

Shocked and upset, I told the judge I couldn’t wait any longer, and that I want­ed to with­draw my appli­ca­tion. He tried to calm me down, say­ing it was the best pro se appli­ca­tion he had seen in 17 years work­ing on immi­gra­tion cas­es. It felt like he was say­ing I could win. But I knew just 2% of appli­cants are grant­ed asy­lum in Atlanta.

Know­ing the odds were stacked against me and feel­ing that my life was at risk, I made my deci­sion. I sat in the court­room in hand­cuffs cry­ing, and wait­ed for the guard to take me and the oth­er detainees back to jail.

Over the next few days, I was freak­ing out. I didn’t want to go back to Hon­duras. Although I had request­ed vol­un­tary depor­ta­tion, it didn’t feel vol­un­tary. It took me a cou­ple weeks to sub­mit the paper­work. It was anoth­er month before I was deport­ed. You nev­er know when you are actu­al­ly going to leave. You find out on the morn­ing of the flight, at 5:00 a.m., when the guards make the announcement.

The morn­ing my name was called, I rode in the back of a car to the air­port, along with anoth­er Hon­duran, a Colom­bian, and a Guatemalan. I climbed the stairs to my air­craft from the run­way. It was a humil­i­at­ing, awful expe­ri­ence. From the air­plane gates, every­one saw me get­ting on in hand­cuffs. Two ICE offi­cers stood by the gate door until the plane start­ed to move.

I was deport­ed on Decem­ber 7, the day before my birthday.

The Mark of Asylum

As soon as I returned to Hon­duras, Frank showed up. I was in hid­ing and only went to my store once or twice, but he was always there wait­ing with a friend of his. I knew I had to leave again for my safety.

Today, I live in Barcelona, Spain. After wait­ing two and a half years for a deci­sion on the claim I filed here, I was final­ly grant­ed asy­lum in Decem­ber 2019. I have been depressed. The eco­nom­ic con­di­tions in Spain are hor­ri­ble, and there is dis­crim­i­na­tion against Latin Amer­i­cans. I work at a call cen­ter and half my earn­ings go toward rent.

Every day, I car­ry the mark of asy­lum, an emo­tion­al and finan­cial bur­den. I now am around US$24,000 in debt from my expe­ri­ences. My fam­i­ly back home is suffering. 

Mean­while, the immi­gra­tion prof­it-mak­ing machine keeps turn­ing. As the US gov­ern­ment funds mil­i­tary inter­ven­tions in Hon­duras, my peo­ple are extort­ed and harassed by their own gov­ern­ment and forced to flee their homes. The same vio­lence that forces peo­ple in one coun­try to seek asy­lum enables anoth­er coun­try to fill its deten­tion cells and fill prison con­trac­tors’ pock­ets. It’s a vicious cycle with prof­it at every stage, from deten­tion and depor­ta­tion to rely­ing on immi­grants to accept poor­ly paid jobs that make their boss­es rich.

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