TJ spent six years in U.S. immigration detention*This is Part II of TJ’s story. Part I, in which TJ details the circumstances under which he fled his home country and his six years in detention, can be found here.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
–Emma Lazarus, “The New Colossus”
I along with so many others came to believe in and love the United States. But my dream of staying in the US was shattered and I was deported, leaving my two precious children behind because the powers that be have a new agenda to minimize immigration.
I was in the US immigration detention system for over six years, only to get deported. I lost everything during that time, even my dear mother, who died of a broken heart because of my suffering. She was only 57, and I was not there for her. I live with that every day.
During my time in detention I dedicated myself to helping others with their legal work. Immigration proceedings do not grant people “public defenders” like criminal proceedings do, and because a majority of immigrants coming to the US borders are destitute, they do not have the resources to help themselves.
I took it upon myself to help men in detention with their asylum cases, and in the process learned of their life stories.
Immigrants arriving at the border have a story to tell. I met many asylum seekers in ICE detention from all over the world. Africans, Middle Easterners, South Asians, and South Americans all trek through extremely dangerous terrain to get to the United States. First of all, the majority of these individuals spend an “arm and a leg” to get to the US border. They sell their houses, businesses, and jewelery, and borrow money from relatives, friends, and loan sharks, agreeing to pay it back with high interest. These immigrants spend 35 to 60 thousand dollars, which is a fortune in their countries, on the journey alone.
At first there is always an agent or smuggler who draws up the plan and arranges the travel itinerary. Since it is very hard to get a visa to the United States, the agents obtain visas to a South American country. Arrangements are made with local and international human traffickers in these arriving countries. I would like to mention here that many of these immigrants trying this dangerous journey have never left their native country before and often do not speak any other languages but their native tongue. They may be from remote villages and may have never experienced other cultures.
Upon arrival, let’s say in Ecuador, a US-bound immigrant named “Abdul” from Bangladesh is put in a group. There are several such groups bound daily for the US by land. Abdul stays in Ecuador for a few months first, until his assigned smuggler, or “coyote,” is ready to take his group on this long and potentially lethal journey. Abdul’s background is totally in contrast with the South American way of life. Maybe he never used a sitting toilet or toilet paper in his life. Maybe he never saw women mix freely with men in society or these foods and various colorful products. He is in awe with amazement.
While in Ecuador, Abdul meets people from all over the world, including a man from Pakistan. He tells Abdul he fled his country because he was targeted by the Taliban, and that they had killed several of his members of his family.
There are also a lot of young women who make this perilous journey, some for a better life and some escaping persecution. These women, if they are traveling alone, are often victimized. They are sexually assaulted by the smugglers and even by the men in their groups.
Many of these women are forced to work as prostitutes, cook, and wash clothes for the men. They stay silent due to fear of being left behind or killed.
I have heard stories of women getting gang raped, some even while being pregnant!
Abdul is told by hand gestures to pack lightly. He is not given any food. He carries a backpack containing some good shirts, pants, family photos, legal documents, a smartphone to call his family back home, and money.
Through Jungles and Mountains
From Ecuador, Abdul crosses into Colombia where the police, I’ve been told, can be very bad. The police detain Abdul and search him and his group extensively. Prior to their crossing the border, the coyote told the group to hide their money and other valuables. The Colombian police take Abdul’s phone and demand bribes to get through.
Then, having crossed through Colombia, the roads get very treacherous and the immigrants now wonder if they made the right decision to take this journey.
Colombia is a very mountainous country, as are most of the Central American countries. The group travels at night because if they travel during the day they would be sought after by corrupt police, border agents, the various guerilla groups who kidnap for money, drug cartels, or other human traffickers. Such are some of the many obstacles.
The jungles are very dense and pitch dark. The immigrants are not allowed to shine any flashlights for fear of being spotted. Each person holds the shoulders of the person in front or ties their waists together with rope. Many in the group are from the same country, which makes it just a bit easier. A group may have 15 to 30 immigrants with three to four coyotes. The coyotes are the only ones armed, and they carry guns, knives, and machetes.
All the immigrants are strip searched prior to their journey to ensure they do not have weapons.
The group travels for eight to ten hours by foot during the night and some part of the day. There is very limited food and water supply. They eat cookies but have little water.
In Panama there is a migrant camp, where migrants can buy uncooked bags of rice, spices, and live chicken. There are also cooking pots and places to cook. The officers bring cigarettes, liquors, and prostitutes for a very high bribe. The migrants stay for a few weeks and are let go with a travel permit.
Next, the migrants come to a waterway, where the coyotes arrange a rubber boat. The boat has space for only eight people but close to 30 people climb in. There are only three life jackets and the coyotes are the only ones wearing them. The waves are over 15 feet high and many in the group cannot swim. They hold themselves tightly and shout their prayers to their respective gods. Some vomit from sea sickness on others because they are in the middle on the boat. Many boats have capsized, drowning countless migrants.
Many of these drownings don’t make it into the media because the journeys are made in secret. The victims’ families often do not know the fate met by their loved ones.
The coyotes deprive Abdul and three others of food and water. Frustrated, Abdul and the three men decide to make a run for it, and take off through the uncharted terrain. The coyotes chase and catch them. The escapees are then stripped fully naked, hands and feet tied, and brought back to the “safehouse.” The coyotes proceed to beat them mercilessly, even in their private areas. They are left naked in a room for three days, as punishment and as a lesson to the rest of the group. The coyotes take all their money.
Abdul and his group then trek on foot through the thick jungles of Panama and Costa Rica. Abdul smells a very foul stench of death. The coyote informs them that in his last trip he had to slash the stomach of a Pakistani man because he was overweight and had injured his foot from twisting it in the dark between rocks while climbing the mountainous terrain; thus, he was slowing the group down. Abdul remembers the Pakistani man from where they were together in Ecuador. Now, that man lies dead decomposing in the woods. Abdul sees several human bone fragments while trekking on foot.
The Lord only knows how many men, women, and children died in these remote jungles on their quest to come to the United States.
Once in Nicaragua, the coyotes take Abdul and six others and tell them to lie down on their backs in the undercarriage of a truck. The men are placed like sardines with no place to move. Above them, the coyotes lay a thick sheet of metal where several cattle are boarded above. Abdul lies in that position for one whole day with no food or water to drink, out of fear of being caught by security forces or cartels.
Abdul loses 25 pounds in the three months of his journey to Mexico. In Mexico he turns himself in to the Mexican immigration authorities and is detained for one month. He is released after he tells them he is trying to go to the United States. He is given a travel permit valid for 10 days. The Mexican authorities request that he and his group stay in Mexico and work rather than continue northward. The Mexican authorities even tell them that Abdul and his group will be given legal permanent residency after one year in Mexico, but Abdul and his group do not take the offer.
Abdul contacts his original smuggler in Bangladesh on the phone to ask what to do next. The smuggler tells him to travel to Juarez, Mexico, which borders Texas, and instructs him to go over the bridge and turn himself in to US immigration authorities. Abdul does what he is told and surrenders himself and immediately tells the authorities that he is a political refugee. Until that point, Abdul was under the impression that he would be processed and released to a sponsor. But****US immigration policy is such that if you surrender yourself at the border, you are automatically detained and sent to any of many ICE detention centers in the United States. Then, your fate is decided by either the immigration judge, the Board of Immigration Appeals (which is the higher immigration court), or the federal appeals courts.
In Abdul’s case, his political asylum application is denied by both the administrative courts. By the time of his second denial, Abdul has spent two and a half years in detention. Abdul has spent close to $40,000 on smugglers, plane tickets, and visas to get to the United States, and then once in detention, a hired immigration attorney, phone and commissary expenses.#### Living in Limbo
Since Abdul’s case was denied, he is put in expedited removal proceedings, which means ICE is working to get his travel documents from the Bangladeshi embassy. Abdul lost his passport along with several of his important papers during his journey. Since Abdul does not possess any valid identification papers, the Bangladeshi government is trying to verify his national ID, and although Abdul fears for his life and freedom in Bangladesh, he fully complies with ICE to procure valid travel documents.
At this point, Abdul has been in ICE detention for over three and a half years.
Even though immigration law states that a person can lawfully be detained for up to six months, ICE routinely detains thousands of immigrants in various detention centers for much longer.
ICE has a minimum daily bed quota of 34,000 that must be filled daily. And since that quota must be met, Abdul’s release or removal is uncertain. Abdul is now living in limbo, uncertain of his future.
Abdul and thousands of other detainees are languishing and decaying in detention, having spent thousands of dollars, only to be locked up and deported to an uncertain future — many to their deaths.
Where is the humanity that America stands for and advocates for in other countries? What is the value of a life? Are some countries preferred over others? Where do the weak, the poor, the persecuted, and the destitute go? Did our Creator intend for His creation to roam freely in this world, or did He intend for us to draw border lines as to who can come in and who cannot?
Story written in TJ’s words; compiled and edited by Marissa Esthimer.