When Our Flawed Immigration System Means A Death Sentence

By Ellie Lobovits

All images: Ellie Lobovits
‘I did not come here for the American Dream. I came here to save my son.’

“An immigrant’s life, and the violence that drives us to leave . . . no one can understand who hasn’t lived it,” says Milagro Flores.* We’re standing in the narrow stairwell of Annunciation House, a shelter for undocumented immigrants where Milagro lives with her four children. Milagro’s eyes are sharp black and when she laughs, which is often, her capped teeth flash silver, giving her the look of a woman who has lived hard and is a youthful trickster.

A brightly painted mural of Guadalupe — a good luck icon for migrants — watches over us from the landing. For undocumented immigrants like Milagro, even this small token of good luck comforts, as they wait in limbo for the notoriously prohibitive immigration courts of El Paso to decide their fate.

Milagro is savvy to the negative rhetoric concerning immigration in the U.S. — that immigrants are coming to take advantage of America — to use our resources and get the American way of life. Milagro flatly refuses all of this. “I did not come here for the American Dream,” she says, “I came here to save my son.”

There are wide disparities when it comes to who is granted asylum in America. An asylum seeker’s country of origin plays a huge role. Since 1980, the U.S. has accepted only 3% of applications for political asylum by Salvadorans, as opposed to 76% from the Soviet Union. Another major disparity is based on legal representation.

A sign of comfort for undocumented immigrants in the Annunciation House shelter.

Asylum seekers do not have guaranteed rights to an attorney (ironically, if their cases fell under criminal law, this right would be guaranteed), yet legal counsel is a crucial element to the success of a case.

An asylum seeker who has a lawyer is four to six times more likely to be granted asylum than one who is not represented, according to a study by the Georgetown University Law Center, but legal representation continues to be prohibitively expensive and difficult to access. A recent study by Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) — a non-partisan source of information on federal law enforcement — found that women with children were granted asylum 32% of the time if they had legal representation. Without a lawyer, their chances dropped sixteen-fold to 2%.

The most glaring disparities in outcomes, however, are based on the location of the courts and individual judges. El Paso is the most prohibitive on both counts. According to the Institute for Justice and Journalism, over the past five years asylum seekers won 79% of their cases in New York, but in El Paso, immigration judges granted asylum only 5% of the time.

Of the three judges in El Paso, all appointed by the U.S. Attorney General, Judge Thomas Roepke is the harshest. Judge Roepke has granted asylum to just 1% of applicants over the last six years. This means that out of almost 200 cases, he’s granted asylum to exactly two people. According to TRAC, nationally during this same time period immigration court judges denied 48.5% of asylum claims, compared to Judge Roepke’s denial rate of 99%. These denial rates make El Paso one of the most restrictive counties in the country on immigration and asylum.

“What I think the data shows — and it is very clear and strong data — is that the nation of the United States has assigned immigration judges to El Paso who are unsympathetic to immigrants,” says Josiah Heyman, director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at University of Texas, El Paso.

A sign on the wall of Annunciation House.

“The chance of being granted asylum here in El Paso is formidably low,” says Sara Post, a volunteer who works with undocumented migrants. “So even if migrants who are fleeing for their lives try to cross legally, they will most likely be deported back to incredibly dangerous situations.” Immigrant rights activist Sergio de Leon puts this form of entrapment into even simpler terms: “All are welcome. None are accepted.”

A view of the dried up Rio Grande from the border bridge.

For people fleeing extreme violence in their home countries, this could be a death sentence. Milagro is seeking asylum from the rampant violence in her home country of El Salvador. In 2015, the year Milagro fled with her children, El Salvador was rated the world’s most deadly country outside of a war zone. The country is de facto controlled by two warring gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18. One Salvadoran is murdered every 60 minutes and in 2015 there were 104 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants — a murder toll of 6,657.

Milagro’s immigration story begins with this very violence. Eight years ago, her husband was murdered by gang members who robbed the gas station where he was working as a security guard. His body was found riddled with bullets, and Milagro was left as a single mother of young children. Then, two years ago, gang members threatened her 14-year-old son David on his way home from school. “The gang kept tabs on everyone, but teenage boys were primary targets,” Milagro recounts. “They told him that if he didn’t join the gang, they would kill him. I knew then that we had to leave.”

Official border sign at the Santa Fe international border bridge that connects the U.S. to Mexico. This is one of three major bridges where migrants can cross in order to claim asylum at the border.

Milagro packed up her children, allowing them one backpack each, then collected $300 and their passports. They walked out of their apartment and didn’t look back. She tells me they travelled for months by bus, without a “coyote,” a guide many immigrants pay to take them to the U.S. “When we ran out of money, I begged,” Milagro says. “I wasn’t ashamed because, as a mother, that’s just what you do.”

Milagro tilts her chin up, a look of defiance on her face. “We were hungry and cold, but we got here. I am triumphant.”

Milagro’s daughter’s bed in the shelter.

Like Milagro, many immigrants arrive at the El Paso point of entry and present themselves to Border Patrol officers stating that they fear for their lives. This process initiates asylum proceedings with the courts, but does not spare the immigrants from detention in notoriously prison-like conditions. Milagro and her children were lucky. They were only detained briefly before being released to the Annunciation House shelter, where I met her.

International law states that asylum seekers should only be detained under unusual circumstances. Despite this, U.S. detention centers are overflowing. According to federal law, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — which runs the detention centers under the aegis of the Department of Homeland Security — can only detain families for a maximum of 20 days.

However, countless stories reveal ICE’s rampant abuse of the law. At the time of writing this article in early September, asylum-seeking women who are being held with their children at the Berks County Residential Center outside of Philadelphia were on a hunger strike. They have already been detained for between six months and a year. They are currently detained indefinitely.

Two Border Patrol officers speaking at a public relations presentation next to the border fence in El Paso.

At a recent public relations presentation by Border Patrol in El Paso, Officer Gomez and Officer Cervantes answered questions from a group of students. “It’s a jail. An immigration camp is a jail,” said Officer Cervantes, when pressed. Although both officers state that all immigrants should come in through legal channels, their stories reveal the reality on the ground. Officer Gomez added:

“It’s very hard to see a mother with children out there in the desert, thirsty and tired. You can’t help but think about your own children. And you have to go home at the end of the day and when your wife asks you how your day was . . . you just have to say ‘fine.’ You have to build a wall . . . separate yourself from it.”

The Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act (H.R. 1153), a federal bill that would further restrict the ability of people like Milagro to seek asylum in the U.S., will be up for a vote by Congress in the coming year. It has already been approved by the House of Representatives.

According to Human Rights First, this bill, “would lead to the deportation of legitimate refugees with well-founded fears of persecution, leave others in immigration detention for months, and put children at risk of return to trafficking, death, and persecution in their home countries.” Legislation like this is fueled by anti-immigrant sentiment, including Donald Trump’s assertion that immigrants “are people that should not be in our country. They flow in like water.”

A mural in downtown El Paso depicting the Rio Grande and an international border bridge that connects the U.S. and Mexico.

“It would be terrible if they sent us back,” Milagro says. “It would be a death sentence.”

Milagro is very clear about what she would do if she and her children were deported. “We would come right back here,” she says, “and try again.”

Milagro is an optimist, however — she believes that the violence she has fled will make the case for her.

“I have always told the truth,” Milagro says, “because I think the system helps you if you tell the truth.”

For now, she continues to hold out hope that the courts will decide in her favor. She adds: “What else is there to do?”

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