Maine Voices: After heroic journey, asylum seekers face harrowing trip through our immigration system
BY SUSAN ROCHE, ESQ., SPECIAL TO THE PRESS HERALD
She arrived at the southern border of the United States full of hope; she thought she had finally reached safety. She had left her home in the Democratic Republic of Congo after suffering years of domestic violence under a government unwilling to protect her. She feared her husband would kill her, so she fled with her children on a visa to Brazil. What followed was a year of treacherous travel by foot through South and Central America. She experienced and witnessed the worst we can imagine: rape, gang predators, death, exhaustion and hunger.
But she found our border closed, with thousands of refugees awaiting entry. When her family finally made it through, she was arrested by Customs and Border Protection. Asked where she would go, she said, “Portland,” because she had heard about its Congolese community. She didn’t have a specific destination, so the officer wrote down the address of a social services agency in Portland, Oregon. When she arrived in Portland, Maine, two weeks later, she was unaware that her immigration hearing was being scheduled on the other side of the country.
In Maine, she was relieved to have her first night of safety in longer than she could remember. She was also anxious to start the process of applying for asylum so she could ensure her family’s safety and begin working to support them. But she could not move her case from Oregon because, like thousands of other cases, it had not yet been entered in the immigration court system. Worse, she could not file her asylum application, and she could not get work authorization until after her application had been filed and pending for 180 days. For weeks and months, all she could do was wait.
With no right to a government-funded attorney, she attempted to navigate the system alone. Once she finally moved her case and filed her asylum application, however, she faced new challenges. The U.S. attorney general had changed asylum law so that domestic-violence survivors now had very little chance of being granted asylum. This change happened without congressional action or new regulations subject to public oversight; the attorney general had overturned long-standing case law unilaterally.
She now waits for her immigration hearing as she builds her new life in Maine. But the weight of uncertainty haunts her. She does not know whether she will be able to remain here or forced to return to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where she and her children face life-threatening danger. Her hope for a timely resolution is thwarted as she finds her hearing scheduled three years from now, in 2022.
Asylum protection is a human right guaranteed to those fleeing persecution. The United States signed an international treaty, codified in our laws, that is intended to provide a clear path to safety for people like the woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Instead, asylum seekers face a system with limited due process, irrational procedures and complicated nuances. And these failings have only been exacerbated by devastating new policies and enforcement procedures over the last 2½ years.
As asylum seekers, including the families staying at the Portland Expo and at the city’s Family Shelter, make their way through our flawed immigration system, we need to ensure that their path to protection reflects the democracy they dreamed of when they sought safety in the United States. We need to demand comprehensive immigration reform, and to fight policies that dismantle due process and access to justice. We must call on our congressional leaders to support legislation like H.R. 2813 (the Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act of 2019), recently reintroduced by U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree. Our kindness and compassion must be followed by action and change.