"They've signed up for a certain degree of hardship during these journeys," Sovcik says of asylum seekers in general. "But at that moment when they believe they've reached a place they can ask for help, they're handcuffed and taken into cold rooms. They have no idea what's going on. There's a certain degree of shock in that experience that adds to the intensity of their trauma."

"In the perverse way the system works right now, if you come to the border and ask for asylum, you're considered a defensive asylum applicant."

Research has shown that the longer asylum seekers are incarcerated, the more emotionally fragile they become. A team led by Dr. Allen Keller, an associate professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine and director of the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, interviewed 70 asylum seekers detained in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania for a study published in The Lancet in 2003.

"What we found were very alarmingly high levels of psychological distress among asylum seekers in detention," Keller says. "There was a clear correlation between the length of time in detention and the severity of these symptoms, including depression, sadness, and hopelessness, as well as profound symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress."

Jamila Hammami, director of the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, says "the psychological damage is huge" for LGBT
Caleb Ferguson
Jamila Hammami, director of the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, says "the psychological damage is huge" for LGBT
Sally Pillay is the program director at First Friends, a New Jersey nonprofit that helps find temporary homes for asylum seekers released from detention.
Caleb Ferguson
Sally Pillay is the program director at First Friends, a New Jersey nonprofit that helps find temporary homes for asylum seekers released from detention.

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In 2009, ICE issued new parole standards: If arriving asylum seekers pass a "credible fear" interview, they can be eligible for release. Nevertheless, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom issued a report in April 2013 concluding that ICE "continues to detain asylum seekers under inappropriate conditions in jails and jail-like facilities."

A spokesman for ICE did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.

Megan Bremer, who helped organize the LIRS's pilot program, says her organization received approval from ICE before agreeing to discuss the project.

"Until there's some movement from Congress on the bed mandate, ICE really feels its hands are tied," Bremer says. "Unfortunately, there's a lot of divisive rhetoric right now and fear-mongering about who is coming into this country."


In New York and New Jersey, two women have been instrumental in securing the release of asylum seekers. The first is New Jerseyan Sally Pillay, program director at First Friends, a nonprofit group that provides the simple but vital service of visiting immigrants who might otherwise remain isolated behind bars. Ebullient and loquacious, 36-year-old Pillay may well have spent more time inside the detention centers than anyone except the guards and staff.

Beyond providing moral support, Pillay helps detainees keep in touch with their families, refers them to pro bono legal services and sometimes serves as a 24-hour on-call cab service when people are paroled.

"The facility where most asylum seekers are, it's horrible. If you go outside, you're surrounded by toxic fumes and the smell is unbearable," Pillay says. "When somebody is released, they have no transportation. Do they care? No. [ICE] calls us and says, 'Hey, can you take this person to the train station?' It can be 10 or 11 at night."

In order to qualify for parole, asylum seekers are required to confirm their identity and show proof of "community ties," which, practically speaking, entails proving they have a friend or family member with a spare bedroom. It's harder than it sounds: Documents may have been lost, stolen or confiscated, and asylum seekers seldom have local contact to rely on.

Since June, Pillay has participated in the LIRS pilot program, coordinating with community members (mostly churchgoers) willing to host an immigrant. In seven months, she has found shelter for seven asylum seekers. "We rely on the kindness of strangers," she says. "You're asking somebody not to charge any money or anything. It can be a burden sometimes. We have to rely on the generosity of host families."

Pillay's counterpart in New York is Jamila Hammami, director of the Brooklyn Community Pride Center's Queer Detainee Empowerment Project. Hammami says detention for LGBT asylum seekers can be especially nightmarish. LGBT detainees are fifteen times more likely to be sexually assaulted than their heterosexual counterparts while incarcerated, according to a 2013 report from the Center for American Progress. They're also more likely to end up in solitary confinement, a tactic that keeps them separated from other inmates.

"They're victims of torture and persecution, but when you're put in a detention center, you're not safe there, either," Hammami says. "It's like being in a microcosm of the community that you're trying to flee. The psychological damage is huge."

Clement Lee, a staff attorney at Immigration Equality, a nonprofit group that advocates for LGBT asylum seekers, describes situations in which detainees live in perpetual fear of having their sexuality revealed, knowing that it will lead to physical and verbal abuse by guards and other inmates.

"When I talk to clients by phone, they're looking over their shoulder left and right to make sure nobody is listening," Lee says. "I have to encourage clients to use code words when talking to me about being gay or transgender. This is a country that offers humanitarian protection, but they don't feel safe even when they're applying — there's something a little disjointed about that."

Finding housing for parolees is only half the battle. Asylum seekers aren't allowed to look for employment until 180 days after they've filed their application, and bureaucracy and backlogs can delay work authorization for months. Legally barred from finding a job, they are forced to subsist on handouts.

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