"I had no idea how vast or complex the asylum-seeker process really was," Hammami says. "I thought it was like, they come here and we help them with housing and they can work. I completely found out that's not the case at all. It's horrible. Horrible, and so incredibly complex."

One of Hammami's clients in Brooklyn is a soft-spoken 29-year-old Nigerian woman who asked that her name not be published because she fears people from her homeland may still be trying to track her down. Born into a devout Muslim family, "Tamara" entered an arranged marriage at age nineteen. When her husband died suddenly five years later, the families ordered the young widow to remarry her brother-in-law. Tamara says her stepmother was abusive and threatened to harm her if she did not obey.

"[My husband's family] gave her land and properties and money," Tamara says. "She knew if I'd leave, they'd want to get all that back from her."

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.

With the help of a sympathetic family friend, Tamara hatched an escape plan. She booked a flight to New York and arrived at JFK Airport in June 2012 afraid, confused and alone. She wound up in detention for four months. After she was released, Hammami's organization provided a small stipend, but, despite having earned her GED and completing a variety of certification courses, she hasn't been able to achieve her goal of becoming a nurse, owing to a misspelling of her name on her immigration paperwork. Because of the typo, she has been unable to obtain a state ID, and without that, she can't enroll in nursing school.

With Hammami's help, Tamara found work as a server at a restaurant in Brooklyn, and she hopes to enroll in nursing school in the coming year. Though still bitter about her months in detention, Tamara says the tribulations were worth it in the end.

"The good thing is, I'm free from everything now," she says. "I'm finally able to think straight. The people here, they're accommodating. People don't even know you, but they just want to help you."

Not every asylum seeker is as fortunate. Of the roughly 68,000 people who applied for asylum in 2012, only 29,000 had their requests approved. Reasons for rejection can run the gamut, from security concerns to fraudulent claims, but in many cases the decision whether to approve an application appears to be cruelly arbitrary.

A series of reports by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University "found extensive disparities in how the nation's immigration judges decide the thousands of individual requests for asylum that they process each year." In New York, where judges decide one out of every four asylum cases in the United States, the disparity has improved in recent years but still remains an area of concern. One judge approved just 5 percent of asylum cases in a single year. Another judge in the same building approved 67 percent of such cases.

The inherent randomness is commonly known as "refugee roulette," a phrase coined in a 2008 Stanford Law Review report. Analyzing more than 270,000 decisions by immigration judges and asylum officials over a four-and-a-half-year period, the authors concluded that "in many cases, the most important moment in an asylum case is the instant in which a clerk randomly assigns an application to a particular asylum officer or immigration judge."

Jaya Ramji-Nogales, a professor at the Beasley School of Law at Temple University and a co-author of the refugee roulette study, says the problem boils down to a matter of time and resources. Immigration judges typically lack both. Facing a backlog of more than 354,000 cases — an 85 percent increase from five years ago — judges are forced to make snap decisions about complex legal issues that can have life-or-death consequences. A recent Washington Post story quotes one immigration judge who describes the current system as "like doing death-penalty cases in a traffic-court setting."

"In comprehensive reform, we see money for night-vision goggles at the border, everything the Border Patrol could possibly want," Ramji-Nogales says. "But we don't see the same funds directed to immigration courts. That's huge. Who wants to be the person in this political climate that says, 'Let's pour money into immigration court'?"


Every asylum seeker has a heartbreaking story to tell. Unfortunately, the tales aren't always true. In 2012, federal prosecutors in Manhattan filed an array of charges against 30 attorneys, paralegals, interpreters and others accused of helping dozens of Chinese immigrants file fraudulent asylum claims. One lawyer was caught on tape telling his client to "just make it up" if immigration officials probed for details of the forced-abortion narrative he'd scripted for her.

The high-profile Chinatown case — it was the subject of a front-page story in the New York Times, headlined "An Industry of Lies" — has contributed to backlash against asylum seekers that advocates fear could have tragic consequences for those with legitimate claims.

The elected official leading the campaign against asylum seekers is Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. On February 11, Goodlatte presided over a hearing for the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security ominously titled "Asylum Fraud: Abusing America's Compassion?"

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