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a DreaM Betrayed

by Michael Onah

. 03 August

“So you’re Garifuna?”


“And a gang attempted to recruit your daughter? How often would the gang come to your home?”


“Would the gang ask for war taxes?”


“Right, ok.”


“How were you discriminated against?”


“Uh huh. What kind of homophobic slurs would they use?”


“And the government took your land? Was the military involved? When did they take it? How did they take it?”


“Mhm. Mhhmmmm.”


“What was your sense when...”


“Do the police work with the gangs? Did they follow up with your police report?”


“How did it make you feel?”

“How did it make you feel?”

“How did it make you feel?”

“How did it make you feel?”

“How did it make you feel?”

“...and How did that make you feel? Afraid?”


I am sitting on a Zoom call, scrolling up and down at a .pdf document, while 3 faces peer at me from a row of boxes on the side of my computer screen. I read the words on the .pdf to myself repeatedly and mutter to no one in particular. Of course the mute button isn’t turned on - an unforced error for my 1,000,000,001st Zoom. I’m too agitated to care whether my teammates can hear me audibly configuring my next suggestion - it’s hot and I’m sticky and visibly sweaty (it’s my wife’s turn to be in our air-conditioned bedroom tonight).

Every week, for a few hours a week, I work as a volunteer attorney with New Sanctuary Coalition, an immigrant-led organization that provides support for people attempting to navigate the United States’ confoundingly convoluted, intolerably cruel immigration system. The clients I work with (NSC gently refers to them as “friends”) are all seeking asylum from their respective home countries. I work with other volunteers - translators, social workers, people with no specialized skill other than their willingness to help out - to help our friends apply for asylum. 

The application (I-589) is an increasingly invasive battery of questions, demanding some of the most traumatic details from our friends’ life: threats of violence, murdered family members, racially-based harassment, abuse at the hands of the government for being politically outspoken. In just a few hours, our hundred-odd volunteers try to extract these facts from dozens and dozens of friends to construct a narrative that sufficiently answers the core question of the I-589: “just how scared, how damaged, how desperate are you to come here?” During the pandemic, NSC has seamlessly imported its entire asylum clinic to Zoom, with friends often dialing in by calling the translator. It’s a Herculean effort by a (relatively) small outfit. Still, none of us can shake the uncomfortable feeling of teasing out these horrible stories of oppression, both very systemic and deeply personal, often simultaneously, in order to present our friends as worthy of “legal” status to a government that barely registers their pain as anything more than criteria in an arbitrary scheme. 

More to the point, obtaining asylum is literally based on pleading a sufficient case of “credible fear”. Applicants must be able to demonstrate that they cannot return to their home countries, because they fear significant harm based on a limited set of categories - political opinion, social group, racial group, religion, nationality. These categories are very narrowly defined and leaves volunteers sometimes wondering if the suffering is going to be enough for an immigration officer to give the stamp of approval. When a narrative appears to be sufficient, it feels no less confusing or enraging. “This seems really, really strong,” I’ll mutter to myself, only to quickly follow up with, in an awkward and overcompensating fashion, a “it’s heartbreaking, obviously, but strong.” NSC repeatedly discourages this type of thinking, but I, we, can’t help but having such judgments creeping across our brains as we review applications. This country bureaucratizes human suffering and we have little other choice but to play the game.

Applicants must be able to demonstrate that they cannot return to their home countries, because they fear significant harm based on a limited set of categories

The vast majority of our applicants are filing “defensive” asylum applications - this means that they have either been caught by Border Patrol entering the U.S. without the requisite documentation, or otherwise in violation of immigration law, and are now in the process of being removed from the country. For these types of cases, if our friends can prove that they satisfy the requirements for asylum, they can avoid being forced out of the U.S., where many folks are attempting to reunite with family, make a living and, as mentioned above, escape the current nightmares waiting for them at home. In 2018, the Department of Homeland Security received over 150,000 defensive asylum applications. They approved approximately 8% of those applications. 

The alternative to defensive asylum is affirmative asylum. These applicants are typically folks who are able to enter the country on a visa or another legal status and wish to adjust their status to an asylee, which affords them more time to try to acquire legal permanent residency and, very hopefully, citizenship. I have reviewed very few affirmative asylum applications; these friends are usually middle class and have the means to strategize on how best to remain in the U.S. I recall, on a clinic night that felt especially long, zoning out and struggling to summon the empathy for a friend who could afford a visitor’s visa. Their asylum application, to me, was not very compelling - mild opposition to the current administration and an otherwise distant witness to a violent clash between his country’s military and a group of protestors. They had a master’s degree and determined that asylum was the best pathway forward. Our friends in defensive asylum proceedings do not have these same luxuries. They barely understand the process, and it does not even occur to them to seek a visa before coming over. This is in part because our immigration system usually does not deem them to be visa-worthy - they lack the skills, education, job, pedigree and, usually, the skin color that DHS and the current presidential administrations prioritizes.

We starve them out, we pay them pennies on the dollar for shit we don’t want to do. Then we discard them.

Additionally, and paradoxically, most of our friends are also de-prioritized by an immigration mechanism that ostensibly is centered around urgency, dire circumstances, and a need for immediate shelter. At the time this rant was written, the COVID pandemic has forced immigration offices in New York and New Jersey to remain closed. And while DHS is still processing and accepting applications, they are only scheduling hearings for affirmative asylum applicants. And so, time and time again at clinic, I, the lawyer, must impotently explain to many of our friends that it is completely unclear when they will be able to appear in an immigration court to continue their defensive asylum process. Because they came here, under immense duress, seeking refuge, without proper paperwork, they are officially Shit Out of Luck until further notice. Practically, once an application is filed, our friends are not in danger of being removed until an immigration judge has ruled on it. However, in the meantime, they are stuck in purgatory: unable to legally apply for a work permit until 150 days from filing for asylum; sometimes searching for a new apartment; otherwise left to fend for themselves in their brand new “home”.

Intuitively, the act of seeking asylum is not usually something one plans out. It is often the result of feeling so unsafe, so powerless, so afraid to be in your own home place, that you are so willing to uproot your life to travel across several countries, places where you are often unwanted and hated and further threatened, for the chance to be remotely, relatively, safe in the United States. And yet, the most supposedly compassionate components of our immigration system still favor the privileged, the able, and the monied. 


We, the United States, live comfortably in the shade of grand ideas and great morals, many of which amount to even grander lies and greater forms of deception. We tell ourselves that we’re committed to the business of harboring the world’s most vulnerable. We call for every creed, race, color, shape etcetera etcetera etcetera. Then we capture those same people, like runaway cattle, and we cage them and we torture them. We starve them out, we pay them pennies on the dollar for shit we don’t want to do. Then we discard them, and allow them to live among us but only as ghosts, with neither home nor land nor security nor sliver of meager means. And repeat. It’s a horrific, cruel existence that, until we all rise up and reckon with, is destined to repeat until Lady Liberty sinks into the sea.


Michael with his dog Oscar in NYC, photograph by Eileen Harrigan

It’s easy to feel hopeless in a house fire. Being a Black attorney whose day job is in criminal justice, there have been too many days, specifically in the last few months, where I’ve wondered what the point of my resistance was. But that’s exactly what the purveyors of these oppressive systems want from us. They want us to feel fatigued, and resigned and defeated. And while it often feels too draining to get up to wage a war that is so unfair, and inequitable and so difficult, simply put, I’d rather die than to see them win. 

You can donate to New Sanctuary Coalition at

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