A two-year-long nightmare has almost come to an end for Jaren Rodriguez Orellana, a young asylum seeker who grew up in Northern California but has been stranded in Honduras.
On Friday, the 20-year-old Orellana was released from immigration detention, allowing him to see his father for the first time since 2012.
Orellana’s parents brought him to the U.S. when he was four years old, but he lacked proper immigration paperwork. Following the advice of an attorney, he returned to Honduras at age 18 with the intention of applying for a visa to the U.S.
Orellana thought he would be able to fix his status and return to his family in California within weeks. Instead, he found himself stuck in San Pedro Sula, the city with the highest murder rate in the world.
Orellana says he faced persecution from local gangs. He was stabbed during his first year in Honduras, and says he's been shot at by gang members trying to extort money from him.
On March 10, Orellana crossed the U.S.-Mexico border near Tijuana and turned himself in to immigration authorities as an asylum seeker. He was with a group of over 30 other young immigrants, many of whom had been deported from the U.S. The individuals he crossed with told authorities that they had similar fears of returning to their countries of birth, according to a lawyer representing them.
But instead of being treated like a person seeking refuge, Orellana said he was received more like a criminal when he reentered the U.S. In detention, he said he faced prison-like conditions, handcuffs and harassment from guards.
“They put chains on my legs, they put chains on my waist, and they put chains on my wrists,” Orellana said.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not respond to a request for comment.
Decisions on asylum claims can vary greatly depending on which judge hears the case. Orellana was terrified of the prospect of getting a “tough judge” who would deport him back to Honduras.
Data obtained from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) demonstrates that this variance is real in some courtrooms, according to Professor Susan Long, the director of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
One judge, for example, granted asylum in 95 percent of the cases she saw between 2007 and 2012, while another judge in the same court granted asylum in only 33 percent of cases during the same period. Long says that in these particular courts, case assignments are random, and therefore case-loads should be similar from one judge to another.
The agency that oversees these judges, the Executive Office for Immigration Review, said in response that it takes “seriously any claims of unjustified and significant anomalies in immigration judge decision-making and takes steps to evaluate disparities in immigration adjudications.”
The number of asylum cases has skyrocketed in recent years, with a 250-percent increase in asylum requests between 2012 and 2013. Earlier this year, this increase prompted DHS to make the process to obtain a court hearing even more selective than the existing procedure.
The tougher approach will gladden immigration hardliners in the Republican Party, who have criticized U.S. asylum policy as overly lenient and vulnerable to fraud.
“Unfortunately, word about this easy method to gain entry into the U.S. has spread around the world,” said Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the head of the House Judiciary Committee.
But Orellana says for him and his peers, asylum is not an “easy” way to gain access to the U.S., but truly a matter of life or death.
“There’s people coming from other countries, like I did, because we’re afraid, because we have a credible fear, because if we come back to our countries we’re going to get killed,” Orellana said. “We come here for help, and they treat us like crap, they treat us like criminals, and they treat us like we’re doing something bad.”
Cristina is an Emmy-nominated reporter and producer. She recently won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for her documentary Death by Fentanyl. She attended Yale University and has reported for the New Haven Independent, ABC News, Univision, The Huffington Post, and Fusion.
Jorge Rivas is the national affairs correspondent at Fusion. He follows the national conversation through the lens of racial, sexual, and political identity.