A group of young immigrants who traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border last month to seek asylum are beginning to receive responses to their applications. So far, the majority of the applications have been denied.
Over the course of four days last month, 78 adult individuals crossed the U.S.-Mexico border to turn themselves over to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and seek asylum from the countries where they were born.
The move served a practical purpose, attempting to reunite people outside the U.S. with their families inside, but it also had broader value, raising awareness about the pain of families separated by the border.
The hope was that by now many of the young people detained would know whether immigration officials believe they have a “credible fear” of returning to their home country. If such a fear is established, the case is sent to an immigration judge for a final hearing on asylum and withholding of removal from the U.S.
Many asylum seekers are also granted parole while they await their court date, freeing them of the confines of an immigration detention that detainees describe as a prison.
Activists from the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA), which organized the crossing, say Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is being harsher on the group to discourage others from taking similar actions.
In 2013, NIYA organized two crossings with much smaller groups that saw many of the individuals released in just days.
When the first group crossed in July 2013, all nine members were released on parole a little less than a month later. When a second group tried for asylum in September, the action was relatively successful, as well. Of the 34 crossers that time, only six received deportation orders.
But NIYA organizers and lawyers representing the DREAMers say they’ve never seen the treatment this group of crossers is getting.
Compared to previous crossings, DREAMers are seeing longer wait times to hear results of their credible fear interviews that will determine whether their applications will be approved. So far eight DREAMers have received responses and seven of them did not pass their credible fear interviews, according to NIYA. Those seven can now either appeal the decision or face deportation.
“The asylum offices nationwide are experiencing an increase in credible fear and reasonable fear interviews, so it's to be expected that overall denial rates would be rising. But not as much as we are seeing with [these DREAMers],” Dave Bennion, the attorney representing many of the DREAMers told Fusion in an email.
“I have reason to believe, based on comments of the asylum officers and the numbers we are seeing, that DC is sending recommended approvals back with instructions to deny,” Bennion told Fusion.
USCIS did not respond to a request for comment by the time this story was published.
In 2012, the U.S. received 44,170 asylum application and only about 12,000 were approved, according to Department of Justice statistics.
News of the denials spreads quickly in the detention center where the DREAMers are being held. Groups of detainees are divided into pods that are separated by clear glass. Many DREAMers have started to develop their own sign language to relay messages.
“Whenever officers call anyone’s name I get nervous, I get scared for them,” said Jaren Orellana in a telephone interview from the Otay detention center on Thursday.
Orellana is fleeing the city with the highest homicide rate in the world, San Pedro Sula, Honduras. The 20-year-old grew up in Northern California and voluntarily returned to Honduras in attempt to fix his legal status. But in the year that he’s been in the Central American country, he’s already been stabbed by gang members and he believes that if he returns to Honduras, he will face certain death.
But if you look at the number of approved asylum applications submitted by Hondurans the outlook is dismal for Orellana. In 2012, 1,257 Hondurans applied for asylum in the U.S. Only 93 cases were approved.
Orellana says he’s doing 400 push ups a day in his cell to control the stress and anxiety, but it may not be enough. When he entered the detention facility a psychologist scheduled visits every other week to evaluate Orellana. Now, the psychologist recommends they meet weekly.
The anxiety may be even greater for the families waiting to hear the results of the asylum claims submitted by their loved ones. Many want to know if they should seek professional representation. One woman waited at a congressperson's office from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Wednesday until she received a letter of support for her daughter.
“The only thing that the officers in charge of these cases are doing is messing these young people’s brains” said one father who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The parents of the DREAMers in detention are communicating regularly through conference calls but they feel like they're running out of ideas.
“Really we’re super scared and we’re beginning to feel helpless.”
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.