Last Thursday, Jaren Rodriguez Orellana raised his hand and took an oath promising to only tell the truth at his asylum hearing, which would help U.S. immigration officials decide whether he had a credible fear of returning to the country where he was born.
Orellana is fleeing violence in Honduras. He's already been stabbed once and says that unless he pays gangsters in Honduras a $250 monthly protection fee, he’ll be killed.
But moments before Orellana raised his hand to take an oath confirming his experience, he was in handcuffs that were tied to a chain around his waist. As soon as he walked out of the room where the interview took place, he was back in handcuffs.
Orellana came to U.S. seeking asylum, but as he awaits a decision, he says he’s being treated like a criminal. He was part of a group of more than 30 young people organized by the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA) who crossed the border on March 10.
Orellana was brought to the U.S. without proper authorization. He was raised in Northern California and returned to Honduras after a lawyer told him to go back to the Central American country and fix his status abroad. Now, he is fleeing the place he’s been living in for the past two years, San Pedro Sula, a Honduran city with highest murder rate in the world.
For the past week, Orellana has been held in the Otay Detention Center. He says he feels safer in a detention facility than being in Honduras but that it’s still difficult.
“We’re being treated like criminals, that’s the way we all see it,” Orellana said referring to the other DREAMers he crossed with.
“When my parents call me I tell them I’m doing fine because I don’t want them worrying because they have enough things to worry about out there,” Orellana said in a telephone interview with Fusion.
Asylum attorneys say Orellana’s experience with the asylum process has moved quickly. Some detainees are in detention for months before they’re called for their credible fear interview. But there is one thing Orellana has in common with many other asylum seekers: the feeling of being treated like a criminal.
“It’s no surprise that people are often traumatized when they’re locked up in immigration detention facilities,” explained Sean Riordan, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties. “That’s especially true for folks who have already gone through some trauma in the lives.”
Multiple studies have found immigrants who are fleeing wars or torture are shocked at how they're treated in U.S. detention centers.
In November 2013, the Center for Victims of Torture interviewed 22 immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S. and found that “asylum seekers are often in disbelief that they have been criminalized by virtue of trying to find protection.” The country of origin of the immigrants interviewed were from Afghanistan, Brazil, Cameroon, Colombia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Liberia, Mali and Mexico.
Guidelines from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees make it clear that seeking asylum is not a criminal act, and that indefinite and mandatory forms of detention are prohibited under international law.
But it’s the only option in the U.S.
“There are other countries that have decent housing for asylum seekers,” explained Melanie Nezer, vice president of policy and advocacy at HIAS, the oldest international migration and refugee resettlement agency in the U.S. In general, though, people claiming asylum are met with a harsh reception in developed nations.
“Detention is a trend, and since the U.S. leads the world on these issues we set the standard,” she said. “Unfortunately the bar is pretty low for how asylum seekers are treated.”
Nezer says it’s a difficult situation for people claiming asylum in the U.S. both inside and outside of the detention centers.
Asylum seekers who are released have no access to housing or any other kind of benefits. They have no access to a work permit until their case has been pending for at least 180 days.
“What the U.S. is telling asylum seekers is that under international and U.S. law we’re obligated to hear your case to determine if you’re a refugee or not,” Nezer said. “But in the meantime you get nothing, you can’t work and you don’t get any support.”
For Orellana, it’s a system he’s more than willing to put up with.
“Right now at this moment I’d rather be here than in Honduras," Orellana said. "At least here my life is not in danger."
A day in detention
At 5:00 a.m. the lights go on and cell block doors open. That’s the alarm clock for detainees to wake up and head to breakfast thirty minutes later. Lunch is around 11 a.m. and dinner is at 4:30 p.m.
The hours between the early evening dinner and bedtime around 11 p.m. are the hardest for Orellana. The anxiety combined with late-night hunger are enough to make the average person go crazy, he explains.
Orellana says that just in the few days of detention he’s already experiencing some psychological effects.
“It’s been happening to me the last few nights since I’ve been here…I wake up from these dreams where I can’t breathe,” Orellana explained. “I explained what was happening to the nurse and she told me to get a psychiatrist.”
Rai Villalba, 18, was also part of the group of Dreamers — young undocumented people — who crossed last week. He says he’s being persecuted because of his sexuality and is fleeing Sonora, Mexico. Villalba has also noticed changes among the Dreamers inside the detention center.
"The only thing that is keeping me going is the other Dreamers, they're my motivation right now,” Villaba told Fusion speaking from Eloy Detention Center.
"The detention is a lot scarier than I thought it was going to be, it's literally a prison not a detention center," said Villalba. "They have us in cells, locked up, it's basically a prison."
Both Orellana and Villalba hope to hear by the end of the week whether immigration officials approve their claim that they face “credible fear” abroad. If the claim is approved, their request will move forward to an immigration judge.
"It's really sad to see how people's only motivation is to get away from the horrible things that happened to them at home,” Villalba said, “and then to get here and to live in these conditions, it's really heartbreaking.”
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A Ford Foundation grant supports Fusion’s investigative journalism.
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.