If I had left the beach five minutes earlier on that brutally hot day back in October, 2015, I never would have met the man in the yellow Puma cap.
I never would have seen him wading out of the Panamanian jungle alongside five other trail-weary African men, carrying their belongings in bags above their heads. I never would have spent the day with them in a Kuna indigenous village, listening to the harrowing details of their improbable odyssey from Somalia to Central America.
I never would received word seven months later in Miami that yellow Puma cap had made it to the U.S. and was locked up in the Krome immigrant detention center, pleading for asylum. I never would have spent a heart-breaking afternoon with him in an antiseptic visitation room, hearing the horrible details about the torture he had suffered for refusing to renounce his Christian faith.
If I had left the beach five minutes earlier that day in Panama, I never would have known anything about Mohamud Nageye. And I wouldn't be rooting for him so hard now.
Mohamud, a 35-year-old ethnic Somali born to Muslim parents in northern Kenya, is in the final stretch of his impossibly long journey to freedom in the U.S. But the last hurdle is a tall one: a $20,000 bond.
That's a hefty wad of cash for most people. But it's an especially onerous freedom tax if you just crossed the entire globe and then trekked thousands of miles from South America with all your belongings in a backpack.
On Sept. 16 Mohamud will go before an immigration judge in Miami to show his scars and make his case for asylum. He'll talk about how he was repeatedly beaten for practicing Christianity in his native country, and about the time he was stripped naked, hanged upside down from a tree full of ants, and used as an ashtray by his torturers.
He'll be represented by a small team of dedicated pro-bono lawyers who heard about his story and volunteered to help. That makes him one of the lucky ones.
Many if not most asylum-seekers never have any legal counsel, and their removal order becomes somewhat of an automatic exit stamp. Considering there are 155,000 people in deportation proceedings in the U.S. right now, that's a lot of folks who are trying to navigate a foreign legal system in a foreign language in a foreign land.
But even when asylum-seekers have access to lawyers, they still face tough odds if they're incarcerated. Detention prevents them from having easy access to lawyers, medical examiners, and other people who can help them prepare their asylum case. That's why it's so important to help Mohamud post bond and gain provisional freedom now—so he has a better chance of gaining permanent freedom later.
A religious organization in Texas has agreed to sponsor him upon his release. It's a sweet deal, considering Mohamud's only goal in life right now is to find a quiet and peaceful place for religious contemplation. But first he needs to convince the immigration judge that it's a good idea to let him stay in the country.
That might be easier said than done. The U.S. this year has already deported more than 73,000 people, including 395 Somalis. By comparison, only 188 Somalis have been allowed to stay. That means roughly two Somalis have gotten the boot for every one who's been welcomed in this year.
Lawyers say the best way for Mohamud to improve his chances for a green light is to post bond and fight for asylum on a level playing field. And for that to happen, he has to rely on the kindness of strangers donating to his fundraising campaign.
But it's not just about Mohamud. The issue of posting hefty bonds—oftentimes set at upwards of $10,000 to $20,000 — is becoming an increasingly tricky obstacle for immigration advocates and lawyers working to free asylum-seekers.
According to immigration law, "visiting aliens" in deportation proceedings are eligible for release from ICE's custody if they are not considered a “flight-risk” or a “danger to the community.” If they meet both criteria, they may be eligible for release on your own recognizance, on a reasonable bond, or on a supervision program such as an ankle bracelet or some other regular check-in program.
The concept of "reasonable bond," however, is fuzzy. Is it really reasonable to expect somebody with no money, no family, and no support network to cough up $20K for a shot at a fair hearing? That's a lot of cheddar.
But that's where Mohamud's case can ultimately help others, too.
The Friends of Miami Dade Detainees, the advocacy group handling Mohamud's crowdfunding campaign, say if they're successful at raising the money needed to secure his release from Krome, the money will eventually get rolled back into a permanent rotating "bond fund" to help other asylum-seekers in the future.
It's a way for Mohamud to take the kindness of strangers and pay it forward. It would be a nice twist to what's been an agonizing tale. And a positive first chapter to what will hopefully be Mohamud's new American story.