Stranger Than Fiction: U.S. Asylum Policy

American and pattiot

Nfor grew up in the West African country of Cameroon, where homosexuality is a crime, and where  gay men often are attacked, sometimes murdered, by vigilantes. He fled in fear for his life, eventually making his way to the United States and asking for asylum at the San Ysidro port of entry in 2016. After two years in detention, his asylum claim was finally granted by an immigration judge in July. That’s when ICE actions got stranger than fiction.

A native of the remote Grassfields region of Cameroon, Nfor spent the majority of his life more than 8,000 miles from Los Angeles, the birthplace of Trump’s favorite bogeyman, La Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, the notoriously violent street gang whose international presence is largely confined to the Northern Triangle countries of Central America (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) as well as Canada and a few cities in the United States.

“However, none of that seemed to matter last year when, in a bid to prevent Nfor from obtaining asylum in the United States, attorneys with U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement accused him of being an MS-13 member. Their evidence was that Nfor, who’d been a tattoo artist in Cameroon, has several tattoos on his legs and chest.”

Instead of being released from immigration detention, Nfor now faced more court proceedings. Luckily for him, Martin High, a lawyer from South Carolina and volunteer with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI), found experts to testify that his tattoos had nothing to do with MS-13.

“Peter Isbister, a lead attorney with the SPLC’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative, said he believes that the significance of Nfor’s case is twofold: First, “I think it really demonstrates how important it is for people to have counsel,” he said. While programs like SIFI and others have recently been expanding their pool of volunteer attorneys to provide pro bono counsel to more detained immigrations, Isbister emphasized that the vast majority of those who end up in immigration proceedings are forced to navigate the complicated system without a lawyer.

“Isbister said Nfor’s case is also “very illustrative of the administration’s criminalization and demonization of the immigrant population in general. This particular case shows that the government is capable of doing that really to absurd levels.”

Instead of offering safe haven to asylum seekers who flee to the United States, current immigration policy looks for every possible way to turn them away. Under Trump, official policy has changed so that asylum claims by people fleeing gang violence or domestic violence are not even considered. The latest Trump/McConnell legislative proposal would further restrict asylum, barring any Central American minors from applying at the U.S. border or inside the United States, and setting an unprecedented cap of 15,000 asylum grants per year.

Karen Paz is fleeing domestic violence:

“Hitting a woman for a man is as normal as eating a tortilla from a food stand on the way to work,” said Karen Paz, 34, from San Pedro Sula in Honduras, revealing a scar from a burn on her left shoulder. “He wanted to burn my face, but my daughter started screaming when she saw him taking the pan with boiling butter. She pushed him, and so he aimed for the arm instead.”

“Men can do anything to women in Honduras and the police hardly do anything about it, said Paz, while scrolling on her phone to show me more images of the burn and trying to find the police report she filed right after the attack.

“They detained him for only 24 hours, and then he came back home. I couldn’t stay there anymore; the next time he was going to kill me. My daughter could not witness that,” she said.

Nubia Estrada is fleeing both gang violence and domestic violence:

“She and her husband earned $8 a day baking bread in a firewood oven attached to their adobe house and selling it on the street in their town of Jícaro Galán.

“But last year a robber put a gun to her daughter Sheyla’s head on a bus and stole their money. A cousin, Jefferson, was shot 10 times and killed in August. And Estrada’s husband was growing increasingly violent, her children say.

“One night in October, Estrada and her children watched news of the caravan on television. The next day they boarded a bus to join it, carrying two clothes-filled backpacks and $40.”

Are these people we should be turning away or people we should be welcoming and protecting?


About Mary Turck

News Day, written by Mary Turck, analyzes, summarizes, links to, and comments on reports from news media around the world, with particular attention to immigration, education, and journalism. Fragments, also written by Mary Turck, has fiction, poetry and some creative non-fiction. Mary Turck edited TC Daily Planet,, from 2007-2014, and edited the award-winning Connection to the Americas and AMERICAS.ORG, in its pre-2008 version. She is also a recovering attorney and the author of many books for young people (and a few for adults), mostly focusing on historical and social issues.
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