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One US Immigrant's Long Road to Asylum

One US Immigrant's Long Road to Asylum
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People who request asylum after coming to the U.S. illegally are much more likely to be denied. Sergio, a 64-year-old man from Mexico, is one of the lucky ones.

One US Immigrant's Long Road to Asylum
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People who request asylum after entering the United States illegally are much more likely to be denied than approved.

That information comes from the U.S. Department of Justice. Out of around 120,000 asylum requests by people who entered the country illegally in 2017, only about 7,000 were approved.

That makes Sergio very lucky. Sergio is a 64-year-old man from Mexico who asked to only be known by his first name. In Spanish, he told VOA his reasoning for coming to the U.S. “I came to the United States in 1992 because there was not a lot of work down there,” he said.

But under the “zero tolerance” policy of the administration of President Donald Trump, Sergio was targeted for deportation. That happened after he was arrested for drunkenness in May of last year.

Asylum requests that are made after an illegal entry are called “defensive asylum” requests. They are handled by the Department of Justice. Asylum requests made by people who came to the U.S. legally are called “affirmative asylum” requests. They are handled by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

The chances of being approved for defensive asylum got a little better in the first half of 2018. Requests fell to less than 86,000. But approvals remained around 7,000. The approval rate remains extremely low. Even for affirmative asylum requests in 2016, only 10 percent of more than 115,000 were approved.

Disagreement with guard

Sergio was moved to a jail in Orange County, near Los Angeles, where he says a guard insulted him early in his nine months there. Sergio said the guard accused him of being disrespectful and reminded him that he was prisoner.

“I said, ‘No, I’m not a prisoner,'” Sergio answered. “'I’m in detention for immigration. I haven’t committed any crimes.’”

He says his relationship with the guards got worse from there.

Joel Frost-Tift works for the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project of Catholic Charities. He is Sergio’s lawyer and requested asylum for him. He said that Sergio suffered from mental illness.

"He did have some medical treatment in detention, but it was clearly very inadequate. He ended up attempting suicide a month before he was released. So I think that's a sign that his medication wasn't right; he wasn't getting adequate care while he was detained.”

Getting asylum

A judge agreed with the lawyer that Sergio would not receive good care if he were sent back to Mexico. The judge approved asylum for Sergio on February 15.

But, Frost-Tift said, because the judge did not make a full written or spoken statement, there is no way to know his reasoning.

"Some judges have found that conditions in mental health institutions cause people to face a reasonable possibility of persecution,” he said, “and in some cases even that they are more likely than not to be tortured."

Petitioners for asylum must prove they have a "reasonable fear" of persecution in their home country. The United Nations defines reasonable fear as at least a 10 percent chance of persecution.

Asylum seekers must also officially request asylum within a year of their arrival in the U.S. Sergio did not do that.

"There are two exceptions to this rule," Frost-Tift explained.

First, the person can show changes to their situation which affect their right to asylum. Or, they must show that a highly unusual situation caused them to delay making their asylum request. He said that both of these things are true for people with mental illness.

Trump administration officials say asylum requests have risen sharply because many people are abusing a broken system.

Michael Bars is a spokesman for USCIS. In a written statement, he said that changes to the agency’s interview process have helped slow the large number of requests. But, he said, the current system is often abused and this prevents real asylum seekers from being processed in a timely way.

Sergio is still waiting for the government to send him a visa. He says he is pleased to have been given asylum, but also frustrated. “I’m frustrated,” he said, “because I’m staying at a shelter.”

Free and living in a homeless center in central Los Angeles, Sergio's health has improved and he is ready to start his new life.

I’m Alice Bryant.

Mike Sullivan wrote this store for VOA News. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.

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Words in This Story

lucky –adj. producing a good result by chance

tolerance –n. the willingness to accept feelings, habits or beliefs that are not you own

drunkenness –n. caused by drinking too much alcohol

petitioner –n. a person who asks for a legal case to be decided by a court

persecution –n. to treat someone cruelly or unfairly especially because of race or religious or political beliefs

frustrated –adj. to be angry, discouraged or upset because of being unable to do or complete something

interview - n. a meeting at which people talk to each other in order to ask questions and get information​