“It’s Like Purgatory”: How the U.S. Has Undermined the Promise of Asylum

An excerpt from the new book, “The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum at the U.S.-Mexico Border and Beyond.”

Migrants, mostly from Central America, board a van which will take them to a processing center, on May 16, 2019, in El Paso, Texas. - About 1,100 migrants from Central America and other countries are crossing into the El Paso border sector each day. US Customs and Border Protection Public Information Officer Frank Pino, says that Border Patrol resources and personnel are being stretched by the ongoing migrant crisis, and that the real targets of the Border Patrol are slipping through the cracks. (Photo by Paul Ratje / AFP)        (Photo credit should read PAUL RATJE/AFP via Getty Images)
Migrants board a van that will take them to a processing center, on May 16, 2019, in El Paso, Texas. Photo: Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images

The Trump administration has upended the asylum system as we knew it, slashing refugee admissions and placing endless roadblocks in the way of people who arrive at the border to ask for safety. But the promise of asylum has always been political, situated uneasily between human compassion and national interest, as reporter John Washington explains in his book The Dispossessed: A Story of Asylum at the U.S.-Mexico Border and Beyond,” published this week by Verso. Washington’s book traces the history of the concept of asylum from ancient Greek city-states to today’s militarized borders, telling the story of the asylum-seekers he has met along the way. In this excerpt, Washington explains how the U.S. uses prolonged detention as a way to pressure people to give up their cases and accept deportation.

It’s hard to weigh competing emotions — the current misery of confinement, the fear of future death — as detained asylum-seekers are forced to do. Humans recoil from death as well as from captivity. We want to live and we want to live free. We want both.

Since detention standards were changed in 1996, the U.S. government, in direct refutation to the 1951 Refugee Convention, has locked up hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers who have broken neither domestic nor international law. The idea is to use them as an example of the misery the government is willing to draw on the bodies and minds of those seeking its protection, in order to convince future asylum-seekers from even trying.

When former White House chief of staff John Kelly first introduced the idea of separating migrant families in 2017, he said, “Yes, I’m considering” family separation “in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network. I am considering exactly that.” But deterrence — prolonged detention, family separation, or forcing migrants to walk through the remote deserts — doesn’t work. Bertha, for example, a 63-year-old Honduran grandmother fleeing to save her and her granddaughter’s life, came to the United States knowing that they would likely be detained. And they were. Even after Bertha’s granddaughter was released, Immigration and Customs Enforcement kept Bertha locked up for almost two years.

Humans recoil from death as well as from captivity. We want to live and we want to live free. We want both.

I met Bertha in a small echoic room in the El Paso Processing Center, in her 18th month of detention. Boggled as to why ICE would detain, for such a long time, a shy grandmother with developing health complications who poses neither flight risk nor security concern, I asked her lawyer, Ed Beckett, if he knew why the government hadn’t released her.

They’re just assholes, Beckett told me. Cruel and unusual punishment, that’s about it. I think she’s a prime example of deterrence.

At her first asylum hearing in the low-ceilinged court inside the El Paso Processing Center, Bertha was denied asylum but was offered protection and relief from deportation through the Convention Against Torture. But then, a few days after the hearing, and before she was released, the judge suddenly changed his mind and reversed his decision. As Beckett helped Bertha appeal, she was kept in detention.

I’ve been in here 18 months, she told me in the spartan interview room. I’m from the department of Cortés. I came to the bridge on November 18. We were in the hielera — an icebox, and the common Spanish name for freezing-cold holding cells — for one day, and then they sent us here. I came … I fled. We came together. My granddaughter was only 14, her name is Yariela. The gangsters wanted her to be their wife. But I couldn’t let that happen. And then they wanted to kill me. They said they were going to kill me. We left the next day. I knew … well, I’m scared to return to my country, that’s what I told them.

I asked her what the security situation was like in her hometown.

I lost my grandson on October 11, 2013. They disappeared him. We don’t know where he is. I raised them both. Their mom was already here, in Houston. And when we had to leave, we just left, without hardly anything. We ran out of money in Guatemala. We had to go asking for money, asking for alms, for food. I was asking God for help. We traveled by bus. I wouldn’t know how to take a train. We were hungry sometimes, but people treated us OK. They gave us food.

They respected me because of my age. An abuelita. A little grandmother.

That’s why we left. Because a gangster was trying to make my granddaughter his wife. I turn to ice when I think about going back there.

I came to ask for protection. I didn’t kill anyone, she says. She began counting on her fingers, starting with her thumb, then index finger. I didn’t rob anyone. I don’t do drugs, don’t have anything to do with drugs. She held up all five fingers to me, and then dropped her hand. I’m clean. A good woman. My daughter is the only one who helps me with some money, for the vending machine, for phone calls, but I can’t stand anything from the vending machines anymore. I can’t stand the soda … I’m just asking God to get me out of here. And my granddaughter. She asks me, she’s so sad, she asks me, Mami, she calls me, why don’t they let you out? And she starts to cry. You raised me. Please come here with me.

You can’t make a complaint or go to the police back in Honduras, Bertha told me, because they’ll know. They have a system, they can track you. I was looking for my grandson after he disappeared, but trying not to make too much noise. And we never found him. I imagine that they killed him, dropped him off somewhere, in some ditch, that’s how they do it. You can’t try to talk to the police or they’ll disappear you. If you see something, she said, and then zipped her lips with a finger.

I don’t know why there’s so much violence. I can’t explain it. It started around, around 2000. It wasn’t like this when I was a girl. Everything was much calmer. But it’s so bad now. Everybody, so many people are leaving. They told me they had to separate us, but they didn’t tell me where they were taking her. I was so … I never expected to be here so long.

To kill time I read the Bible. I also like to play Monopoly. I used to play with this other woman, from Honduras. We played a game last night. But she left today.

I asked her who won.

She smiled, embarrassed. I did, she said. I’ll miss her a lot. She went back to Honduras, just today. I lie in bed and read the Bible. The Psalms. My dad died when he was 91 years old, and he told me, hija, for this, your tongue, she said, and stuck out her tongue, they’ll kill you … for talking, for saying what you see. The gangs, they were taking money, war taxes. They charge you for everything. There wasn’t any more money for food.

Image: Courtesy of Verso

Here, in detention, we wake up at five, we have breakfast. Lunch at 11. And dinner at 4:30. But sometimes I’m hungry at night. At home we ate at nine. I get hungry at midnight. Sometimes I buy something from the vending machine, but I don’t like those crackers or cookies anymore. I don’t even like soda. I go to bed hungry. Lights out at nine o’clock. There’s count three times a day. At 10 in the morning, at 3:30, and at nine. At count we have to be quiet. We have to lie in our beds and we can’t talk. If we make noise we get in trouble. At night though, it’s hard to sleep. If someone’s snoring, she says, laughing and putting her hands on her cheeks, we have to deal with it. There’s always someone in the barracks with us. One of the guards. They’re not mean, but they talk strong if we’re loud, if someone’s talking during count. She paused to think. Sometimes, to pass the time, I draw. I draw flowers, princesses, little animals, things like that. Curlicues. Just to pass the time.

It’s not good to be in here. This situation … it’s like a purgatory. It’s like we’re never going to leave. I just think I’m never going to leave. If I get out I’m going to do what I always do, follow the right path. Be good. Do right. We’re all the same. You have to treat people nice. I hope, I hope that God forgives the United States. They have no heart. We’re people. We’re old women. We can’t be here. I don’t know why they don’t let us go. I just don’t know why.

Bertha started telling me about her favorite Psalms, but then one of the guards interrupted us. Our time was up. I told her I would read a couple of her recommendations, and, as I scribbled into my notebook and the guard stood watching us, she told me to read Psalms 23, 91, 102, 27, and 71.

“This situation … it’s like a purgatory. It’s like we’re never going to leave.”

It had been a long time since I read any of them, and, at my hostel later that night, as I began to read them on my computer, I wondered at first if all the Psalms referred to danger and searching for refuge in times of trouble and old age, or if she had just selected those that so precisely fit her situation.

I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress. Surely He shall deliver you from the snare of the fowler. He shall cover you with His feathers, and under his wings you shall take refuge. You shall not be afraid of the terror by night, nor of the arrow that flies by day, nor of the pestilence that walks in darkness, nor of the destruction that lays waste at noonday. For my days are consumed like smoke, and my bones are burned like a hearth. My heart is stricken and withered like grass, so that I forget to eat my bread. My bones cling to my skin. I am like a pelican of the wilderness, I am like an owl of the desert. I lie awake, and am like a sparrow alone on the housetop. Do not cast me off in the time of old age. Do not forsake me when my strength fails. You prepare a table before me. You anoint my head with oil. My cup runs over.

In the summer of 2018, after 20 months of detention, Bertha lost her appeal and was deported alone back to Honduras. When I think of her now, I think of another poem, the line from Keats — “Where but to think is to be full of sorrow” — and of Saint Oscar Romero, who was reading the 23rd Psalm, one of Bertha’s recommendations, during mass on the day he was assassinated in the cathedral in El Salvador’s capital. “May God have mercy on the assassins” were the archbishop’s last words.

Sixteen hours after a Salvadoran army sniper pulled the trigger and killed Romero, on March 24, 1980, the U.S. House Foreign Operations Subcommittee began hearings on the $5.7 million in military aid that the archbishop had begged President Jimmy Carter not to send, which Romero said would “surely increase injustice here and sharpen the repression that has been unleashed.”

Though the vote was postponed, the military aid was eventually approved.

Joan Didion described the administration’s account of the Salvadoran government’s progress toward human rights, on which the U.S. aid depended, as hallucinatory. The adjective also would apply to ICE’s self-proclaimed compliance with its own standard of guaranteeing “safe, secure, and humane environments” for what it calls “custodial supervision.”

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