What exactly drives tens of thousands of asylum seekers to travel weeks, months, even years to come to the United States? Those who make the perilous journey north are often at the mercy of coyotes, police, and thieves as they trek through unknown territory by bus and on foot. For many, however, what’s behind them is worse than the unknown that they face: to return home simply means not to survive.
More than 160,000 people applied for asylum in the United States last year, seeking shelter from persecution in their home country due to their race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, or political opinion. That number has nearly quadrupled in the last decade. Often they are escaping torture, gang recruitment, killings, extortion, and widespread violence.
Once asylum seekers arrive in the United States, they may be sent to Mexico to await their immigration court date as part of the Trump Administration’s “Migrant Protection Protocols.” Or they may be put in a detention center within the United States, where they will wait with other immigrant and nonimmigrant prisoners for a judge to determine whether they can be released into the country to await their court date.
The United States has the largest immigrant detention system in the world. More than 50,000 immigrants are currently being held in detention centers, local jails, and prisons across the country. While Chicago’s sanctuary status bans detention centers within city limits, there are 96 Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin.
In these cells, asylum seekers often wait weeks and even months to be released. Even then, however, safety is not guaranteed. While one in four asylum seekers were given sanctuary in the United States in 2010, today only one in 12 is afforded the same protections.
“Seeking asylum in the U.S. itself can be a trauma because of the systemic injustices clients experience in the immigration courts or asylum office,” says Hannah Cartwright, a supervising attorney who works with asylum seekers through the National Immigrant Justice Center’s Adult Detention Project. “[My] clients are often forced to reexperience traumas they suffered in their home country or during their migration journey.”
Borderless Magazine spent the last year listening to asylum seekers who lived in a shelter run by the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants in Cicero. The shelter recently closed, a testament to the ongoing challenges community groups face in trying to support this vulnerable population with limited resources.
In their own words, here are the stories of six individuals we spoke to about what it means to seek asylum in Chicago today.
Kash grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, in Seaview Gardens, an area known for crime and gang violence. Homosexual acts are outlawed in Jamaica, and as a boy and young man Kash faced constant threats for his sexual orientation. Despite this harassment, he started writing about gay rights in local newspapers and became a leader in his university’s Rotaract club, a group for young adults sponsored by Rotary International. Six years ago he was attacked on the street by a crowd that beat him, threw stones at him, and ripped off his clothes. Even though there were witnesses, no one was ever charged for the attack.
I’m trying to find a place to call home. My own country refuses me on the basis of my sexuality. I am an unnatural thing, they say. I am a gay man in Jamaica, where there is intense hatred and violence against actual or suspected gay men. I have suffered public ridicule and beatings in my daily life because of my sexual orientation.
Growing up, I was too young to understand why I was different, but knew that I was not as masculine as my older brothers and other boys my age. I had no friends as a boy since the other boys insulted me and didn’t want to be seen with me.
I truly tried to be the “straight” person that Jamaican society expects me to be, but I had no control over my personality and voice. I often wondered if there was something wrong with me, and most of the time I would pray and ask the Lord to take away this desire I was having for the same sex. But those prayers seemed to go unanswered until this day. Once I even created a fake e-mail address and e-mailed my pastor at the time, asking him Why me?
I knew there would be consequences to face when I started writing those letters to the editor and getting involved with LGBTQ advocacy, but I had no other way to express myself. All I wanted was for people to understand that being gay isn’t a crime and that I am still a human despite my sexual orientation.
I still experience nightmares over what happened to me, with the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse and trauma that I have experienced. However, I wake up and am thankful for having found real safety in Chicago. It was my hope that after so much abuse and mistreatment as a homosexual, and the prospect of even more abuse and mistreatment if I was sent back home, that I would be granted asylum in the United States. And finally, after months of waiting, I was.
Victor was a professional rugby player who represented Nigeria in a Rugby World Cup qualifier game. In 2018, Victor was forced to flee for his safety. As a bisexual man in a country that outlawed same-sex sexual activity, he faced prison or even death for his orientation. In February that year, Victor arrived at Chicago O’Hare International Airport with his family, intent on seeking asylum. But he soon learned that his wife and daughter would be held in detention as his asylum case progressed. So his wife took their daughter back to Nigeria while Victor was sent to a detention center in southern Wisconsin.
The first two months at the Kenosha Detention Center felt like a nightmare. You are so enclosed you don’t have the opportunity to move around. That’s how you start going crazy. That’s how Kenosha was for me.
The detention center was a mix of immigrants and actual criminals. We were in the same detention as criminals who’ve committed murders, gang bang, and stuff. You don’t have time to rest. You don’t have the pleasure of going outside to play or having social time—none of that. At the detention center, you don’t really have privacy. They are making you understand that you’ve come into America and it’s not all rosy.
After the first month or so, I forced myself to read books to pass the time. I read about the history of Native Americans. The Americans we see today are actually immigrants; the real Americans, which are the Native Americans, you barely see. So I felt empowered when I read books like that. It gave me the courage to say, Yes, I have a place here too.
I ended up staying close to four months in detention before I was released. It’s not been easy staying here in Chicago without family. I miss my little kid. I am trying to figure out how to get them here. I grew up without a father and I don’t want my little girl to go through the same process. Everyone says America is a haven and they see America as a paradise where everything works smoothly. But it’s a different story.
Gabriela*, El Salvador
When Gabriela moved into a new neighborhood in San Salvador, she became a target for both the local gangs and police. Fearing for her life and the safety of her three-year-old son, Kelvin, Gabriela fled to the United States to seek asylum. The journey to the border took her 17 days, but what came next devastated her.
On the journey, the only thing that mattered to me was my son. The first part of the trip was by bus, but as we got closer to the border, we were moved into an open truck bed with 135 people. We only had a little bit of water. The top of the truck was open to the sun, rain, and wind. I remembered people fainting around us, and I just held my son in my arms because he was so weak he would only sleep. When he would wake up he would say he wanted food, but I didn’t have any to give to him. We couldn’t even get off the truck, because the driver didn’t want to stop.
We reached the border in March 2018. But instead of feeling happy, I felt tormented. I didn’t know why.
We used a raft to cross the Rio Grande River at the border, but the raft had a leak. When we started to sink I grabbed my son. I was shaking because I hadn’t had anything to eat, but I put him up on my shoulder so he wouldn’t get wet and I grabbed a tree root to pull myself out of the river. Then I spent a half hour walking through rural Texas before Border Control showed up and took us away.
I didn’t know it then, but the worst part of this journey was still waiting for me. We were all wet, and once they got us I thought I would have clothes to change into because I was sick. They said they weren’t a hotel to give me clothes.
I was shaking because they put us in these freezing rooms where there was no room to even put your feet. First was the icehouse, hieleras (“freezers”), and then the doghouse, or holding cell. That’s what we called it because we were on top of each other like they keep the dogs. I got to a point where I couldn’t carry my son in my arms anymore. The only spot he could lay on was under a trash can. I dumped out the trash and put him under it. It hurt my soul to do that, but I wanted him to be comfortable and my arms couldn’t hold him up anymore.
Afterwards, I was called to have my picture taken with my son. When I was returning to the cage, I waved at one of the immigration officials so he would come over to me. I didn’t realize that you cannot look or speak to them. He got very close to me and said, “I am not a dog for you to speak to me that way. Because you talked to me that way, I won’t open the door for you. You’ll have to wait there.”
I was holding my son and shaking from exhaustion and fear, with tears rolling down my face.
On the third day, the immigration officials called me and told me, “Ma’am, you have a criminal file in your country.”
I said no, I’ve never been imprisoned in my life.
“Have you had trouble with the police?”
I said no.
“Yes, you have,” they told me. “You are a threat to your son. We are going to take your son.”
In that moment, I wanted the earth to swallow me. It was the worst moment of my life.
First they took my son’s birth certificate, and then they called us and brought us to a small cage. It was just me and my son and two immigration agents and a woman. My son had been vomiting and had diarrhea at that time, and I told them that, but they didn’t care. They told me to give my son to the woman.
I begged them, I said no please, please don’t take him from me! Instead, just send us back. They told me at that point if I didn’t hand him over, they would take him by force. I held him tight and whispered, forgive me.
The woman grabbed my son and the first thing he did was say “Mama.” When I tried to hug him, they pulled me away. The official said that they would deport me to make sure I would never see him again if I didn’t let go. As I was led out, I heard him say “Mama” over and over but I had to turn my back.
Later, I could see that my son was sitting alone on a metal bench looking around for me. I asked the immigration official to please let me hug him one last time, and he said he couldn’t do that. Then I asked where they were taking me. “You’re going back to your country.”
When he told me that I cried even more because I thought, How can I leave my son here? I was put in a line of people, and I asked where we were going and they said, “We are being deported.” I looked all around and thought, if they take me to the airport and they want to put me on the plane I will throw myself on the ground and I will not go unless they give me my son.
I spent four days in Laredo Processing Center, and I didn’t hear anything about my son. Then an official came. He said, “Listen, I’m not immigration, I’m not ICE, I’m not asylum. I want information about gangs in your country.”
I said, Why would you ask me that? Where is my son? He told me that my son would stay, but that I would be deported because I’m a threat to this country. “We don’t want you in this country. We want to take you out as soon as possible. What are you going to do in my country? Ruin it,” he said.
I told him, But how am I coming to ruin your country with my son in my arms? Is it ruining your country looking for work to get ahead in life or to protect my son? Is that ruining your country? He told me that I couldn’t stay in America and that the asylum officer wouldn’t give me asylum. They would do the interview as soon as possible to get me out of here and send me back to El Salvador.
The next day an asylum officer interviewed me and told me that my case was credible. I didn’t know what that meant. I got to the dormitory and many people asked me, What did they say? Aren’t you happy? At that moment, the only thing that would make me happy is if they had given me back my son. Nothing else mattered to me.
Two weeks passed and I hadn’t heard anything about my son. I was called to see a judge. An immigration official told me that I wouldn’t be getting bail because I was a big gang member and that I wasn’t wanted here. It frightened me so much that I was afraid to speak to any of them and I didn’t have a lawyer. I was only connected to a lawyer through my son. They had visited him and got to know him, and then learned about my case.
Thank God I had these lawyers. They were able to contact a group of lawyers through the National Immigrant Justice Center that were experts. After a lot of investigation and compiling 353 pages of evidence, my case went to a federal judge who said that there was no argument against me. I was told that the judge asked why they had done that injustice to me and my son, a boy of that age, only three.
The judge ordered that immigration officials had to reunite me with my son. They said they would reunite me with my son at the Laredo airport because he was in Chicago and they were going to bring him from there. When that day arrived, they brought me to an immigration office. I was in one of those dog cages, handcuffed. I was wondering why I was handcuffed because I was supposed to be free.
The order said that my son had to be released to my arms, and yet the official goes and tries to pick up my son without me. They locked me up in an icebox while I waited. It was extremely cold, and I was shivering. I said that I was cold, and an immigration official came and gave me a piece of paper and said, “Cover yourself with that.” I really broke down at that moment.
One hour passed, then two, and my boy still didn’t show and neither did the official. I asked another immigration official and the official says, “They haven’t told you anything? The thing is, we aren’t going to reunite you with your son.”
The next day, they took me out of the detention center and said that I would be going to another detention center, and I immediately started to cry. Finally, I got on a bus with a woman and her little girl. The bus driver tells me, “We are going to a family detention center to drop her off, so maybe your son is waiting for you there.”
I could hardly bear it. I saw behind the bus that there was a car following us. I watched as we arrived at the detention center and the car kept following. I thought, my son must be in the car, and he was.
He looked very scared, and then he saw me and he said “Mama!” and he ran to me and I hugged him. That moment was the most emotional moment of my life. We had been separated for nine months.
But the truth is that the U.S. government gave me back a son that is completely different from the son I had. The first couple of days we were back together, anytime I would get close he cringed like he thought I was going to hit him. He goes to the bathroom on himself and his social worker and teacher say he acts at the same developmental level as a two-year-old even though he’s four. When they told me that, it was a huge shock. He wasn’t like that before, so why now?
They told me it’s going to be hard for him because he was very little for all the trauma he endured. In the end, I just have to be patient.
When CH arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2015, he had walked for 12 days straight surviving on just coconuts. His journey had begun an ocean away in Pakistan, where he had narrowly escaped with his life.The government had constructed a dam in CH’s village in 2013 and displaced many people from their homes. The villagers were promised compensation for their lost property, but the village leaders took the money. Cheated out of his ancestral land and denied the compensation that was promised to him, CH protested and gathered the support of others who had lost their homes. It was then that one of the village leaders decided to put an end to CH’s insubordination.
I decided to leave Pakistan in 2014 after a leader in my village made a third attempt to murder me. I saw an advertisement for getting a visa from Brazil outside of a travel agent’s office in my village. Leaving seemed like the only option as the men continued to harass me and my family. Selling my flourishing car rental business, which I had built from the ground up, was not the hardest part. Leaving my elderly parents, wife, and three kids was.
In São Paulo, I worked at a chicken export factory. But things got worse. I couldn’t handle the degree of violence in the city. People were murdered in broad daylight, and it felt more dangerous than Pakistan. Seeing all this violence brought back memories of the time I was attacked in Pakistan and was left to bleed on the roadside. The local police refused to file a report of the attack, and the hospital denied me treatment without a police report. They were all under the village leader’s control.
I heard the system in the U.S. is just and that everyone gets a fair chance here. I decided to come here to live freely. I was picked up by Border Patrol at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2015. I was transferred between prisons in California and Louisiana, and I didn’t know how things would work out for me.
In California, they barely let us sleep and kept the air-conditioning on at extremely cold temperatures. Every hour an officer would wake us up and take attendance. It was torture.
In Louisiana, things were better. I started working in the kitchen at the detention center for four hours a day. I wasn’t working for money. After cleaning the kitchen, I got to go outside to throw out the garbage. In those brief moments, I got a glimpse of the outside world. Trees, a police car: there was a reality beyond the four walls. This daily reminder kept me going. While I was there, I spoke on the phone with my ailing father in Pakistan and told him imaginary stories of my newfound freedom in the U.S. I was a safe and happy man here.
My first asylum case hearing was in August 2015. A lawyer agreed to represent me just days before my court date. But the time was too short for him to fully understand my case. On his request for more time, the judge gave me a court date for March 2019.
I was shocked. Almost four more years before I could earn my freedom. Four years of a life in limbo, without a work permit or much else to do. You see, asylum seekers can apply for a work permit if the court does not reach a decision on their case within 180 days. But when my lawyer asked for more time and my hearing was postponed, the clock stopped for me. I started crying out of frustration. The lawyer was apologizing profusely, but I knew it wasn’t his fault. I told myself it was God’s will.
The day Brother Michael from the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants rescued me from the detention center in October 2015, I had given up on the idea of freedom. Lying in my bed, I decided never to talk to anyone again. It had been more than five months since I was handcuffed and put into detention. As I lay there, an officer kept saying, “Wake up, Ali, it’s time to go home.” I didn’t understand English, and I kept thinking she was asking me to go to the kitchen for work. Then an Indian inmate translated what she was saying. An organization in Chicago that shelters asylum seekers had decided to take me in.
I reached Chicago in a short-sleeve shirt and pants, without much else. I’d never met Brother Michael before, but he recognized me by my garments. “Who would be in Chicago in October wearing a T-shirt?” Brother Michael told me later.
Over 1,500 detained immigrants came and went before my eyes at the shelter. Maybe more. When I came to Chicago, I didn’t understand the systems here; I was uncertain even about the crosswalk signal. My housemates helped me figure out my way around the city. So I tried to help the newcomers in the same way.
When my asylum hearing finally came in March, I was very nervous and started crying. I wasn’t able to understand what was going on. My lawyer came along with my case manager and some of my housemates; I had the support and encouragement of so many people.
I was interviewed for three and a half hours with only a ten-minute break in between. The judge asked me the same question in different ways. Memories of the first time I was attacked in Pakistan came rushing back and I kept crying. Even when the judge was interrogating me, I was crying. All of those memories of how my family suffered and how our house was taken away flooded my mind.
When the judge announced that my asylum application was approved, I couldn’t believe it. I think the judge was very sad after listening to my story and believed me wholeheartedly.
I am happy that I could get justice here. My heart is filled with gratitude for Brother Michael and the good people at ICDI. They and my lawyer have been so very kind and supportive to me. My lawyer even did my case pro bono. He recently filed the paperwork so that I can bring my wife and kids here, and they should be here soon. I finished a two-month-long hospitality diploma at Heartland Alliance. I want to work in a hotel or restaurant downtown and am looking for a job.
I have started believing that my life is finally safe and secure.
Aciel’s problems began with a corrupt cop demanding monthly bribes in exchange for keeping his music and movie shop open in Havana. But when Aciel couldn’t pay, the cop sent people to destroy his store. Forced to close his business and under constant harassment from the police, Aciel left Cuba in 2016 hoping one day that he’d make it to the United States. The journey ultimately took him through 13 countries by plane, boat, bus, and foot.
The thing you have to understand about trekking north to seek asylum is that you have to pay each step of the way. Nothing is free. My dream had always been to leave Cuba for the United States, so I sold my house and business and left Cuba with a few thousand dollars, the clothes on my back, and a bag. That’s it.
Guyana allowed Cubans to come visa free, so that was my first stop. There, I met up with some Cubans who were also afraid of living back home, and we decided to go north to the U.S. together. We caught a bus to Brazil, and in the first town I went to change my money into Brazilian real. It was then that I found out that half of my money was fake. Now I only had $2,500.
Because I didn’t have enough money for the trip, I had to stay behind. I stayed in Brazil for three months, working and living on the street. I slowly saved up and bought myself a supermarket cart that I’d use to cart people’s groceries to their cars. I met a Cuban who had a friend in Brazil that owned a restaurant. He let me stay with him as long as I cooked in his restaurant. After three months, I saved up enough money to make the next part of my journey.
I went to Peru by boat on the Amazon River. I saw pink dolphins. They were so beautiful. There’s also a part of the river where the water is two different colors because of the plants in the water. One side is yellow, the other blue.
When I crossed into Peru, I took up restaurant work again for two months. I’d do anything, like cleaning dishes, preparing drinks, salads, just to make a little more money to keep going.
Then I left and went on the Amazon River again for another week. On the boats, the Peruvian police would ask you for money, so you had to give money if you wanted to keep going. A big part of making it to America is paying corrupt police every step of the way. Once I got to Lima I worked for six months in a car wash, first washing and then vacuuming cars, and eventually I became the manager of the car wash. The owner really trusted me and let me stay for free with him.
But my friends told me that I could make more money in Chile, so I left for Chile. I found a job in a bus repair shop, would work every day and I wouldn’t even rest on Sundays. All the while on this journey, I sent money to my mom. I was working without papers for the entire journey. Everything was illegal, but there was no other way.
Thank God, even with everything that happened, there was always someone that would help me. If you are a fighter and a hard worker, there is always someone that will give you a helping hand.
From Chile, I went through Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia by bus and ended up in Panama. I was lucky because the police never stopped me, but probably it was because I look white.
In Panama, I met up with a big group of 20 people from all over the world, even Africa. The coyotes took us into the jungle where we met with Indigenous people who showed us the way for four days of walking through the rain. Then we got to the main highway in Panama: the Pan-American Highway that goes to Panama City. When we got to the highway there were lots of police. So we hid until they were gone. That night it was raining, so a woman offered to let us all sleep on her porch.
The next morning, a coyote said that we would walk 45 minutes and then get on a bus. But it wasn’t true. It was three hours walking in the jungle and then we were at a hotel. From there a different coyote said we had to wake up at 5 AM to take a bus because if we caught a later bus the police would catch us. So we did what he said and we took the 5 AM bus to Panama City. Thank God, I still had $500 left. In the jungle is where you spend the most money because you have to pay the Indigenous people, the rancheros, the native women who will show you where to go, everyone. Every time one part of your journey stops, you pay one coyote and that coyote takes you to the next one. They communicate with each other. That’s how it goes. It goes on and on like this until you reach the U.S. border.
Everyone takes advantage of us migrants. Everyone. In the jungle, they will tell you one price and then they take you deep into the jungle and they tell you another, and you have to pay it because they have guns and you’re in their territory. But at least they show you the way. Some are a bit better and they help you. It’s a business.
In Panama City, we got on a bus to Costa Rica. We went across all of Costa Rica in a bus to Nicaragua. From Nicaragua we were going to take a boat to Honduras. It cost $150 and we had to pay the coyotes in advance. But they let us get caught by the police in Nicaragua.
It was the most unsafe country I passed through on my entire journey, with the worst immigration police. They would touch the women in our group and look through all your things to see where you had money hidden. Those police were very bad and they stole a lot of money—like $600 from someone I knew and $800 from another.
The coyote paid the $150 fine to have me released from jail. Even in this chaos, there is still some accountability, because I will tell the next Cuban trying to pass to not to use that coyote. He doesn’t want to mess up that opportunity because I might give him 15 more people.
Once I was in Honduras, my mom sent me money and I took a bus to Guatemala. We then crossed a river on a raft to get to Mexico, where we landed in Tapachula, Chiapas. We waited in Mexico for 20 days. I didn’t have any money again, so I walked around until I met a woman and I explained my story and she said I could work in her house and stay there for free. I filled her water and cooked and did chores like painting. I called a friend in Spain and he sent me $50, I called another and he gave me $40, and another gave me $30.
The woman who gave me shelter took me to the airport, and she gave me some money so I could eat on the last part of my journey. From there I took a plane to Mexico City and then a plane to Reynosa, near the U.S. border. There I walked across the bridge and turned myself in to Border Control agents. They kept me there for five days and from there they brought me to a detention center.
After eight days they put us on a plane that took us from Texas to New York to the Kankakee detention center in Illinois. When I got to Kankakee the first thing I saw was other Cubans. They told me people were usually imprisoned there for three to four months. After such a long journey, my time in Kankakee went very quickly for me. My three court dates happened in one month, and then I was granted asylum. My journey was very, very long and very stressful with little money, but thank God my asylum process was very quick. That hardly happens to anyone.
Yassel fled Cuba by raft, floating for 15 long days on the Gulf of Mexico. Storms battered the raft and at one point a pack of dolphins swam aside it, as if protecting the passengers. When a storm destroyed the raft and it began to sink, Mexican authorities rescued the group. After spending time in a Mexican jail, Yassel headed north to Nuevo Laredo to cross the U.S. border and turned himself in to Border Control agents in Laredo, Texas. They sent him to Dodge County Detention Facility, a county jail in Juneau, Wisconsin, that is part of a broad network of detention facilities across the country that house ICE detainees.
The hardest part of coming to America was being held in a detention center for six months. The first thing you feel when you enter a detention center is this wave of sadness, and when you start to see how everything functions inside a prison, everything hurts you there. The guards treat you like animals. They hurt you psychologically.
When they would bring us to immigration court, they would tighten our handcuffs until our hands hurt. Immigrants don’t matter to them. You can tell that they feel they are just doing their jobs. But it feels to us, those who are detained, as if they don’t have hearts, as if they aren’t humans inside.
I knew that to enter the U.S. you have to go to prison as an asylum seeker and then to court to explain why you came. But you never know what that is like until you are locked up inside a place. You don’t know the psychological torture or that if you’re sick, they don’t give you the medical care you need.
I thought about leaving mostly while I was there. I was desperate and I didn’t care where I would go. Even if I would be living on the street, that would be better. I couldn’t handle one more day inside the prison, and the food was terrible. They feed you lots of potatoes without even a sauce. It was like food for animals. No, I think even animals eat better than the prisoners there.
I was granted asylum during my last court date in September 2018. When I left detention and came to Chicago, I felt like joy returned to my life. I was reborn after I left detention.
I want the government in this country to give asylum seekers a helping hand. People come here because they or their families are in danger in their country. Or maybe they are hungry and don’t have anything to eat, and the only opportunity for them to survive or to make a better life for their children is to try and come here. There’s a lot of need, a lot of hunger, and a lot of sickness from so much need. At the end of the day, this country benefits from all the people who come with a hunger to work, and when they work the country grows.
*Name has been changed to protect her safety.
Contributing reporting by Aqilah Allaudeen and Carly Graf.
This story was co-published in the Chicago Reader and made possible thanks to support from the International Women’s Media Foundation, PEN America, our Kickstarter supporters, and Northwestern University’s Social Justice News Nexus.