Skip to main content

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

So goes the famous sonnet by Emma Lazarus, which is engraved on a bronze plaque on the Statue of Liberty.
It continues:

“Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The United States, like several other developed countries, takes in individuals who have been designated as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). For individuals who have fled their home countries to escape persecution on account of their race, religion, political opinion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group, U.S. law offers the opportunity to start over in a safe, third country. These individuals are “resettled” and, with the help of local non-profit organizations, often affiliated with churches, they begin their lives anew in places nothing like their countries of origin: Indiana, Kentucky, northern Wisconsin, Minnesota. Nonetheless, they find jobs, open businesses, raise families, and become ingrained in these communities.

Sadly, I also see many refugees in immigration detention facing deportation, despite a prior recognition that these individuals should not be forcibly returned to their home countries. Why does our government try so hard to kick out some of those it chose to bring in? What goes wrong?

It is hard for most of us to imagine fleeing a war-torn country where we could not live safely. Through numerous conversations with refugees I have met in Midwest detention centers since starting at NIJC in early 2008, I have gleaned that many people experience a similar progression once they arrive in the United States.

First, there are those who come to the United States shortly after fleeing their home countries. Initially these refugees are just relieved to be away from the fighting, to no longer worry that someone will harm them. Those who come as children no longer have to worry about hearing gunshots or seeing strange men in uniforms barge into their homes to terrorize their families. Above all, adults and children no longer have to experience the agony that war brings to all. One story sticks with me: A mother of a mentally ill client told me that during the war, when her infant was ill and needed medical care, she had no choice but to take all of her children with her to the hospital, stepping over dead bodies on the way. “What was it like living in your country during the war?” I asked her at her son’s immigration hearing. She paused for a moment: “It was hell,” she finally responded.

Then there are those I meet in detention who fled their countries half their lifetimes ago, only to live the next several years in refugee camps in bordering countries. The camp became their world. Some, as unaccompanied children, grew up without the helpful guidance of parents or guardians. Finally, their chance at new lives in that dream place, America, arrived. Excitedly, they got ready for their dreams to come true, to finally have a chance to really live.

Once they reach the United States, half a world away from the only place they have ever really known, most refugees initially get help finding apartments and minimum wage jobs. For a few months, they have some support. And then it ends. They are expected to be able to overcome, on their own, all the obstacles that they still face, including language and cultural barriers and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Many of these refugees need counseling to deal with the trauma they experienced, but they have never been referred for mental health services and have no idea that they even exist.

And on top of it all, life here is hard. Many of the individuals with whom I speak struggle every day to make ends meet while working factory jobs. It is difficult to learn the language of their new country. They may feel that no one respects or understands them, and it certainly does not help to live in crime-ridden neighborhoods, the only places they can afford. Children struggle to adjust to American schools while trying to block out memories of what they saw back home. It works for a little while but then comes back to haunt them.

Eventually, some of these people make mistakes, which they acknowledge when I speak with them. Some break the law without understanding it but are now becoming accustomed to living in a place where the rule of law means something. Some drink to cope or perhaps to fit in with their new neighbors, and their alcohol consumption leads to violations of the law. Those who are younger try to fit in and forget their bad memories by joining gangs or using drugs. For those who live in neighborhoods where fights are common, violence begins to seem normal to them.

Many refugees end up in criminal court without understanding what happens there because the interpreter does a bad job, and the local criminal judge either does not know or does not care. They plead guilty to a crime: possession of a controlled substance, assault, theft.

Maybe they get their life together before immigration authorities come for them, maybe not. It may not make a difference in their immigration case.

Either way, they end up in immigration custody, bewildered that this country that had initially welcomed them with open arms is now holding them in jail and trying to send them back to the place where they had suffered so much before. In a few cases, the persecution people suffered in their native countries involved being held in confinement, and they are forced to relive those experiences in immigration detention.

Some refugees are eligible to fight their cases, some are not. Perhaps the civil war in their country has ended, and while vast discrimination against their people continues, it does not rise to the level of persecution anymore, making a new asylum claim difficult. Some refugees are eligible for a waiver of their crimes, but for others their criminal offenses occurred too soon after they arrived or fit under that mysterious immigration law label “aggravated felony,” even if considered a misdemeanor under state law. Ironically, those who have complied with the immigration law and become lawful permanent residents rather than remaining in refugee status have fewer options than those who remain in refugee status.

These are the faces I see in immigration custody, over and over again. Some I can help, but others I cannot. It breaks my heart. And I ask, again, why does the U.S. government turn its back on people to whom it has promised protection? Why does our government give the Department of Homeland Security large amounts of money to detain and deport immigrants, including refugees, instead of putting the money toward federal programs that could help them become productive citizens? Why won’t the government abide by the words on the Statue of Liberty?

Hena Mansori is the supervising attorney for Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center Detention Project.

Photo credit: Rakkhi Samarasekera via Creative Commons