The asylum seeker from Somalia hung his head as an immigration judge grilled him about his treacherous journey from the Horn of Africa. By air, sea and land he finally made it to Mexico, and then a taxi delivered him into the arms of U.S. border agents at San Diego.
Kheire is one of hundreds of desperate Somalis in the last two years to have staked everything on a wild asylum gamble by following immigration routes to the United States traditionally traveled by Latinos.
With the suspension of a U.S. refugee program and stepped-up security in the Gulf of Aden and along Mediterranean smuggling routes, more overseas migrants from Somalia are pursuing asylum through what one expert calls the “back door.”
About 1,500 people from around the world showed up in U.S. airports and on the borders seeking asylum during the 2009 fiscal year, according to statistics from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Somalis were the biggest group to make the journey, with most arriving in San Diego. More than 240 Somalis arrived during that period–more than twice the number from the year before.
Like Kheire, they have been shuttled to immigration detention centers in California while legal advocates have scurried to find lawyers and translators to help them navigate the country’s immigration courts.
Many end up defending themselves. Those who lose may remain temporarily. Somalis may be deported, but immigrant advocates say authorities often do not send them back immediately because of difficulties making the trip.
Most Somalis have reached the United States–there are some 87,000 here–through U.S.-sponsored refugee resettlement programs. But the State Department in 2008 suspended a family reunification program for refugees over fraud concerns. The number of Somalis admitted by refugee programs dwindled to about 4,000 last year.
Those now traveling through Latin America are taking a path well-worn by asylum seekers from other countries. Immigration attorneys say they have worked with clients from Ethiopia and Iraq who also reached the United States via Mexico.
Ronald Smith, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said most asylum seekers arrive in U.S. airports–not on the southern border. However, asylum experts said more people may now be seeking to come here by land due to tighter travel restrictions.
“To get a flight from Africa to Europe is very hard. The easiest place to go is America,” said Yahya Idardon, an asylum seeker who fled Somalia last year after his father and brother were killed. “Africa to Latin America is easy . . . when you are going to Latin America, no one is concerned about you, no one is asking, so it is easy to go there and cross all these countries.”
Once reaching the U.S. border in San Diego, Somalis are frisked and fingerprinted and screened by an asylum officer to gauge whether they have a credible fear of returning home.
Several Somalis said they never expected to be detained–especially since they didn’t try to sneak across the border.
“They’re coming to the United States, which is a symbol of freedom and democracy around the world,” said immigration attorney Lyall, who represented Kheire. “They’re not expecting to go to jail and be fed bologna sandwiches.”
On Jan. 4, the government plans to start releasing many asylum seekers while they wait for their immigration cases to be heard. It is unclear how many Somalis will be let out as they must prove their identity and many don’t have documents. And still others say they have nowhere to go even if they were freed, their attorneys said.