When Carlos Alberto Bringas-Rodriguez went in for his routine check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Kansas City on December 20, he expected to be in and out, as on previous visits. A 27-year-old gay asylum seeker from Mexico, Bringas had been in the United States for 13 years, and was living “a calm life” with his husband in a suburb of Kansas City. Together, he and his husband were raising Bringas’s 12-year-old cousin, whom Bringas referred to as his daughter. Bringas was “by the book,” as his husband put it, about complying with government demands. But at his December check-in, something went wrong, and Bringas was taken into custody.
After a frantic day and a half, with his husband and lawyers scrambling to learn why Bringas had been detained and a deportation order had been issued, the government, without permitting him to see his husband, talk to his asylum officer, or secure more HIV medication, and without even informing his lawyers, put him on a flight to McAllen, Texas, and then deported him at night to Reynosa, one of the most violent cities in Mexico. Terrified, holed up in a migrant shelter with a limited supply of his meds, he called his husband to tell him that he was in Mexico, the country where he suffered years of abuse and serial rape.
This wasn’t supposed to happen: Bringas had recently won a crucial decision in the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that ruled he was eligible to be granted asylum. He was deported, essentially, because of a clerical error and a lack of communication between the bureaucracies that decide the fate of hundreds of thousands of refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented immigrants every year.
The United States has a long history and ongoing practice of turning away asylum seekers or deporting them back to dangerous or deadly situations—most infamously, denying entrance to a boat with almost a thousand Jewish refugees in 1939; over a quarter of them were subsequently slaughtered in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. In more recent years, multiple reports and articles have come out describing how various DHS agencies fail to uphold, or even subvert, asylum law, unnecessarily detaining asylum seekers, sexually abusing them, or deporting them back to countries where they were persecuted. A woman seeking asylum in a San Diego detention center claimed to have suffered a miscarriage earlier this year after being mentally and physically abused by immigration authorities. The New Yorker recently tallied over 60 cases in which asylum seekers were sent back to their death. Other estimates put the number higher.
The majority of the known asylum seekers who are turned away are rejected at the border, or not given a chance to make their claim while in Border Patrol custody. The subversions of asylum law in the interior of the country, and inside of courtrooms, are less known. This American Life recently reported on a series of asylum cases in which absurd levels of governmental disorganization led to asylum seekers’ continued detention, exasperating them to such a degree that they ultimately gave up on their cases. Last year, a judge in Laredo, Texas, told a Mexican father of four, with no criminal record, who was appealing his case, “I get the gist,” and hastily deported him. With outlandish disparities in asylum-grant rates between judges or by geographic jurisdiction, the failure to communicate to asylum applicants about court dates or check-ins, and with ICE seemingly superseding immigration courts by harassing or detaining asylum seekers, those seeking refuge in the United States don’t fare much better even when they make it past the gauntlet of the physical border.