A pregnant woman, separated from her husband in a time of regional conflict and instability, flees the central region of her country with a single suitcase and her 2 year old daughter and 1 year old son. The goal is to travel by train to the closest major southern land border in the hopes of reuniting soon with her husband who is fighting far away from home. Every day, people gather around the border crossing waiting for the gates to open and the glimmer of opportunity to cross into another sovereign land. If you miss the timing and fail to cross, the consequences may be worse than death. With her suitcase in one hand and her 1 year old son holding her other, her two year old daughter grabs onto her mother’s dress as the crowd pushes forward trying to get through. Immovable by the throngs of bodies pushing, the pregnant woman lets the crowd sway her and her children through to the protection promised by the neighboring country.
Once on the other side, she reevaluates her surroundings acknowledging the luggage in one hand, her son in the other and only then is aware that her daughter no longer clings to her dress. She screams amongst the shouting crowd, “Where is my daughter? Where is she?” On the other side of the crossing is the two year old daughter with her eyes only able to see the back of people’s legs unaware of where her family went. With a quick motion, she finds herself atop the shoulders of a man she does not know, a man wearing a business suit walking past the crossing. Disoriented, she is still unaware of where she is or how she lost her mother and brother. This little girl cannot tell time and does not know how long it took before she could her hear her mother’s cries and reunited with her. Without even realizing, this little girl is forever labeled by her mother as “lucky” in their native language. And the identity of the nice gentleman in the business suit is never discovered.
The tale told is not a unique story. Although it happened in 1949, it continues to be a story relatable in our present day. As a young child, I remember my grandmother recounting the horrors of a civil war that destroyed her comfortable life. I never understood what my grandmother meant when she said repeatedly that my mother was so very “lucky.” She rarely talked about everything that happened during that time that pitted Chinese against Chinese. I would only hear snippets growing up. But as I got older, I heard more from other family members, even as my mother told me she had a difficult time remembering much of anything during her younger years in Hong Kong.
When she passed away unexpectedly in 2011, I was in charge of taking care of all the family matters with her death. I vividly recall going through her unorganized stacks of important papers kept all over the house and finding a photocopy of a document titled “Refugee Resettlement Land Allocation” something or another. And in this document was a blurry photo of my mother and her family; her as a preteen and my youngest auntie in my grandmother’s arms.
My mother and her side of the family never lamented how they lost everything in the fighting. Instead, they talked about how grateful they were to be alive and the chances they took to ensure the family’s survival. Despite living in a shanty on a hill in Hong Kong, they were grateful for the British Colonial government’s generosity in allowing them to have a place to call their own, to be safe from harm.
I have spent almost 7 of my 8 years of practice as an immigration attorney hearing stories no different from my family’s own history. What my clients seek under the U.S. asylum law is no different than what my family sought when they asked for refuge in Hong Kong. My clients just want to be able to live their lives in safety, to give their children of the opportunities they didn’t have, to move on from a limbo state of violence and begin anew.
But things have gotten much harder. For instance, in 2008, my asylum clients could reasonably expect to have an interview and receive a decision within 4 months. Now, a current client finds themselves in a U.S. asylum system where the wait may be well over two years just for an interview to present their case before an asylum officer. In the meantime, they are ineligible to apply for work authorization until their case has been pending 150 days. And even once that deadline has passed, many face further delays and cryptic reasons for the inability of the U.S. immigration service to process their request.
In my practice, I find myself telling clients that they may wait years before an interview is scheduled. I find myself having to give them cold hard numbers to understand the uphill journey they will set themselves on if they decide to apply for asylum. I tell them that in our jurisdiction, the asylum office has over 10,000 backlogged cases waiting for an interview. I tell them that an average 900 new cases are submitted monthly with only 300-600 cases interviewed that same month.
During this time, they find themselves physically safe but still in a state of panic thinking of their families that stayed behind. The only way for them to bring their children or spouses away from the dangers in their country is for them to win their case. Unlike what my mother and her family went through, my clients find themselves living in limbo never knowing how long or when they may be able to tell their stories. They spend each day wondering when and if they can ever reunite with their family members in safety.
How did my family story end up? Well, at the age of 17, my mother was recruited to train as a nurse in England. She eventually immigrated to the United States in the late 1960’s and brought my grandmother, two aunts and two uncles to the U.S. My mother’s family was small. They only had each other. If my mother tried to bring over her family in the present day, it would most likely only be my grandmother that would be allowed to immigrate. The decades long wait times for brothers and sisters would eliminate any possibility of a timely reunification. What would be lost would be an entire generation of people. Every child from my mother and her siblings (we were all born in the U.S.) went on to graduate from colleges such as Notre Dame, University of Chicago, Vanderbilt, University of Southern California and University of Texas. This is what the U.S. loses out on when delays in adjudications go on for years.
As the immigration debate intensifies into politics, what often gets forgotten are the individuals, the living beings, affected by the current broken system. As rhetoric takes aim at increasing funding for enforcement and a growing police state near the borders, people lose sight of the lack of resources and funding needed to help people who are waiting in limbo.
Politics has gotten in the way of what truly matters in this debate: fixing the laws to reduce wait times, reinforcing existing infrastructure to allow the immigration agency and its employees to adjudicate cases, giving people the opportunity to have their cases heard and allowing people to begin their lives. Immigration is about people, not politics, and President Obama should do all he can to make our system work.
Written by Tammy Lin, AILA Media Advocacy Committee Member