Asylum and helping the ‘Refugee on the Threshold’

By Effie Caldarola | OSV News

The courtrooms were small. The asylum-seekers, and those fighting deportation, were brought in through a side door, some hand-cuffed, all looking fearful and alone.

When I lived in Nebraska, I was part of a small, ragtag bunch who showed up for asylum hearings at Omaha’s immigration court. We were a relatively unorganized group — a Catholic sister, some immigration workers, a Unitarian Universalist pastor. Our presence was basically just that — a ministry of presence.

We are here, we communicated to the asylum-seeker as well as the judge, because we’re ordinary middle-class Nebraskans who care.

If I thought our presence gave the judges any pause in their life and death decision-making, a 2023 article in Nebraska’s Flatwater Free Press disabused me of that idea. Reporter Jeremy Turley explains how the toughest road to asylum in the nation runs through Omaha’s immigration courts. For a two-year period ending in October 2023, Omaha courts turned down 96% of requests for asylum, compared to 53% nationally.

It was with thoughts of asylum in mind that I read a new book by my friend, Timothy Leacock. In “Refugee on the Threshold,” Leacock tells of the long and harrowing journey of a Somalian man whose life was threatened by the terrorist group Al-Shabaab after he applied for a government job.

A group of Honduran migrants walk across a railroad trestle in Huimanguillo, Mexico, March 30, 2021, on their way to seek asylum in the United States. (OSV News photo/Carlos Jasso, Reuters)

Leacock’s book is based on voice recordings from all the participants, letters, emails and court documents. All the events are true, but he changed names to protect privacy. And although his tale takes place in the American Midwest, he located it in the fictional town of “Arabella, Iowa.”

“Ahmed,” our real-life asylum-seeker’s fictional name, was fortunate in that he’s intelligent, articulate, nice-looking and speaks English. But perhaps his greatest “luck,” or perhaps we should say gift, was meeting “Annie,” a volunteer who befriended him as part of her ministry of presence in an Arabella jail where he languished for over a year, alone and friendless.

You’ll sometimes hear people say that refugees should come here the “right” way. But to request asylum, you must be present in this country or present yourself at a port of entry. Ahmed’s family helped him escape Somalia and paid smugglers to get him half-way ’round the world. He did the “right” thing by presenting himself to authorities at the U.S. Southern border. But our overburdened and clumsy system sent Ahmed to a Midwestern jail with criminals, sometimes abusive guards, and strip searches.

Legally, an asylum-seeker must have a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Ahmed’s case persuaded an Arabella judge to grant him asylum, but cases are reviewed by the Department of Homeland Security, and several times a judge returned Ahmed’s case to the Arabella court, often with the same redundant questions. A lengthy legal ping-pong resulted.

During this time, Annie and her husband, Michael, stood by Ahmed, found him legal representation, introduced him to their faith community and, eventually, when the Arabella court released him from jail with an ankle monitor, welcomed him into their home and bought him clothes. It’s a story of sacrificial giving that literally saved a man’s life.

I won’t tell you the surprising end of Ahmed’s story. It’s a happy ending which will reunite him with his wife and children after years of exile, but not the ending you might expect.

Ahmed’s story is an indictment of a failed U.S. immigration system, overburdened by the world’s great need and the ineffectual response by Congress, which plays politics rather than works for bipartisan solutions.

Leacock’s book is available through all major book sellers.
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Effie Caldarola is a wife, mom and grandmother who received her master’s degree in pastoral studies from Seattle University.

Author: OSV News

OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics.

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