Limbo

I was all set to write a nice account last week of how “Ben,” the African asylum seeker we’ve sponsored since late 2019, has come through the process. I hoped to report that he had been granted asylum. Instead, Ben is still in limbo.

There have been so many hurdles along the way. I won’t say what Ben went through that made him flee his country in the first place or what it took for him to escape and, over many months, make his way to the US border via Mexico, then across the border and into one of the ICE detention centers, where we first made contact with him, via proxies and by phone.

He was in detention for nearly six months. For some it is less, for many it is much longer. For us and for him it seemed interminable, especially as friends he made along the way were released, one by one, until he was the last imprisoned member of a cohort of about 20 from several African countries who were matched with sponsors in our state. The Trump administration was doing its best to stop immigration, one way or another, with a shifting panoply of rule changes and delays.

Ultimately we had to hire an attorney near the detention center and pay unusually high bond to pry him loose.

Then, the weekend after we met Ben at O’Hare airport and welcomed him to our home, the whole country shut down over Covid-19. An already reluctant bureaucracy stopped functioning altogether and Ben fell through cracks that set him back about a year. Social security number, driver’s license, temporary work permit—which he should have been able to obtain within several months–eluded him till mid 2021. By contrast, friends who had been released from detention just weeks before him were legally driving to legitimate jobs as essential workers by the second half of 2020.

But Ben got his social security number. Yay!

He got a job as a patient care assistant. Hooray!

He learned to drive, got his license, and bought a very old car. Woohoo!

And he was able to move out of our house just over a year ago. While we loved the company of Ben and two other asylum seekers during the pandemic, our house is now freed up for hosting frequent visitors.

The last major hurdles for Ben are the actual legal process for obtaining asylum. He is in the hands of pro bono lawyers in a large Chicago firm and the process is more complicated than I can begin to understand, requiring tons of documentation. It is also highly uncertain and subject to potentially enormous delays (often years), depending on whims of overworked judges and a generally overwhelmed system.

So we were delighted to learn that his attorneys were able to obtain a place in the docket for his merit hearing when another case that had been in that slot was delayed. The merit hearing is before an immigration judge and includes questioning by an attorney representing ICE. On the basis of this hearing the judge decides whether or not to grant asylum.

The date was last Wednesday, September 14. The week before, we took Ben to Chicago for a long, face-to-face consultation with his attorneys, whom he had only met by Zoom, to prepare for the hearing. And we took him to Immigration Court on the 14th.

Ben bought a suit for the occasion and was looking dapper. He was a little nervous. We all expected to hear his fate by the end of the day. Could he stay in the USA or would he be ordered back to his country?

He and his attorneys went before the judge only to learn that the ICE attorney had just filed a motion to continue (delay) the case because the government had not had time to prepare. The ICE attorney participated via a bad Zoom connection and I didn’t understand all the legalese but apparently the excuse was that Ben’s case had been misfiled and confused with the case that had previously been in that time slot.

The judge felt obliged to grant the continuance but promised that she would try to find another slot in her busy schedule as soon as possible. Maybe six weeks or so?

Meanwhile, Ben is still in limbo—neither illegal nor fully legal. Maybe it was a good dry run. Maybe the judge will remember him kindly. Maybe the government will get its act together next time. Maybe things will go his way.

And this is just one immigrant story among hundreds of thousands.

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