African immigrants in the United States are facing a number of challenges in attempting to get asylum. A recent reform bill that would have granted amnesty and residence permits to more than 12 million people who are in the U.S. illegally was voted down in Congress. Then several states vowed to crack down on what are often referred to as “illegal aliens.” In this first of a five part series, VOA English to Africa reporter Henok Fente looks into the lives of two African immigrants fighting for asylum in U.S. courts.
When Ivan was granted a student visa to come to the United States two years ago, he thought his troubles were over. In his words, “When I got a visa to come to the United States, I was so excited. Because I had been trying to leave the country for so long.
Ivan’s sister Crista came with him to study English as a second language at Howard University in Washington, D.C. They said they would never return to their native Burundi, and they filed for asylum shortly after arriving. Ivan says, “I actually came with the intention to apply for asylum. Getting a student visa was the only way to get out of the country.”
The U.S. census bureau puts the number of Africans living in the United States at close to 1.5 million. Each year, the number increases by more than a hundred thousand new immigrants.
Many African immigrants enter the United States legally through ports of entry with different kinds of visas. A few others make their way illegally crossing the border from Mexico or Canada.
Immigrants are required by law to attain legal status before they can earn a residence permit, commonly known as a green card. This allows them to stay in the United States, to work and go to school.
James Roberts is an immigration lawyer in the Washington, D.C. metro area. He defines a legal immigrant as: “somebody who is in the United States in a period of authorized stay given to certain people such as those who have applied for asylum and are waiting for a decision. A person can be illegal: for example, he or she entered the U.S. without inspection, or by fraud. It may also be considered illegal if he entered legally, but then has since over stayed his visa.”
Like Ivan, most African immigrants are legal immigrants. The perception of many Africans before coming to the United States is that the streets are paved with gold and the grass is always green. But in reality, the situation on the ground is harder than they expected.
Tonight Ivan is returning home after working 11 hours; he is not going to his second job. He describes his living quarters: “I live here with my sister. It is a two-bedroom apartment. We just moved here three weeks ago.”
The room was even hotter than the humid summer air outside. Ivan switches on the air conditioner. He keeps it off during the day while he and his sister are away to save on utility bills. In the middle of the living room a black leather couch faces a TV set that is placed on top of a broken chair. The rest of the room is empty.
Ivan works up to 16 hours a day without time off for weekends and vacation. He attends Montgomery College part time, studying business. He says the fact that his asylum case is dragging on in court has made his life difficult. “I work under the table. I basically am not supposed to work. But I have to pay the rent; I have to pay my school fees, which are very expensive since I am not eligible for financial aid. It is real tough, but it is something I have to do.”
Ivan and Crista sought asylum in the United States, saying their family had been persecuted in Burundi. They say their father and two siblings were brutally murdered by the current government in Burundi, led by the Front for the Defense of Democracy, “My family and myself had been persecuted by the FDD. It is hard to talk about it.”
But Ivan did talk about it in front of an immigration judge when he testified for his sister’s case.
“The judge motioned how honest my testimony sounded and granted asylum to my sister. For that my lawyer was very confident that next time we go there, they would grant the asylum to me.”
A month later, the same judge that granted Crista asylum denied Ivan’s request and asked for more proof. Ivan said “It was a little awkward because my sister and me have the same case. And the same proof we provided for my sister was the same proof we provided for myself. But this time they said they wanted more proofs.”
Ivan says he is disappointed with the absence of a systematic way in immigration courts. Immigration lawyer James Roberts agrees: “Is there a more systematic way that is more reliable in getting people their work permits? Certainly not that I am aware of. One of the biggest problems that I see and many of my colleagues see is the question of asylum applicants waiting a long time for their case and yet not working.
For now, Ivan works under the table until his case is decided. He says his meager hourly wage goes to daily expenses, with little left over for saving. The two young immigrants are also responsible for helping their siblings in Burundi.