After aspiring entrepreneur Kamal Abdiqadir fled from al-Shabaab militants in his homeland of Somalia, he expected to find refuge and opportunity in the United States. Instead, he found himself in the shackles and baggy uniform of a prison-like detention centre, uncertain of how to convince a US immigration court judge of his innocence.
“I had no attorney. I had no clue,” Abdiqadir tells Equal Times after a judge denied his asylum request in December 2014. The 24-year-old later found an attorney to represent him and look for ways to re-open his case, but he could still be deported at any time.
According to a recent nationwide study of more than one million immigration court cases between 2007 and 2012, only 14 per cent of detainees like Abdiqadir had attorneys. Nearly half of those with representation got asylum and other relief, compared to only a quarter of those without, according to the study by the American Immigration Council.
Across the United States, activists and politicians fear the already unmet demand will grow under President Donald Trump, amidst his crackdown on immigration, and they are responding with cash.
A month after the Republican’s November election, despite his threat to crack down on so-called ‘sanctuary cities’, Chicago’s City Council voted to contribute US$1.3 million to help NGOs expand efforts to provide legal assistance to immigrants.
As Trump prepared to take office in Washington, the mayor there, Muriel Bowser, announced her municipal government would funnel US$500,000 to community organisations and others that help immigrants in court.
In San Francisco, a two-year, US$10 million immigrant services budget outlined in May included more legal support.
The recently approved New York state budget for next year included a grant of US$4 million to expand a pioneering three-year-old project to provide public defenders for immigrants facing deportation.
In December, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced a fund drawing on US$5 million from the government and another US$5 million from private foundations that would help provide representation for immigrants facing deportation.
That move came two years after Abdiqadir faced an immigration judge alone in a Los Angeles courtroom.
Abdiqadir’s journey could be said to have begun in the years after the 1991 collapse of a military regime in Somalia. Abdiqadir was six years old in 1998 when he, his parents and three siblings fled to Ethiopia. His parents died of illness soon after they left. Their children were raised by a grandmother, an uncle and an aunt.
Abdiqadir remembers Somalis in Ethiopia brought with them the violent rivalries of their homeland. He left Ethiopia as a teen and earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration in Uganda. Then he was approached by members of the Somali extremist group al-Shabaab, linked to al-Qaida and to attacks across East Africa. Abdiqadir rebuffed al-Shabaab’s attempts to recruit him and feared the group would keep trying – or kill him.
“That’s when I decided to move out of Africa,” he says. His goal was the United States, which he still sees as “the only country where everything is possible.” He started in Cuba because it granted him a visa. After reaching the Caribbean in 2014 he turned to human smugglers to take him to Mexico. He crossed into the United States on 14 October 2014 and asked for asylum at the border.
“I told them I was here for freedom,” he says.
Abdiqadir was taken to a detention centre. By December of 2014 he had had two hearings and been denied asylum. He lost an appeal. Since then, released on what is called an order of supervision and given permission to work, he has been reporting regularly to immigration authorities.
He also has been pursuing his dream. Abdiqadir worked in the human resources department of a national retail company before starting his own business providing tutoring for young Somali-Americans in Minnesota where he has settled amongst the large Somali community in metropolitan Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Robin Chandler Carr, an immigration attorney who began reviewing Abdiqadir’s case at his request this year, tells Equal Times that he had a strong case for asylum based on his fear of al-Shabaab. Abdiqadir may not have understood that government lawyers were attacking his credibility when they showed he had identification documents from Uganda and Ethiopia as well as Somalia.
An experienced attorney could have countered with rulings in other cases showing eligibility for asylum should not be affected if false documents were used to flee persecution, says Chandler Carr. She adds that along with the hurdle of making his case without a lawyer, Abdiqadir appeared before a judge known to be tough. The Board of Immigration Appeals also often says no, she adds.
Chandler Carr has represented many Somalis since she started practicing immigration law in 2000. While Abdiqadir wants to keep trying to remain in the United States, she has had several clients whose cases were pending leave for Canada, where asylum-seekers can get assistance from the same government-funded Legal Aid Program to which impoverished criminal defendants turn.
“I certainly understand why they left [the United States],” she says. “I’ve never seen anything like what’s going on now.”
In May, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement department told reporters that because of more vigorous activity by its agents, arrests since shortly before Trump took office in late January through April were a third higher than in the same period the previous year: 41,300 compared with 30,000.
As under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, who had focused on serious criminals, most of those arrested had convictions. But 10,800, more than 25 per cent, did not, compared to 4,200, or 14 per cent, who did not in the previous year.
In January, Trump issued a temporary travel ban on citizens from seven predominately Muslim countries, arguing a pause was necessary to ensure immigration rules were sufficient to keep terrorists out. The order was amended and narrowed to six countries, including Abdiqadir’s Somalia, in March after it met legal challenges. Both the original and the March order also suspended the US refugee resettlement program and reduced the number of refugees America would welcome.
After lower courts sided with groups that had challenged the ban as unconstitutionally religiously motivated, on 26 June the US Supreme Court agreed to review the case. Hearings are expected soon after the next court session begins in October.
In the meantime, the Supreme Court is allowing the Trump administration to proceed with barring any immigrants from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen who do not have a “bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.”
Avideh Moussavian, a senior policy attorney with National Immigration Law Center advocacy group, noted that the Trump administration has indicated it wants to hire hundreds more immigration agents.
“Many more people are going to be navigating our immigration system without support,” Moussavian tells Equal Times.
“What gets lost in a lot of the hardline talk…is that enforcing the law isn’t just about targeting people. It’s also about making sure the law is followed and that we also ensure that we’re not depriving someone of the chance to make a valid claim.”
Los Angeles and other jurisdictions that have moved to expand representation for immigrants are led by Democrats. But the non-partisan American Immigration Council notes benefits to representation that could appeal to fiscally conservative Republicans.
The federal government allocated US$2 billion to detain immigrants in fiscal year 2016, researchers said, but “a government-funded public defender system for immigrants could potentially pay for itself by helping to reduce court and detention costs.”
The council’s researchers found that detained immigrants with attorneys were more likely to be freed pending the resolution, and they did appear at subsequent hearings in their cases.
The US Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees US immigration courts, “has long recognised that representation increases efficiencies in immigration court proceedings,” spokeswoman Kathryn Mattingly tells Equal Times.
EOIR judges tell immigrants they have the right to seek counsel and arrange for them to be provided lists of lawyers who will work for free or at little cost. The EOIR also has contracts with outside providers to give immigrants in some areas an understanding of their rights and of the process they face.
The National Immigration Law Center’s Moussavian says it’s not uncommon for people to believe, as Abdiqadir did, that all they need to do is tell a judge their story.
“That speaks to how much faith a lot of people around the world have in the United States as a beacon of hope,” she says. “But the painful reality is that hope is being tested.”