Faces and Voices – In New Mexico

Faces and Voices – In New Mexico

Several hundred Eritreans seek asylum in the United States every year, many or most of them upon presenting themselves to U.S. immigration authorities at the Mexican border. In recent years, most of those have prevailed in their asylum claims; but some have lost their cases and have been slated for removal (deportation). As a practical matter, they have commonly been denied asylum because they lacked legal representation during their asylum hearings and/or because their cases were heard by immigration judges generally indisposed to granting asylum to anyone.

But losing an asylum claim has usually not led to removal. For years, the U.S. removed almost no Eritreans to Eritrea – including those who had failed their asylum claims – and most were conditionally released from detention. The dearth of removals appeared to flow from the high probability that the asylum seekers would be abused or killed if they were returned to their country – and because the Eritrean regime, not wanting to take them back, declined to issue travel documents for them anyway. But in September 2017, the Department of Homeland Security announced its desire to remove some 700 Eritreans, and it began detaining them for that purpose while pressuring the Eritrean regime to receive them.

The America Team and other NGOs objected, noting that no other democracy was known to be forcibly returning Eritreans to Eritrea at that time. Since then, and as of the time of this posting (March 2019), we have become aware of only one Eritrean – a man with no criminal record but whose asylum claim had been denied — whom the U.S. actually undertook to remove to Eritrea, in June 2018; and the U.S. reported that he died by suicide en route to his destination. We assume that he feared a fate worse than death upon arriving in Eritrea.

Asylum denials, detentions and threats of removal, however, have continued. Quantitative data is difficult to gather: the number of Eritrean asylum claims won and lost each year, the number of presently detained Eritreans, the number of actual removals, and so forth. But The America Team believes, based on the many inquiries we have received from those in detention over the years, that at least scores have been detained at any given time, that asylum denial rates have increased substantially, and that many have been in detention pending removal for lengthy periods.

In February 2019, members of The America Team visited a facility in New Mexico where a number of Eritreans were detained pending removal. The detention facility appears in the photograph above. Interviews with four of the Eritrean detainees confirmed that all had fled the country to avoid or escape the brutal, indefinite, mandatory national military service there; that the U.S. immigration judges who had heard their asylum cases had appeared to lack an interest in and understanding of the abominable human rights conditions in Eritrea and within its national military service; and that all desperately feared that they would be tortured or killed if removed to Eritrea for having avoided the national service, fled the country, and sought asylum in the U.S.

Out of respect for the detainees’ privacy and safety, we are not recounting their particular histories. But we can state that at the time of this posting we were gravely concerned for their well-being.