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Asylum-seeker in limbo

A 25-year-old Venezuelan hopes to find refuge in the United States, but tightening asylum rules have diminished his chances

Asylum-seeker in limbo

Migrants from Cuba, Venezuela, and Central America line up at the U.S. border in Ciudad Juárez to request U.S. political asylum. ( HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Much of the focus regarding the border crisis has been on the spike in numbers of families and children crossing the border unlawfully between ports of entry. I’ve heard countless people ask, “Why don’t they do things the right way and present themselves at the port of entry?” 

Well, here’s a story of someone who tried to do everything the “right” way, and it may end up costing him his asylum case and even endanger his life.

Jhonaikel Jose Vielma Belandria is a 25-year-old architecture college student from Venezuela. He tried to seek asylum in the United States through a port of entry between Tijuana and San Diego this past May, but an official gave him a number and told him to wait in Tijuana. His number: 2,813. 

Some context: It’s true that crossing the border between ports of entry without authorization is breaking a law—that law applies to everyone, including U.S. citizens. But it’s also true that there’s a special circumstance for asylum-seekers, who under U.S. law are allowed to request asylum “whether or not at a designated port of arrival … irrespective of such alien’s status.” So though irregular, what asylum-seekers are doing—turning themselves in to Border Patrol between ports of entry—is actually permissible within the U.S. Code. 

That said, not many people seem to realize why so many more people have been crossing the border unlawfully in the first place. They do so because the United States implemented something called the metering policy along the U.S.-Mexico border.

What this means is that U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP) agents now turn asylum-seekers away from ports of entry by limiting the number of people who can enter, sometimes allowing in only about half a dozen a day. As a result, thousands of people are stranded in Mexican border towns, waiting months for someone to call their number. (To get a better scope of what’s changing in our nation’s asylum system, read this timeline.)

That’s what happened to Jhonaikel. The young Venezuelan had expected to begin his asylum proceedings the very day he approached CBP agents at the port of entry. He had only 50 pesos ($2.62) in his pocket, and didn’t know anybody in Mexico. So when the official sent him away with a number scrawled onto a tiny piece of paper, he was shocked. He asked the official when they would call his number. The man told him more than 700 people were waiting in line before him. Wait three to four months, he said. 

“I almost passed out,” Jhonaikel recalled. “My legs began to shake. I lost all hope. I felt despondent, lost.” When I spoke to Jhonaikel last week, he had already been living in Tijuana for about six months. The officials called his number in August, but because of a newly enforced policy called “Migrant Protection Protocols” (aka “Remain in Mexico”), CBP sent Jhonaikel back to Tijuana after a credible fear interview with an asylum officer. His next court date was in late October.

Jhonaikel could have crossed the border like many other asylum-seekers. May 2019, the month he arrived in Tijuana, had the highest number of apprehensions at the southern border in years—border officials apprehended 144,116 people that month, compared with 109,415 the previous month or 51,862 in May 2018. In early summer, Border Patrol was turning asylum-seekers over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which would first keep them in detention and then, after a risk assessment, release them on parole or bond to a sponsor in the United States to await the remainder of their court proceedings. 

Instead, Jhonaikel stayed put in Tijuana and waited for his number to be called. “I thought there was an adequate process [for asylum],” he told me. “I was given a number, and I thought waiting in that process would allow me a better opportunity to voice my claims for asylum.” He also said he obeyed the process because he had “moral values” and “respect for the country’s laws.”

Photo/Emilio Espejel

Migrants in Tijuana wait to see if their number will be called to cross the border and apply for asylum in the United States. (Photo/Emilio Espejel)

Basically, Jhonaikel had faith in U.S. law and justice. In fact, that was a big reason why he chose to seek asylum in the United States—after fleeing political persecution in Venezuela, after seeing how corruption and dictatorship and socialism had destroyed his country, he had idealized the United States as a country of law and justice: “I knew at least in the U.S., they followed the law, that they protected human rights.” 

Ironically, that very faith and trust may have cost Jhonaikel his chance of winning U.S. asylum. On July 15, the Trump administration announced a new rule (dubbed “Asylum Ban 2.0”) saying it would turn away most people seeking asylum at the southern border who did not first request asylum in a designated “safe third country” at their first opportunity. So far, those so-called “safe third countries” include Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala—countries Jhonaikel crossed in order to reach the U.S. border. 

Had Jhonaikel crossed the border between ports of entry before July 15, he would have been exempt from this new rule. But because he stayed in Tijuana, waited his turn, and waited to apply for asylum when his number was called in August, it’s likely the judge will either deport Jhonaikel back to Venezuela or send him to Guatemala, where he could face a long detention in poor conditions.

What makes his story more frustrating is that Jhonaikel could have had a fair chance of winning asylum. He says he fled Venezuela because he joined a student protest advocating for democracy and civil rights and the government sent two hitmen after him. The hitmen kicked and bruised him, he says, and although he escaped, he feared next time he wouldn’t be so lucky. 

Since 2018, U.S. immigration courts no longer grant asylum to people fleeing “private violence” (such as gang violence or domestic abuse), the most common reason people give for fleeing Central America. But that’s not Jhonaikel’s story. If his story is true and he’s able to prove it, he meets one of the five protected grounds for asylum: He was persecuted by his government on account of his political opinion. Now, because of the Asylum Ban 2.0, it doesn’t even matter if he can prove his case.

In less than two weeks, while most of us are preparing for Thanksgiving week. Jhonaikel will face his final hearing before an immigration judge in San Diego. He’s one of the rare lucky ones who found legal representation through World Relief, but even his representative tells me Jhonaikel’s chances are slim. Together we looked up the judge’s record and found out he’s a former military prosecutor with an 89.6 percent denial rate in asylum cases, one of the highest among immigration judges. 

Today, Jhonaikel has lost faith in the U.S. asylum system. I don’t blame him. He tried to do everything “right,” but instead of being given a fair chance to prove his asylum case, he may be punished for following what authorities told him. It’s a punishment that comes at a cost, not just to him, but to us Americans who would be losing a tenacious dreamer with a strong sense of morality and civic duty—precisely the kind of immigrants who helped make America the great country it is.

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  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Tue, 11/19/2019 01:20 am

    The real question is "How many are you going to let in?"  Will you let in ten thousand, a million, 10 million, 100 million or a billion? The simple reality is that we cannot afford a large number of refugees.  We cannot let our emotions get in the way of common sense. Furthermore, there are those who are seeking to remove any borders which would allow in all kinds of corruption and injustice! The State has a responsibility to provide their citizens justice and allowing in just anybody is foolhardy and dangerous!  I hear that the DACA immigrants have a high percentage (80,000) of people with serious criminal records.