Editor's note: Six weeks ago, we told you the story of Ahmed Fadija, a 26-year-old refugee from the Ivory Coast who had spent months in detention in the United States after arriving in the United States with a false passport. This week Ahmed got his hearing before a U.S. immigration judge.
ELIZABETH, N.J. — After seven months of detention in this country, Ahmed Fadija*, a 26-year-old refugee from the Ivory Coast, finally got his day in court on Wednesday to explain through a French translator why his life depended on an immigration judge’s granting him political asylum to remain in this country.
After about an hour of his testimony, U.S. Immigration Judge Margaret Reichenberg, who sat under the seal of the Department of Justice in a small, blue-carpeted courtroom at the Elizabeth Detention Center, said she was “completely persuaded” of Fadija’s eligibility for asylum.
The judge said that based on Fadija’s testimony, in conjunction with a written affidavit and evidence presented by his pro-bono attorney, Shawn Friedman, she found his testimony completely consistent and found him to be a “credible witness” who was worthy of asylum in the United States.
Reichenberg said that it was regrettable that Fadija had to spend such a long time in detention, but that it was part of how the American asylum process worked.
She said that if he hadn’t spent that time in detention, things might not have worked out as well as they did — saying that perhaps he wouldn’t have found such able legal representation, such a dispassionate government attorney who acknowledged the merits of his case, or a fair judge like herself.
Eleanor Acer, director of the Asylum Program at Human Rights First, an advocacy group that provides pro-bono legal representation to refugees and helped match Fadija with his lawyer, disagreed.
“This case could have been handled in a very different way,” said Acer. “A refugee who comes here seeking asylum does not need to be held in a jail-like facility for seven months. There are much more humane ways to treat someone in that situation.”
“Truly, it’s beautiful, it's beautiful outside here,” said Fadija regarding his new-found freedom and release from detention during a phone interview on Thursday from Christ House, a shelter where he went upon his release.
Fadija laughed happily about shedding the blue-on-blue prison-like uniform of the Elizabeth Detention Center, despite the fact that he has nothing to wear because of the circumstances under which he came to this country.
He said he fled to the United States with a false passport as a last resort after repeated threats to his life by government militiamen in the Ivory Coast because of his membership in the main opposition political party there — the Rally of the Republicans, commonly known as the RDR.
During Fadija’s testimony in his immigration hearing, he described how he was chased down, brutally beaten and imprisoned in October 2000 because of his participation in a peaceful political rally in the commercial center of Abidjan following flawed elections.
He explained how he narrowly escaped death and was released by the government militia with no apparent explanation, except for the coincidence that the international media had discovered a mass grave of 57 bodies — all of whom were also members of the political opposition — at about the same time.
Fadija described how his mother had been killed by militiamen, corroborating medical evidence submitted by his lawyer, and was in the midst of describing another narrow escape in 2004 that led to his journey to the United States when the judge cut him off, saying that he had “demonstrated his credibility,” and granted him asylum.
Tough place to arrive
Fadija was lucky to have gained asylum, particularly given the release rates for the two states where he was detained.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent, bipartisan government agency, released a congressionally authorized report on asylum seekers in expedited removal in February of this year.
According to the report, release rates among asylum seekers across the country vary widely, but parole rates can be as low as 8 percent in New York, where Fadija was held for five months, and are even lower in New Jersey, where he spent the last two months of his detention, which has a 3.8 percent release rate.
Acer, from Human Rights First, believes that there are “more humane” alternatives to detention that the government should use.
Advocate: Jail-like detention not necessary
“Right now, the Department of Homeland Security holds asylum seekers in jails or jail-like facilities, instead of releasing them to alternatives to detention, or when detention is necessary, holding them in facilities that are not so prison-like,” said Acer.
She believes that there are alternatives that provide security if detention is necessary, but that do not require detainees to wear prison uniforms or otherwise be treated like criminals and provide access to the outdoors.
For Fadija’s part, he said he understands why detention is necessary to ensure the security of the country. But he said that “being in detention, and being denied your freedom, is always difficult.”
“In the end, if it is possible to reduce the amount of time in detention, that would be a good thing,” he said.
Fadija was also very fortunate in having legal representation.
The USCIRF report found that those asylum seekers who did not have an attorney had a much lower chance of being granted asylum than those who did. The study found that 25 percent of asylum seekers represented by attorneys were granted asylum by immigration judges, compared with only 2 percent who were not represented by legal counsel.
The report on asylum seekers also noted that despite the low approval ratings in New York and New Jersey, gaining entry to the United States near a large metropolitan area does have the advantage of greater access to legal representation.
“He was very lucky to get matched up with a great lawyer from an excellent law firm,” said Acer. “But there is a real dearth of representation in asylum and immigration cases. That’s because the government does not provide representation in this area, and there is very limited private funding available. Many people go unrepresented, and it’s tragic.”
Friedman, Fadija’s pro-bono lawyer, said he was just glad that after such a long process, everything worked out. He pointed out that they were very lucky that Fadija was able to produce the documentation necessary to substantiate his claims in terms of his identity, his political activity and other elemental claims.
“Ahmed came over here, and he had nothing. He fortunately had his fiancée in the Ivory Coast who was able to make contact with people, and through her, he was able to obtain a lot of the documents that never would have materialized,” explained Friedman. Without that documentation, there would have been no way to prove his case.
“I was obviously very happy and relieved that he was able to get his day in court and get the result that we were all hoping for so long,” said Friedman.
The Department of Homeland Security had no further comment on the case. "The immigration judge has made a decision in this case, and the individual has been released from custody," said Michael Gilhooly, spokesman for Immigration Customs Enforcement.
For the moment, Fadija is just happy to be out of detention and is hoping that his integration into American culture will be easy. His No. 1 priority at the moment is to start learning English — he says he wants to be able to read and write it well. He hopes to continue his studies and to get a job as soon as possible, saying, “Right now, I have to rely on others for help, and that’s not good.”
At the close of the immigration hearing, he thanked the immigration judge and said that even though his mother was not here, he knew she would thank her from the bottom of her heart.
Now he will begin acclimating himself to American culture, but for starters, he’s just trying to make it through the heat wave currently gripping New York City, noting that it is “very, very hot — even hotter than Africa.”