Editor's note: Some language in this story may not be appropriate for the faint of heart. Consider yourself warned.
After a months-long journey across the Atlantic Ocean, into Central America and through Mexico, Merlin arrived at the U.S. port of entry in Laredo full of hope. The 38-year-old who worked in hotel management said he fled violent political unrest in Cameroon to seek a new life in America, a country he viewed as a bastion of safety and freedom.
But after legally crossing the border and asking for asylum, Merlin was detained by federal officials for 11 months. He lived at the South Texas Detention Complex along with people who didn’t look like him or speak his native language, French.
Merlin, who asked to be identified only by his first name because he's fleeing political persecution, was frequently frustrated with how the reality of life as a refugee in America conflicts with the country's image as a haven for immigrants while he struggled through an asylum process experiencing fundamental shifts under the Trump administration.
This wasn’t the United States he thought would be welcoming him with open arms and opportunity. Some days, he questioned why he came.
“I was a bit disappointed for what we were thinking,” Merlin said last week. “In Africa, you thought [America] was paradise.”
As the Trump administration implemented its now-reversed “zero tolerance” immigration policy and narrowed previous paths to asylum , thousands of Mexican and Central American immigrants became the faces of chaotic changes that federal agencies made in how they treat people legally and illegally crossing the border.
But asylum seekers like Merlin who fled African countries have also been ensnared in the bureaucratic tumult. And those black African immigrants arriving in Texas are finding a litany of racial, cultural and practical challenges that can be different from — and overshadowed by — the experiences of Latino immigrants who flood into Texas each year, advocates and experts say.
“We become frustrated with the single story pushed out,” said Deborah Alemu of the UndocuBlack Network, an organization that advocates for black, undocumented immigrants.
The number of African immigrants in the U.S. has roughly doubled every decade since 1970, according to the Pew Research Center. The original plaintiffs at the heart of what is now a class-action lawsuit that the American Civil Liberties Union filed against Immigration and Customs Enforcement over federal officials separating families seeking asylum are from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Texas, the second-most populous state in the country, has more than 235,000 foreign-born African residents. That is more than any other state, according to 2016 U.S. Census data. But those immigrants represent only 5 percent of the state’s total foreign-born residents, thanks mainly to the large number of immigrant Texas residents born in Latin America.
Alemu said that historical racism and discrimination directed at black people in America can exacerbate the difficulties African immigrants already face for being an asylum seeker.
“You won’t be recognized as Ghanaian, Congolese or Jamaican,” Alemu said. “You’ll be recognized as black.”
A “resting place of hope”
Four houses sit in a cul-de-sac in East Austin, forming what is almost a small town. Children outside run from house to house. Doors slam as squeals of laughter and chatter fill the air. These homes belong to Posada Esperanza, which roughly translates to “resting place of hope,” a transitional housing program for immigrant mothers and their children who are escaping cultural or domestic violence. The organization provides immigrant women and their children with temporary housing and resources to find jobs and permanent homes.
Patti McCabe, the shelter’s director, said Posada’s population was once majority Latino residents. But now, nearly half of the women housed at Posada are from African countries. Most of them fled the Democratic Republic of Congo — a country dealing with violent fallout from the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which triggered a wave of weak governance, exposing Congolese civilians to sexual violence and rape, extreme poverty and human rights violations by rebel groups.
McCabe said Africans often travel as family units. But once they reach American soil seeking asylum, the husbands are detained and the women and children are often released while they wait for court dates. Posada receives many immigrant women who are pregnant or have given birth without their spouses by their side. One Congolese woman currently at Posada was within days of her due date this month while her husband remained detained at a facility in New Jersey.
“When you think of family separation, you think of children being separated from their parents — that’s what everyone has been talking about,” Posada case manager Laura Messenger said. “But what we’ve seen a lot this year and what we have been seeing for the past two is our women and children here being separated from their husbands and fathers who are still in detention.”
Posada’s staff teach women how to ride the city buses, find health clinics and research work and housing options during their stay. But the goal is to teach the women to financially sustain themselves and their children on their own — which can be incongruous to the traditional gender roles some of the women were taught. Yet for the women of Posada, being financially independent single mothers while their husbands are detained has been empowering, McCabe said.
“It would be they might have input, but the husband always makes the ultimate decision,” McCabe said. “But now, like it or not, they’re the ones who need to make the decisions.”
Still, basic activities like riding public transportation or going to the grocery store can be a difficult task for those who don’t speak Spanish and English — the two most predominant languages in Texas.
“I just can’t imagine how that must feel from their perspective — to not be able to communicate even simple things about what they need in the facilities, let alone their asylum claim and conveying that in an application that’s in English,” said Priscilla Olivarez, an attorney with American Gateways, an organization that has asylum-seeking clients from Africa.
Feds allege abuse of asylum system
In a meeting with lawmakers last year, President Donald Trump allegedly asked why immigrants from “shithole” countries were getting protections as part of a bipartisan immigration deal. Lawmakers said the comments were in reference to immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and Africa. Trump later denied the reports, saying it was “made up” by Democrats.
Then U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month issued a ruling that made it tougher for victims solely escaping domestic or gang violence to seek asylum in the U.S. — leading to more deportations before seekers have the opportunity to argue their cases in front of an immigration judge. Sessions had previously criticized what he called widespread abuse of the asylum system and said in October that the asylum process “has become an easy ticket to illegal entry into the United States.”
Olivarez, who sees many asylum claims from African immigrants based on religious reasons or gender-based violence, said she’s seen an increase in asylum denials after Sessions’ June ruling. Olivarez has also seen an uptick in cases where people are being required to pay a parole bond so they can be released while awaiting a final determination of their asylum request. And she’s noticed more parole bond requests denied, meaning asylum seekers are being detained as the process winds through federal courts.
“Before the administration change, we wouldn’t see that,” Olivarez said. “Generally we wouldn’t see parole bonds and they wouldn’t be as high as we’re seeing.”
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement reported that 35,070 bonds have been posted so far this year, compared to 48,199 for all of 2017 and 42,384 for all of 2016.
An ICE spokesman said there have been no changes to the bond policy and that “custody decisions are made on a case-by-case basis taking into account multiple factors, including immigration history, criminal history, medical history and ties to the community.”
Olivarez said her African clients have been “shocked” when they are detained after seeking asylum at the border — especially those who were imprisoned in their home countries for being political activists and must now deal with what she called the “retraumatization” of being detained.
“Many clients tell me they did not think they would be treated this way,” Olivarez said. “For many of them, America was a country that valued freedom, which is why they made the dangerous journey to come to the U.S. They believed the U.S. was the only country that would provide them with sufficient protection. However, when they arrive in the U.S., they feel as if they are treated as a criminal.”
From African jail to American detention
Merlin left Cameroon after violence erupted between the country’s French-speaking population, which dominates the government, and English-speaking separatists, who have reportedly been marginalized by the French-speaking majority.
Since 2016, scores of civilians on both sides have been killed, with the government accused of torturing suspected separatists and separatists accused of kidnapping and extorting civilians and state workers, according to Human Rights Watch.
Merlin, who grew up farming with his parents and is now a single dad, saw the country he loved rapidly change before his eyes. After being arrested with hundreds of others during a protest, Merlin’s mother begged him to go to America for his safety.
He was surprised that he was detained for so long, but he said he's grateful that it was only 11 months. He met other detainees who had been there for years.
“Why allow people in and detain them?” Merlin said.
Racism, discrimination linger beyond asylum process
Merlin was released in February and then stayed at Casa Marianella, another Austin-based immigrant adult shelter, where he connected with other French-speaking African immigrants. As he awaits a judge’s ruling on his asylum case, he is slowly adjusting to life in America.
He works at a downtown Austin hotel as a food runner and shares an apartment with two other Cameroonian immigrants. He hopes he’ll one day be reunited with his son and his mother, both of whom he left behind in his home country. But he’s glad to no longer be in detention — and away from the violence back home.
“When you get out of [detention], you put your hand on your chest and say, ‘thank God,’” Merlin said. “I’m more safe today.”
But even those black African immigrants who are allowed to stay while their asylum requests are processed — and those who successfully immigrate to the United States — face racial bias and discrimination both inside and outside the immigration enforcement system, according to a 2016 report by the NYU Immigrant Rights Clinic and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.
Black immigrants in the U.S. are more likely to be detained and deported for criminal convictions compared to the overall immigrant population. Alemu said the disproportionate representation of black immigrants among other immigrants facing deportation is an “exact mimic” of what’s happening to black people in the U.S. criminal justice system, where black people are more likely to be arrested, convicted and imprisoned.
“That’s part of the challenge moving to this country as a refugee and a black person,” said Alemu.
Chris Essig contributed to this report.