His name is Enrique. On this morning, one could envision his senses heightened as he walked briskly down a crumbling alleyway on the streets of Little Havana in Miami. Perhaps he could hear the coconut palms rustling in southeast wind, or feel the sun washing the lavender and red and yellow houses as he thought of the beatings and abuse he'd somehow survived in his home country.
|Wins for asylum in Miami require long waiting periods and an understanding of complex immigration laws. The backlogged court system in Miami has reportedly led to hearing dates extending to the year 2020.|
Life can change. On this day, his freedom would come with asylum to the U.S. and a card that would enable him to work.
"It was like absolutely the biggest gift in the world had just been given to him," said Rev. Janet Horman, a recently appointed Church and Community Worker (CCW) missionary with the General Board of Global Ministries and director of Florida Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON). "He finally has a taste of what it's like to be free from fear. It's a priceless gift."
For Miami, one of a handful of U.S. cities called home to more than one million foreign-born residents, there is seldom a sunlit morning carrying a win for asylum. Many immigrants are from Haiti and countries in Central America: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. These are countries with some of the highest murder rates in the world.
In a Time.com report from August 2016, an image appears of a masked soldier wielding an AK-47. It is said to represent a graphic symbol of war on the country’s streets with a gang called Mara Salvatrucha.
High priced coyotes (smugglers) make themselves known to those trying to escape such worlds; the journey to U.S. borders is often dangerous and filled with risk.
"In their minds, it's their only opportunity for life,” Horman said.
She recalls her clients’ stories of places where there are rapes, domestic abuse and police states that are corrupt. Getting out takes more than prayer.
“They can’t really trust the police in a country when they are infiltrated by gangs,” Horman said. “They’re very fearful of sharing their stories.”
But for those fortunate to arrive on U.S. soil, the struggle is just beginning.
Horman shares the duties of being an ordained reverend with offering pro bono legal advice to immigrant populations who line up in the hot, Florida sun at monthly clinics held near Homestead. Folding metal chairs, long tables and linoleum floors bring stark contrast to office suites of high-priced attorneys on Biscayne Boulevard.
But these are people who simply need help.
The Immigration courts in Miami, and elsewhere, are filled beyond capacity. Many are forced to wait for a process that can take five to six years for their fate to be determined, Horman said.
There are no guarantees.
"I feel like waiting for this long ruined my life," said one man in a Human Rights First report of April 2016. "I ran from the rain and fell into the sea."
USA Today reported in April that the backlog in Miami for cases involving immigration was 23,045. Scheduled hearing dates were said to have already reached into the year 2020. Many forced to play this waiting game have families living in danger amid civil wars and what Horman described as “unimaginable conditions.” They can't work or legally drive or get an education.
"It's very hard to get a court hearing moved forward," Horman said.
In the courtroom, she describes a process that begins with accountability and the rules asylum applicants must adhere to if they are willing to work through the lengthy process of interviews, reams of paperwork and crowded dockets.
"Being afraid is not enough," she said. Credibility interviews are staged, especially for those crossing border patrols. Horman helps her clients establish a "well-founded fear of future persecution" and to secure the kind of evidence most judges look for in a court of law.
“The tough part is, there’s a whole big group where the person leaves the country and getting evidence is almost impossible,” she observed. “So a lot of these people get their cases turned down, and that’s a very sad situation.”
|Marches for immigration continue nationwide with a new upheaval for rights to freedom and equality. Janet Horman, director of Florida JFON, stated that those who are able to come here from other countries are "forever grateful."|
Still, Horman sees hope.
She looks to the Enriques of this world who came to breathe the air of freedom for the first time. She describes the "wonder and awe" in the young man's eyes, now 18, after he endured so much.
"When you realize what the process can do for somebody, it makes it manageable," she said. “Because you know that's what's going to make a difference in someone's life. Those are the times I'm very proud of my country for having those avenues."
She still worries about families and children already in our country who are afraid—parents trying to gain legal status only to face the genuine possibility of driving without a license and being stopped by police and not coming home at night.
Again, Horman tries to see sunlight filtering into a darkened alley, shadows filling with light.
She described a young student, raped as a child who fled to the U.S. with her mother, and the school grades she now achieves in a Miami school. She looked to the future and thought about the chance this child may have to contribute to society one day.
"There are horrific conditions in other countries," she reflected. “But for those who come here, they are forever grateful.
"They don't take it for granted. They end up becoming some of the most dedicated and, always have been over the course of our nation's history, proud citizens that we have because they know the difference. My kids may never know the difference," she said.
“We still have a long way to go to make it equitable, but there are some really good things that we can be proud of.”
She reflected about a member of her church who came from Cuba by boat when she was 12. The boat capsized, and the young girl was said to have prayed for the first time. She had nearly drowned. "I get upset with some of the rules in my country, but by gosh, for this young woman, this was her gift to come.
"I just think we need to remember these newcomers, how it (coming to the U.S.) can save their lives, but (also) how it enhances ours. We need them more than we know."
--Doug Long is managing editor for the Florida Conference.
Editor’s Note: JFON clinics are now being held monthly in South Florida and at College Heights UMC in Lakeland. The clinics offer free legal advice for those dealing with immigration issues and rights. The number to call for an appointment: (786) 470-0302.