The El Paso Processing Center, informally known as the Camp, is a sprawling, walled-in compound of low-lying cinder-block buildings and trailers tucked between the landing strip at El Paso International Airport and the Lone Star Golf Club, a public course that sits just across the street. The Camp houses around 800 immigrants at any given time—some awaiting deportation, some awaiting their hearings or appeals. Some pass through for a day; others stay for years.
Wassim Isaac, a thirty-two-year-old Syrian with ginger hair and impeccable manners, had been at the Camp for a little over a year by the time we met, in December 2017—his asylum denied, his appeal wending its way through the system. Isaac, who asked that I not use his real name, told me he’d been the owner of a pharmacy back in Syria, describing himself as a college-educated, law-abiding churchgoer, details supported by a cache of notarized, translated, verified records. When Isaac first arrived at the Camp, he repeatedly asked himself how he had come to be incarcerated. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) designates the Camp as a “holding and processing facility,” but as far as Isaac could tell, it was a prison. “Like in the movies,” he said flatly.
He would be stuck in the facility, he posited, for who knew how long, having been refused asylum for reasons he couldn’t quite grasp. The judge had initially implied that Isaac, a Christian fleeing both militiamen and Islamic extremists, had a convincing case, but then, in an abrupt about-face, denied him. “Is it personal? No,” Isaac said, perplexed. “Related to the law? Political?” Eventually, he concluded that trying to make sense of his predicament was an exercise in futility. He decided instead to look at his captivity from the US government’s point of view. “In their opinion, I make a crime because I come here with no visa,” he told me. “I convince myself. I say, ‘Okay, I am illegal. I am illegal.’”
In fact, Isaac had not committed a crime. He had not slipped into the country outside a designated port of entry—a misdemeanor or, if done repeatedly, a felony. Instead, in the early afternoon of October 2, 2016, Isaac joined a throng of people in the pedestrian lane of the Paso del Norte Bridge, which divides Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez from El Paso, Texas. Below the bridge ran the physical border between the two nations: a trickle of the Rio Grande, no deeper than a puddle, clogged with trash. When he reached the front of the line, he used broken English to inform a border agent that he was a Syrian national in need of protection. In doing so, he had behaved in accordance with both international human-rights law and US immigration law. He had also crossed into the El Paso jurisdiction, which, though he didn’t know it at the time, was one of the worst places in America to seek asylum.
Immigration courts are administrative bodies, divided into regional districts that have developed starkly different patterns of adjudication. Between 2012 and 2017, for example, the New York City court approved close to 80 percent of applications for asylum, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, which analyzes government data on immigration. In Miami, the approval rate was 30 percent. In El Paso, judges approved asylum seekers at an average rate of just over 3 percent.
This gross imbalance was the focus of a 2007 study, Refugee Roulette: Disparities in Asylum Adjudication, which demonstrates, with disquieting statistics, how rulings vary across the US—not only among jurisdictions, but within them as well—even when controlling for multiple aspects. (In one courthouse, for example, one judge was 1,820 percent more likely to grant relief than his colleague.) But while these disparities point to a dysfunctional adjudication apparatus, a place like El Paso, where all the judges deny nearly all asylum cases, presents a uniquely troubling phenomenon. In a 2016 submission to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a small group of lawyers shed light on the development of jurisdictions where judges’ rulings are almost all rejections. They call these jurisdictions “asylum-free zones.” Since the hearing venue for an asylum case is most often the court located where the respondent lives or is being held, the authors of the submission suggest that the existence of these zones is tantamount to a sweeping denial of immigrants’ human rights, based on little more than an accident of geography.
Local immigration activists and lawyers contend that asylum seekers in El Paso face remarkably bleak circumstances, including limited access to legal help, a lack of translators for non-Spanish speakers, and inhumane conditions at Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and ICE holding facilities. Compounding this troubling pattern is the sheer volume of cases at hand: Between 2000 and 2018, El Paso had the third-highest number of detainees in immigration proceedings in the nation.
And yet, if he has successfully braved these challenges, the asylum seeker in El Paso—simply by virtue of being there—finds himself before a judge who will almost always deny him, trapped in a jurisdiction that systematically and consistently refuses relief, and has done so for years.
As Carlos Spector, an immigration lawyer who has practiced in the city for thirty years, put it: “As an asylum seeker, you descend into hell by coming here.”
At the Camp, the thermostat always hovers around 69 degrees. Speaking through a static-plagued phone on the other side of a thick pane of glass, Isaac recalled how, at the beginning of his internment, he felt perpetually cold, but that after six months or so he simply got used to it. Sitting in the concrete booth, he wore a frayed, ICE-issued jumpsuit but was immaculately groomed—his close-cropped hair combed and gelled, his beard trimmed—and unerringly pleasant, speaking in English that was once rudimentary but had become nearly fluent during his time in Texas.
Isaac shared a dorm with sixty other detainees. His bed was a lower bunk with a revolving cast in the upper bunk—sometimes a new person every few days, sometimes a man who came at 2 a.m. and left at 6 a.m., on the way to a plane or bus that would deport him. Initially, the prospect of strangers rotating in and out of his cell kept Isaac awake, but soon enough he barely stirred when a newcomer climbed past his head to the bunk above.
Isaac’s days took on a dreary rhythm: his shift in the laundry room at six, breakfast at seven, lunch at ten, dinner at five. The food was always the same, doled out in limited portions: oatmeal, eggs, mystery-meat macaroni, Jell-O, milk, ham sandwich, potato chips. Watermelon once a week. Burgers twice a month.
For the first few months, Isaac counted every minute, every hour, compulsively comparing the time: When he woke at 5 a.m. in America, it was 2 p.m. in Syria; when he ate at 10 a.m. in America, it was 7 p.m. in Syria. He called his brother in California every day, at 50 cents a minute, on a phone line contracted out to a private company that monitored communications. His brother dialed their parents, with Isaac on speaker. After a while, Isaac stopped calling much. His brother’s voice and his mother’s tears, he said, pulled him beyond the walls of the Camp. It wasn’t so bad inside, he explained, as long as he didn’t think about his family, his friends, his country, his career, the past, the future, food, drink, sports, music, movies, politics, books, newspapers, technology, cars, women, or freedom. “I try to adapt,” he told me. “I have my life here and I have to live. I can’t compare my life before and my life now.”
Isaac grew up thirty miles northwest of Homs, in Kafr Ram, a lush mountain hamlet nestled in “the valley of the Christians,” home to one of the world’s ancient populations. Before the civil war that broke out in 2011, Syrian Christians were an educated, elite minority. Isaac’s father, now retired, was once a history professor; his mother, an elementary-school principal. His three older siblings are all doctors. Isaac, the youngest, received a degree in pharmaceutical chemistry at a private university near Damascus. After graduation, he moved to Homs and opened his own pharmacy. “It looked like an easy life,” he said. “Quiet. Very beautiful.”
Isaac painted the pharmacy name in red and blue on the window. He imagined that he would own the business for the rest of his life, and endeavored to become a part of the community, administering vaccines free of charge to kids whose parents couldn’t afford to pay. He installed a flatscreen TV and played Arabic music videos, Formula One racing, and American basketball. The Los Angeles Lakers enjoy a loyal fan base in Syria; Isaac, however, is a die-hard devotee of the San Antonio Spurs, a team that he—despite holding nearly encyclopedic knowledge of its coaches and players—long believed represented “the American state of San Antonio.” He didn’t realize the team he’d been cheering on came from Texas, a place he knew of only from Spaghetti Westerns dubbed into Arabic, a place it never occurred to him that he would visit, much less spend hundreds of days in, locked up. It was indeed a stroke of extreme bad luck that Isaac stepped into Texas at all. But then again, the years that preceded his detention had changed his life in a way, he said, that was simply “impossible.”
In 2011, as the Arab Spring rippled across the Middle East, Homs came to be known as the “capital of the Syrian revolution,” a city where thousands of Sunni Muslims, the majority of the population, were pitted against Bashar al-Assad’s pro-government forces. An Islamic extremist element emerged within the initially anti-sectarian opposition, and jihadists soon took control of Isaac’s neighborhood. Men with similar leanings were suspected of kidnapping hundreds of Christians in a northeastern province, selling Christian girls into slavery, and disappearing clerics. Over the years, Christian villages were cleared, and churches and community centers obliterated.
Soon after the uprising began, Isaac sensed a shift in public sentiment toward Christians. For the first time—at the mall, or the supermarket—he could sense Muslims regarding him in a way that was “cold and disapproving.” Female friends and relatives were being urged to wear hijabs. A Muslim friend of many years told him that Syria was now a Muslim country and suggested he leave for Europe. By 2013, Isaac noticed “strange people with long beards standing on the street corner, watching.” These men, he came to understand, were members of the al-Nusra front, a former al-Qaeda affiliate that rivals the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in its desire to establish an Islamic caliphate by violence. In 2015, he said, these same men began to extort him, charging him a monthly levy to live in his own apartment. He paid, but they still broke into his home, beat him, and destroyed his belongings. Later, they fired on his car and apartment building, which was known to house Christians. During the attack, the men killed Isaac’s Christian neighbor, mutilating the body as the man’s wife and children were forced to watch. The wife used Isaac’s phone to call her relatives for help—there were no authorities to protect her.
“I had a major feeling I would be their next sacrifice,” Isaac would tell the judge during his asylum hearing.
- Too many Haitians, the agents told Isaac. Take a number and come back in two months.