Stateless Fear: An Asylum Story

Mounis Hammouda’s quest for asylum is a reminder that some border-crossing stories are more complex than others

I meet with Mounis Hammouda on a sweltering Wednesday outside of a café near the UA campus, terrible karaoke blazing from inside forces us to endure uncomfortable patio furniture and the near-constant beads of sweat that not even the most formidable of shirtsleeves can alleviate during Tucson Julys.

Hammouda is soft spoken, answering in English so quick and quiet that it is difficult to make out over the din of evening passersby and the screech of a halting streetcar. I push my recorder closer in the direction of his voice, wishing I had picked a less distracting meeting place.

Perhaps sensing my difficulties, or with the intent to make a greater point, Hammouda asks for my pen and notebook to write down the answer to my last question, namely if he had anything further to say about his journey here.

With a steady and practiced hand reciting each word aloud, he writes down his answer and pushes back the pad of paper.

"I want to life the American dream," it says in clear handwriting and almost perfect English.

Hammouda was recently released on bond from ICE detention in May after spending more than a year incarcerated in Florence, Arizona. Following an almost four-year odyssey from his home in Gaza, Hammouda reached the U.S.-Mexico border in Nogales and claimed asylum in November 2014.

But as a Palestinian, he is stateless according to the standards of the government to which he is appealing. With no repatriation agreement between the U.S. and Gaza, his status is as uncertain as his future. He is currently awaiting an upcoming trial that will determine whether his asylum plea will be granted, a process that can be wrought with many of its own anxieties.

According to the Department of Homeland Security's 2014 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 23,533 individuals were granted asylum in 2014. Claiming asylum, however, is not a guaranteed step towards relief, individuals must pass credible or reasonable fear interviews to establish whether they are in danger of persecution or torture should they be returned to their homeland.

If they pass, they usually face an extended period of time in detention before awaiting a final decision from an immigration judge. Many detainees don't even have access to counsel.

"Where I go?" Hammouda asks often over the course of our interview. For now at least, he is out of detention on bond raised by the community and support from Students for Justice in Palestine.

His stateless status makes his case unique, but his journey from studying law in Gaza to awaiting asylum status in Tucson follows a similar path to the thousands of individuals who seek asylum in the U.S. annually.

Finding a Future

"I leave from Palestine because I have problem," Hammouda said of his departure from the land of his birth. He began his journey West in 2011, after years of unrest in Gaza following the Hamas takeover in 2007. In 2008, Gaza was struck by a devastating three-week conflict, which left more than a thousand dead, and Gaza's infrastructure in ruins.

Hammouda, considering options for a better life outside of Gaza, left for Egypt in March 2011 by way of a six-hour bus ride to Cairo and obtained a visa to Turkey. He flew to Istanbul for one week before heading to Cyprus, and for the next three years, lived in a refugee camp with little hope for his future.

"I stay for three years, nothing. I try, try, try and don't get anything," Hammouda said of the poor economy and lack of options for work and education. "Then what can I do? I want to leave from Cyprus."

Hammouda paid a visit to the Cypriot asylum office to cancel his asylum request in hopes of securing better opportunities elsewhere.

"I tell him I want to leave from Cyprus, not because I don't like Cyprus," he said. "I want to leave from Cyprus because I want to see my life. I want to see my future."

Hammouda managed to secure a visa to Venezuela, a country that recognizes the State of Palestine and has maintained friendly relations since the '90s. Hammouda handed over 1,000 Euros to immigration and made his way to South America in March 2014. After a week of insecurity and lack of support from the United Nations in Venezuela, he moved on to Nicaragua where he stayed for six months.

Hammouda, once again keenly aware of the instability of his situation, lived with no permanent residence and no job in Nicaragua. He visited the United Nations multiple times for assistance and received little information. He travelled with fellow Palestinian Hisham Shaban, both men forced to rely on loans from friends to survive.

Towards the end of Hammouda's stay in Nicaragua, he and Shaban met a Cuban woman who would be the catalyst for their journey north.

"I talk with her, me and Hisham sometimes, and she say she want to come to United States," Hammouda said.

"We ask her 'How you want to go there? You have visa?'"

The two friends discovered she intended to pay a smuggler to get her to Nogales, and they agree to join her. The three each paid the man $1,000 and began the trek up through Honduras into Guatemala. After walking and swimming across the border in Guatemala, the men boarded a bus in Mexico, only to be singled out when immigration pulled them over for a search.

They were placed in detention in Chiapas, where Hammouda said conditions were tight and tense. He claimed a group of men set fire to a blanket one evening, filling the place with smoke. "The rooms are no clean," he said. "Dirty. And a lot of people inside." 

"I get sick when I was there," he said. "I stay there like 23 days, 24 days. Then immigration gives me residence 20 days, [I] leave from Mexico and [they] tell me, 'You can go to the United States.'"

Journey to Asylum

More than 20,000 immigrants are granted asylum every year in the U.S. A report from the U.S. Department of Justice Executive Office of Immigration Review clocks the number of applications received at over 40,000 for 2014. Within these numbers, there is a wide range of qualifications one must meet to navigate the asylum process, making the journey away from potentially dangerous homelands to safety in the U.S. complicated at best.

"I want to come here ... this my dream for me," Hammouda said. "But I want to select not this way ... This not good for me. It's hard." 

Once at the U.S.-Mexico border, Hammouda handed an officer his Palestinian passport and asked about claiming asylum, at which point he was taken into custody to await a credible fear interview, the meeting, which would determine whether his case for asylum would reach an immigration judge.

"I mean in some cases, they are interviewed right there at the border," said Maurice Goldman, local immigration attorney. "A lot depends on the resources that the government has at that time to conduct the interview."

The credible fear interview, as laid out in the Asylum Division Officer Training Course Lesson Plan for asylum officers, determines whether an individual has a "significant possibility" of winning an asylum case before a judge, but the standard has been raised in recent years.

In a 2014 memo issued by John Lafferty, chief of the Asylum Division at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Customs, Lafferty reinforces the "significant possibility" requirement in the Lesson Plan as specifically geared to those applicants who "demonstrate a substantial and realistic possibility of succeeding." The change reflects concerns that the current standard was lacking appropriate interpretation by requiring only "a minimal or mere possibility of success."

The interview, given defensively if the individual seeking asylum has been taken into custody and is in removal proceedings, determines whether there is credible fear of persecution or torture if that individual is returned to their country.

However, asylees that pass the interview must spend at least 180 days in detention without bond, unless they are eligible for parole. In fact, a judge has no jurisdiction to even hear a case for bond until the requisite six-month period is spent behind immigration bars. Part of the deal if you approach the border with an asylum request as an "arriving alien."

"You're talking about jail," Hammouda said, speaking of the conditions in detention. He was housed in a room of bunk beds with over 60 other detainees, and was allowed outside to the "garden" twice a day.

"It's one of those laws that are just inhumane in a way you look at it because you're taking people, many of them, with a fear of going back to their country and then imprisoning them," Goldman said of the requirement. "Which, you know, is highly, highly questionable of how you should treat a person, a stranger."

Hammouda's stint in detention, like many others,' presented a multitude of challenges, not the least of which is isolation, particularly from counsel.

"Mounis was not represented for a very, very, very long time," Zayed Al-Sayyed, Hammouda's attorney said. "He was in detention, nobody knew about him."

For those who come to this country without contacts, getting in touch with attorneys to represent them during asylum proceedings can be incredibly difficult. Al-Sayyed said that, within the U.S. criminal system, no matter your citizenship status, an attorney is a right granted by the constitution, but "that's not the case in immigration."

Organizations such as the Florence Project, the program that originally came to Hammouda's aid during his time in detention, are a huge help to detainees who need assistance in preparing pleadings and arguments on paper, but must fall short of actual representation in court on behalf of the individuals.

"I mean, it's hard. I can only take on, if I was going to do a pro bono case or a few, only a handful because of the travel and time away from the office," Goldman said.

"And so that can be one of the significant frustrations out there, is that there are not good services available for access to counsel outside of just individual attorneys willing to take on pro bono cases."

Hammouda was fortunate. Represented by two attorneys and with the support of community activism and donations, he was released on $9,000 bond after his requisite six months passed. His trial will take place before the end of this year, but his stateless status may still present additional challenges if his request is denied.

No Sense of Place

Shaban, Hammouda's fellow traveler to the U.S., is living in limbo. "He is not here lawfully, but he is," according to Al-Sayyed.

Because his attorneys were not on his case during his asylum proceedings, Shaban entered his asylum hearing without any representation, was denied and subsequently detained by ICE while they worked to find a country to which he could be deported.

In order for a deportation to occur, there must be a repatriation agreement between the country of return and the U.S. An immigration officer from one country must escort the deportee to their country of return and hand them off to the immigration authority there. In the case of Gaza and Palestine, the U.S. has no such agreement. The U.S. government does not even recognize Palestine as a country, let alone field immigration communication.

"So they tried having some sort of contact with Israel, they had contact with Israel, Israel said 'No he's not one of ours, we're not going to take him,'" Al-Sayyed, who currently represents Shaban, said. "They contacted Jordan. Jordan said, 'Nope. Not one of ours.' They contact Saudi Arabia, told them 'Nope. Not one of ours either.'"

Shaban's lawyers eventually sought relief in the form of release, which was granted by ICE who, according to Al-Sayyed, counldn't legally hold him indefinitely past the 180-day grace period given to coordinate deportation proceedings.

His release, however, leaves him stranded in new ways. Released under what's called "Order of Supervision," Shaban has little recourse for progress aside from a work permit and possibly a driver's license in some states.

"Unless he gets married," Al-Sayyed said, "he's not going to get any status in this country." He maintains it's a frustrating situation, but better than detention.

Hammouda faces similar consequences should his trial not go his way in the fall, but he has hope that with a positive outcome from the judge, he will find his way here. In the meantime, he gives back to his new community through work at Iskashitaa Refugee Network.

He has hopes for marriage, and to continue where he left off in his studies. He has a "target" he said, "step by step" he is "looking for his life."

"I think I have chance here. I hope so. Now I wait [for] my work permit. Then if I get, I can work," he said.

"I can start my life."