One year ago, Ella, a 23-year-old Ugandan woman who is in a long-term relationship with her girlfriend stayed in a hotel room in her village together. On that night, people came into their room “enraged,” “tied us up and made us march on streets as they beat us,” she recently said.
Their crime: being lesbians in Uganda, a country where homosexuality is illegal and punishable by life imprisonment. The pair almost died before the police intervened and arrested them on indecency charges. But the police also beat them.
Upon their release from police custody, the pair moved to another city. There, a man raped Ella, a horrific incident allegedly ordered by her parents to make her pregnant and “get normal,” or stop being a lesbian. When she went to the police, she was again arrested and accused of “recruiting fellow girls into homosexuality,” she wrote in the blog Patriot Not Partisan in a story verified by her lawyer, Hassan Ahmad. She was later released on bond and decided to leave Uganda.
Ella was approved for a student visa in the United States and arrived at Virginia’s Dulles International Airport on August 24, 2017. That was when a separate nightmare began. She was interrogated for hours over her student visa because an officer had found a separate ticket for a flight to Seattle, according to The Daily Beast. She had wanted to defer her enrollment for a semester, The Intercept reported, and request asylum instead.
But Ella was scared, traumatized, and couldn’t speak of the horrors that had happened to her. The officer also would not allow her access to her phone. Because she was terrified, Ella said she went along with a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent and told them that she was not scared to go back to Uganda.
“Nothing was running through my mind but the raping, the beating, and being close to burnt to ashes,” she said. “I really did not know what to do or say. She had taken my phone and restricted me from communicating. I had nowhere to turn.”
“I tried explaining, but I wouldn’t let her know my issues back in Uganda,” she told The Daily Beast. “I had never opened up to any officer or any other person on the experience I had in Uganda. I felt I couldn’t open up to anyone. I wanted to talk to her, but I felt I couldn’t.”
Ella further explained in her blog post that she was afraid of telling U.S. immigration officers about being a lesbian because of the Trump administration, saying, “[w]e thought the new president does not like gay people, and if I told the officer I was gay, she would deport me on the spot.” (Although President Donald Trump has a mixed record on LGBTQ rights, he announced he would ban transgender people from serving in the military just weeks before Ella’s interview with the CBP agent.)
At the same time that the CBP agent claimed Ella had lied to get her student visa, Ahmad faxed a letter to airport authorities saying that he had been retained to represent her. He told the CBP agency that she was traumatized, that she could be killed if she went back to Uganda, where homosexuality is a crime, and that she should be allowed to seek political asylum.
Ahmad also asked for Ella to be referred for a credible fear interview, the first step in the asylum process to determine whether an individual could face persecution, danger, or death if they are returned to their home country. Alternatively, Ahmad asked to talk to her. Both requests went unmet by CBP agents, Ahmad told ThinkProgress on Monday. Ahmad is also a board member of the Dulles Justice Coalition, a group of lawyers who have been representing clients after President Donald Trump signed off on an executive order restricting travel from Muslim-majority countries.
“Your request has been received, reviewed, and we’re not going to be able to honor it,” the Dulles CBP supervisor, Chief Sandra DeBevoise told Ahmad.
“When asked by Customs and Border Protection officers, this traveler declined the opportunity to apply for political asylum, and denied any fear of returning to her home country,” a CBP spokesperson told The Daily Beast, claiming that Ella had told the officer at the airport that she did not come to the United States as a student.
“In the end, she was denied entry and she got on her knees to beg the officer to at least give her a phone call to get advice.”
“That’s not an uncommon practice for people on student visas, to get deferred admissions or perhaps transfer schools,” Ahmad explained. “The questioning veered off and became more intimidating to her until finally she was telling the officers anything they wanted to hear… In the end, she was denied entry and she got on her knees to beg the officer to at least give her a phone call to get advice.”
Around the same time that she asked for a phone call, Ahmad had been speaking on behalf of her “in real time.” According to Ahmad, CBP’s own regulation states that the agency can put an individual in a process of expedited removal unless that non-citizen indicates an intent to apply for asylum or expresses a fear of returning back to their country. Had Ahmad been given a chance to get on a phone call and tell that to Ella, she would have been able to tell CBP. Instead, the agency deported her from Dulles airport.
During a layover point in Dubai, Ella pleaded with an official to get her phone back. Instead of making her connecting flight to Kampala, she got off the plane and went to a bathroom stall. There, she left voice messages for Ahmad on a text messaging app while officials searched for her in the airport. After a couple of hours, Ahmad was able to get the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to intervene and work with the Dubai airport to allow Ella to stay there for an indefinite period of time in a hotel inside the secure part of the terminal. Eventually, the refugee agency moved Ella to Kenya, a country she can travel to without a visa because of her Ugandan nationality.
Ella’s case is technically still in the process of being deported since she didn’t land in Uganda. But she can seek asylum in the United States if she’s brought back to U.S. soil and only if “CBP rescinds the order of removal,” Ahmad said. CBP has not and will not likely rescind the order, a decision that in the past week has picked up online activism steam from celebrities and lawyers using the hashtag #BringEllaBack.
Ella’s story is indicative of the kind of issues that asylum seekers are running into more frequently under the Trump administration. Attorney General Jeff Sessions previously criticized the U.S. asylum system, claiming it was filled with fraudulent claims. He promised to raise the threshold standard of proof, make it easier to return asylum seekers to “safe third countries,” and “clarify” the asylum laws “to ensure that they help those they were intended to help.” As a result of those orders, it would appear that people like Ella are unable to even get to the initial step of requesting asylum.
“There’s a distinction between the right to seek asylum and actually granting asylum. Here, we’re only talking about the right to seek asylum,” Ahmad pointed out. He explained that Ella’s case also shines a light on the lack of due process and access to counsel — two issues that Ella was denied. “All we’re saying is she be given a chance to tell her story before she was denied the opportunity by CBP.”
There’s no real evidence to suggest that people are fraudulently seeking asylum to game the immigration system in the United States. In its latest statistics of the 2017 fiscal year for “credible fear” cases, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agency made decisions on 49,917 cases, the vast majority of whom are foreign nationals from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala — arguably countries where homicides have soared annually in some major cities. Even when credible fear is established, there is still a long application process ahead to grant asylum. But there is evidence that immigration officials routinely turn away asylum seekers with legitimate claims that they could be persecuted or killed if they are forced to return to their countries.
“It is quite common to feel intimidated talking about trauma, particularly sexual trauma, in front of an armed guard at the border, which is one of the reasons why expedited removal is such a troubling practice,” Clara Long, a researcher at Human Rights Watchm told The Intercept. “Someone being turned away without a fair chance to present their asylum claims – then given a deportation order that removes their chance of ever receiving asylum in the future – shows how serious the flaws are in the treatment of vulnerable people at the border.”
“The CBP has to make it right — they knew she was too traumatized to talk — and they can,” Ahmad said. “There’s nothing in the law stopping that.”