A Day at the Newark Asylum Office
January 14, 2020
In a silver rental car that I must deposit at Newark Airport later, Mahamat* and I arrive at the drab gray, government-leased building. It is in Bumfudge New Jersey. Not far from MetLife (Giants/Jets) stadium. The location must be designed to lose asylum-seekers. Or to discourage them. Or? (Insert theory here.)
In the chilly, January air we dash into the building. The walls of the first floor are blah beige. A few plastic plants are placed here and there. Over in front of the elevator, a handful of Hispanic folks conglomerate. Probably waiting for their attorney. They look this way and that, their eyes bouncing about like ping-pong balls. Their arms clutch file folders and bags. They, too, might have traveled over two hours by some mode of transportation to get here. Like us. I picked up Mahamat at 5:45 a.m. in New Haven and then plowed right into early morning New York traffic. In the pre-dawn darkness, he jumped into the rental in a beautiful designer suit jacket (The label was still tacked onto the sleeve. Something like Dolce.) and slacks. Of course, he brought a bright smile too. This is his way.
Shuffling our bags, we jump into the elevator, press the “4.” The dreaded or hopeful—depending on one’s outlook and the facts of his or her case—Fourth Floor. The jaws of the lift open and before us stands a CBPguard in ashen garb. His trusty Glock-like pistol glued to his waist. Mostly bald except for a gray halo. He snaps at the woman ahead of us. “Why are you up here if your attorney isn’t? Why didn’t you wait downstairs for your attorney?” Geez, fella, I think. Take it easy. This woman probably fled certain death, and you are the first representation of our government that she will see.
We throw all manner of excess onto the x-ray belt, including my Dansko ankle boots which like to beep and make the guards twitch. Then, we lug our bags (Okay, my bag. My backpack contains everything from a laptop to snacks to books to a toothbrush for my flight later tonight.) and get into a line of approximately forty to fifty people that will take us to a check-in window. After leaving new documents with a very nice lady at the window, we squeeze into the other side of the room where chairs are stacked close together not unlike the rows of a Spirit Airlines fuselage.
I estimate 120 chairs on this side of the room. Probably about 30 on the other half just past the metal detector. All are full, full, full. Each holds an asylum-seeker or his or her family member. Or his or her attorney. There is no age limit to the inhabitants of this room. They range from newborns to elderly. I wonder about the older folks and question who could possibly persecute them in their countries.
Each seeker is a different hue on the human color spectrum. Mahamat wears smooth skin the color of burlap. Others are dark-as-night beautiful. Few are lily-white and freckled like me. All are equally gorgeous. In fact, I deem most humans lovely. Unless the inside is ugly. That’s a different story.
I don’t know if other immigration attorneys possess this weird habit, but I tend to guess countries based on appearance. A book by a cover? Perhaps. But, I like to think of it more as an amateur anthropologist’s tic. The human race fascinates me. Always has. As do languages. I once even took Anthropology 101 at U.N.O as an alleged “crip” course; but upon cracking the thick, complicated tome, I dropped it with a thud.
At any rate, we settle into our hard, plastic chairs. It is now around 9 a.m. Mahamat’s interview time is 10 a.m. It will not happen at 10. This much I know from repeated journeys to this human repository. I am undeniably—almost unbearably—tired, having woken up at 4:30 a.m.
Around 10:30 Mahamat’s Arabic translator Ibrahim arrives. I know Ibrahim from his work on my other cases. He is competent and hails from Darfur. The Sudanese and Chadians have become rather like family to me. So, it’s a mini reunion when I see Ibrahim.
After about TWO hours sitting, my arse becomes numb. Mahamat says he’s going to take a ten-minute nap. Ibrahim is already snoozing. Glasses off. Head bowed. Full-on sleep. I glance behind me at an Egyptian or Libyan man (my guess) in a brown suit. Snoozing.
After THREE hours of sitting, I forage into my backpack for snacks. We are not allowed to eat in this room. Signs are posted everywhere. NO FOOD OR DRINKS ALLOWED IN THIS ROOM. I, however, deem Mahamat and I worthy of a few grapes after hours of waiting in this overcrowded, warm space. I grab three of the tasty orbs and hand one off to Mahamat like the contraband it is. We both chew slowly and haltingly. We don’t want CBP’s finest to scold us. In my head, I see it: M’am aren’t you an attorney? You should know better! I visualize the embarrassment and bite the next grape in half and simply suck on it.
After FOUR hours, a worker wearing a lanyard and badge comes out. He announces that the “following nine cases are being rescheduled for next month.” We literally hold our respective breaths. Mahamat’s number is not on the list. We exhale, and I make the “phew” gesture to him. We lean back in our chairs and after a few other cases are called, the three of us slide almost into reclining positions. Others in the room do the same. Some move around. Exercise their limbs. Get the blood flowing. Stretch.
After FOUR & ½ hours, a forty-ish man who looks more like ICE or CBP than an asylum officer comes out in khakis, a button down and a short haircut. He calls Mahamat’s number. Yippee skippee! We leap out of the chairs, grab our bags. “Wait, wait, wait.” He pats his hands in the air. “I have the new documents that you submitted today. I just wanted to come out and tell you that I am going to go over them right now, and I’ll be back out to get you in a half-hour.” We place our rears back into the unforgiving arse-holders.
FORTY minutes later, the guy comes back out. We stagger behind him in a daze. We are in the government’s poppy field. Half-asleep. Confused. We follow Mr. Ice-Man to the lockers and install our cellphones. Then, like hamsters, we careen behind him through a maze of offices. Finally, we arrive at what has to be the drabbest office in the world. No photos. No art.
Ice-Man sits at his desk behind a computer monitor. Mahamat and Ibrahim sit across from him, and I sit behind them. Behind us is a full plate-glass window. A claustrophobia reducer. I notice that Mahamat’s inquisitor, doesn’t wear an asylum badge. His lanyard features a blank space where a photo i.d. should be. Interesting. I shift into sleuth mode. Put on my P.I. hat. I look down at his footwear: combat boots. Hmmm. More ICE or CBP gear. Why is he here? I wonder. Did he get transferred? I don’t know what to expect. Will he handcuff Mahamat? Tote him to a detention center?
Soon the interrogation gets under way. It turns out that I have mischaracterized Ice-Man or CBPeep. He is professional and polite. I am impressed. Unfortunately for Mahamat this man—let’s call him Officer Smith—is skilled at cross-examination. He uses phrases like “Help me understand, sir.” His voice is steady. He says “please” and “thank you.”
An hour into the questioning, I look in my bag for toothpicks to prop up my eyelids. None. This room is warm. We are sleep-deprived. Food-bereft. Even Ibrahim looks as though his eyes will close. Hang in there, Ibrahim. We need you on that wall!
I take a peek at my watch: 4:00 p.m. I have to drop off the rental and be at Newark Airport in the five o’clock range. Not only that but I have to fill up the gas tank before returning the car. Steve (The Husband) will kill me if I miss this step, as the cost per gallon at the rental will be exponential. Please finish. Rap it up! Telepathy. That’s it. I will ICE-man double-agenting as an asylum officer to finish.
Before long, we do. Finish. Officer Smith hands Mahamat a sheet of paper that says he must return in two weeks with an interpreter to receive his decision. In the past, a few of my clients actually received their decision at the statutory, two-week mark. Others were notified that it would take longer. One decision arrived in the mail after a year.
After retrieving our phones, we stumble outside. It is now 4:30 p.m. The sun sags above the horizon. I dispense hearty hugs to my Muslim client and interpreter. They are not supposed to hug women but are gracious to this Southern girl.
I take one last look back at the lackluster edifice. For a structure that houses the hopes of so many, at least they could have painted it bright yellow.
 Not the true date of the asylum interview
 Mahamat is a pseudonym
 Customs and Border Protection
 Also, a pseudonym
 Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known unofficially as the Immigration Police; CBP is the Customs and Border Protection
 You guessed it. It's a pseudonym.