Seeking U.S. Asylum, She Finds 3 Years in Jail

By Gaiutra Bahadur
The Philadelphia Inquirer

For more than three years, a pay phone at the York County Prison has been Takky Zubeda’s lifeline, connecting her to her husband and to her peace of mind. She is here – prisoner No. 62025 in a bleached-out jail in rural Pennsylvania – not because she committed a crime. Rather, she says she fled one, a gang rape by soldiers who also decapitated her father.

Zubeda has been locked up for 1,242 days – longer than any other immigration detainee at the prison – as her request for asylum in the United States has snaked its way through the system. She has been denied parole three times, despite the home awaiting her with her husband, a U.S. citizen, in Minneapolis. A judge could release her Thursday by granting asylum.

The story of the 29-year-old from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) is one piece of the larger narrative of how the United States, after Sept. 11, has become a tougher place for foreigners.

A January report by the lawyers’ group Human Rights First concluded that, especially since the terror attacks, asylum-seekers held by immigration authorities are often denied parole without a close look at the details of their cases.

A spokesman for the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the federal agency had no room or money to lock up more than 20,000 people a day – at a nationwide average of $90 a day, that amounts to more than $650 million a year – and denied parole only to protect the public from criminals, terrorists or threats to health.

“It’s just like your house,” spokesman Garrison Courtney said. “If somebody knocks on your door and you don’t know who that person is, you don’t leave them unsupervised alone in your house. Unless you can determine who that person is, you’re leaving yourself vulnerable.”

Detention often automatic

The federal government automatically detains people who ask for asylum at airports or border crossings and lack a valid passport or visa. Many who flee turmoil at home do not have proper travel documents and end up in county jails or immigration detention centers in the United States.

According to guidelines overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, most asylum-seekers should be paroled after showing they are who they say they are, do not pose a danger, have community ties in the United States, and are not a flight risk.

But according to the report “In Liberty’s Shadow,” asylum-seekers who meet the guidelines are not being released until they are ordered deported or granted asylum – and sometimes not even then. That has meant months or even years behind locked doors for some who turned to the United States as a haven. In one case, a Tibetan nun whom a judge granted asylum last fall spent months more in a Virginia prison because immigration authorities appealed the decision.

It is unclear how many asylum-seekers are detained nationwide or for how long. Congress requires the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to provide statistics on detained asylum-seekers to lawmakers every year and to the public when requested. The bureau, however, said it could not respond to a request made by The Inquirer on March 11 because of logistical problems. Congress is also awaiting that data.

Last month, York held about 47 asylum-seekers, 27 of them detained for more than six months, said Joseph Sallemi, head of deportations. York receives $4 million yearly from the federal government to house 800 detainees at $49 a day. Zubeda’s stay has cost U.S. taxpayers at least $60,000. The toll, for her, has been emotional.

Sitting near a pay phone in the women’s wing of the prison, Zubeda lowered her eyes and smiled shyly when asked about her husband, Ndume Ibohwa.

Thirteen years ago, Ibohwa, a political prisoner, escaped from jail and fled the regime of Mobutu Sese Seko, called by some “The Zairean Caligula.”

“At the time, the government was not playing,” said Ibohwa, 43, a refugee who was resettled in Minneapolis by the U.S. government and became a citizen this year. “They don’t play with people… . They can kill you at any time.”

Ibohwa returned to Africa in 1999 to marry the girl his family had chosen. He remembered Zubeda only as a pretty teenager from a nearby village. They had a small ceremony in neighboring Tanzania. Ibohwa could not risk returning home.

Then he had to surrender his new bride to the uncertainties of a civil war in Congo that has driven 300,000 to neighboring countries. Back in the United States, Ibohwa tried to bring Zubeda to him, but he could not give immigration officials her address; the chaos of the war kept the couple from corresponding, and he knew only that she was with his family. The next time Ibohwa heard his wife’s voice, nearly two years later, she was calling from a prison in the United States.

Shame and a damaging lie

The day Zubeda had to tell an immigration judge the events that drove her to board a plane to Newark, N.J., 10 months earlier with someone else’s passport, she begged her lawyer to keep Ibohwa out of the hearing.

“I was feeling so shamed,” she said. “He’s going to accept me? What’s going to happen?”

But Ibohwa was in the courtroom. For the first time, he heard his wife say her mother had been raped by soldiers. And he heard her say that, while there to care for the victim, she became one herself.

On Nov. 15, 2000, 10 soldiers barged into Zubeda’s family home in a rebel-controlled region. In the four months before, women’s rights groups counted 115 rapes there. Rape is a common weapon in Congo’s civil war, according to the State Department. The soldiers confronted Zubeda’s father about his plan to report his wife’s rape.

They made him watch as they raped Zubeda. When done, they decapitated her father and her two brothers with machetes and set fire to the house. Her mother and sister were still inside, Zubeda told the judge, when soldiers took her and several other women to a military camp in the jungle to cook, clean, and have sex with them.

A week later, she and other captives escaped by asking to use the toilet, which was outside the camp. They fled by foot and canoe to Tanzania, where a church worker gave Zubeda $100 and a passport and put her on a plane to the United States. On landing, she told an immigration agent that she had come to visit her brother and go to Bible school.

“If I see somebody wear uniform, it’s the same people as back home,” she explained. “I was really afraid.”

The lie – though so common in airport statements by asylum-seekers that the courts have warned against emphasizing them – hurt her case.

Contradictory testimony

The immigration judge at York, Walt Durling, denied Zubeda asylum. He said details of her testimony contradicted her written statement. She told him, for example, that her mother and sister had burned to death in their house. In her written statement, she said she did not know their fate. In an interview, Zubeda said she assumed the pair had perished in the fire – and learned only last year that her mother had escaped the fire and later died.

“The government of the Congo is a miserable excuse of a sovereign government,” Durling said in his ruling. “However, the Congo does not hold a monopoly on abusive treatment of its citizens, and I cannot grant [asylum]… on the mere fact of hailing from such a country.”

But Durling ruled that Zubeda should not be deported to Congo because she would likely be detained by the government and perhaps raped. He rebuked immigration authorities for taking six weeks to decide whether Zubeda had a credible fear of persecution.

Still, Zubeda remained in the minimum-security unit at York as the government appealed the judge’s order not to deport her.

“I live like I don’t have a home,” she said. “You don’t know what is going on in your life, and you don’t know when it’s going to be finished. I’m just asking for protection… . They say the U.S. is to protect people.”

An official with the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Zubeda had been denied parole because officials feared she would not show up for her hearing. There are about 250,000 asylum cases pending in the United States. Bureau officials say a significant number of those who are released skip their hearings. On Thursday, Zubeda will be escorted by prison guards to her hearing before Durling, who has been directed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit to reconsider her claims.

Meanwhile, another day will unfold for Zubeda in jail. The tether to her calm will be a telephone cord in the York common room. She calls Ibohwa once, twice, sometimes three times a day.

“Sometimes, I feel so sad, I just call him… and I feel better. I feel like to call again. To call again,” she said. “I tell him, ‘Don’t worry. I’m coming soon.’ ”

Follow-Up Story: Freed asylum seeker: ‘I feel like it is a dream’

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