The Waiting Game

The U.S. is supposed to be a safe haven for people fleeing persecution. But asylum-seekers face years of uncertainty when they arrive.

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The Game

The Waiting Game

It’s too dangerous for you in your country. For your safety, you decide that you must leave behind everything you know and head to the U.S. You aren’t certain you will be able to get there. You’re even less certain you’ll be allowed to stay.

How long can you last before you give up?

Choose a story.

A domestic violence survivor in El Salvador


A man who married outside his religion in Bangladesh


A student protester in the Democratic Republic of Congo


A Tibetan man facing discrimination in Nepal


An Ethiopian deported to Eritrea because of his nationality


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(Psst. Patience will also help you in the Waiting Game.)

About The Game

Based on the real case files of five asylum seekers from five countries and interviews with the medical and legal professionals who evaluate and represent them, The Waiting Game is an experimental news game that lets you walk in the shoes of an asylum seeker, from the moment they choose to come to the United States to the final decision in the cases before an immigration judge.

ProPublica and Playmatics interviewed or obtained material from physicians, psychiatrists, case officers, country experts, lawyers and judges who were either directly involved with these cases or who regularly see cases like these. We’ve omitted some details to protect the identities of the asylum seekers.

The international system designed to protect people fleeing dangerous countries was developed as a result of World War II, when countries, including the U.S., shut their doors to Jews fleeing the Holocaust.

The five stories represent the five criteria for refugee status defined under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, which requires member states not to deport people fleeing persecution based on “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”

Each of those criteria are represented by the game in a storyline:

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How Asylum Works

How Asylum Works — and Doesn’t Work

Follow the path of immigrants fleeing violence or persecution, and get a glimpse into the complicated, evolving system designed to grant them refuge in the United States.

Years-long wait lists, bewildering legal arguments, an extended stay in detention — you can experience it all in the Waiting Game, a newsgame that simulates the experience of trying to seek asylum in the United States. The game was created by ProPublica, Playmatics and WNYC. Based on the true stories of real asylum-seekers, this interactive portal allows users to follow in the footsteps of five people fleeing persecution and trying to take refuge in America.

The process can be exhausting and feel arbitrary – and as you’ll find in the game, it involves a lot of waiting. Once asylum-seekers reach America, they must condense complex and often traumatic stories into short, digestible narratives they will tell again and again. Their  lives often depend on their ability to convince a judge that they are in danger. Judicial decisions are so inconsistent across the country, success in complicated cases can   come down to geography and luck -- in New York City only 17 percent of asylum cases are denied in immigration court; in Atlanta, 94 percent are. Increasingly, many asylum-seekers are held in detention for months or even years while going through the system. The immigration detention system costs more than $2 billion per year to maintain.

The Trump administration has tried to reframe the asylum system as a national security threat and a magnet for illegal immigration. Attorney General Jeff Sessions characterizes the American asylum process as “subject to rampant abuse” and “overloaded with fake claims.” He has aimed recent reforms at expediting asylum adjudications to speed up deportations and at making it more difficult for certain groups to qualify for protection, such as Central Americans who claim to fear gender-based violence or gang persecution.

The narrative that the system is overrun with fraud has long been pushed by groups that favor limiting immigration overall. They point to some 37 percent of asylum-seekers who annually miss their immigration hearings as evidence that people without legitimate fears of persecution game the system. They argue that allowing asylum-seekers to obtain work permits while they wait for a decision on their cases — which sometimes takes years — incentivizes baseless claims.

But another picture emerged when ProPublica spoke with more than 20 experts and stakeholders who study and work in the asylum system, including lawyers, immigration judges, historians, policy experts, an asylum officer, a former border patrol agent and a former ICE prosecutor.

When asked about changes to the system they’d like to see, many suggested providing asylum-seekers with better access to lawyers to support due process, expanding the definition of a refugee to cover modern-day conflicts,providing more resources to help the system process claims in a timely manner, and improving judicial independence by moving immigration courts out of the Department of Justice. 

Most acknowledged some level of asylum-claim abuse exists. “In any system, of course, there are going to be some bad actors and some weaknesses people seek to exploit,” said Doris Meissner, the former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993 to 2000.

But they also argued for the importance of protecting and improving a national program that has provided refuge to hundreds of thousands of people. “If you are going to make a mistake in the immigration area, make this mistake,” said Bill Hing, director of the University of San Francisco’s Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic. “Protect people that may not need protecting, but don’t make the mistake of not protecting people who need it.”

Victor Manjarrez, a former border patrol agent from the 1980s until 2011, said he had seen human smuggling networks exploit the border over the years, but also many people who genuinely needed help.

“We have a system that's not perfect, but is designed to take refugees. That is the beauty of it,” he said. “It has a lot of issues, but we have something in place that is designed to be compassionate. And that’s why we have such a big political debate about this.”

The asylum system was created in the wake of the U.S. and other countries’ refusal to let in Jewish refugees during the Holocaust.

World War II sparked our current asylum and refugee policy. During the war, safe countries like the United States largely shut their doors to Jewish refugees, citing national security concerns. In one notorious example, the U.S. turned away a boat of nearly 1,000 Jews escaping Nazi Germany in 1939. More than a quarter of the ship’s refugees eventually were killed in Europe during the Holocaust.

After the war, the international community attempted to create a more orderly system for aiding people in danger. This resulted in the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol, which defined a refugee as a person fleeing persecution based on “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” The convention included an article prohibiting countries from penalizing refugees for entering a foreign country illegally as long as “they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.” It also obligated signatories not to return any asylum-seekers to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened.

The U.S. signed on, but initially dealt with refugee crises on a case-by-case basis, usually tied to foreign policy objectives. Early major refugee programs addressed people fleeing Communist countries, including the resettlement of Hungarian refugees after the 1956 revolution, the Vietnamese resettlement program after the Vietnam War, and refugee boat lifts after the Cuban revolution.

The U.S.’ current system to accept refugees wasn’t created until decades later.

It wasn’t until President Jimmy Carter’s last year in office that the U.S. passed a formal law, the 1980 Refugee Act, to provide a permanent system for admitting refugees. This law was a product of the universal human rights activist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, a moment when nationalism was at an ebb. “It set up a mechanism where the United States can accept refugees from all over the world. In the decades prior, those admissions were much more targeted and limited,” said Carl Bon Tempo, a historian at SUNY Albany and the author of Americans at the Gate: The United States and Refugees during the Cold War.

The law created formal programs: for refugee resettlement from abroad, and for asylum-seekers who ask for protection once already inside the U.S.

On the simplest level, the law had two components: one that resettles refugees vetted abroad by the United Nations, and another to process asylum-seekers fleeing immediate danger who arrive in America first and then apply for protection.

If a person seeking protection makes it into the interior of the U.S. — often after first entering on a legal visa — they can file what is called an “affirmative” asylum application within one year. This means they’ll have an interview with a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum officer in a non-adversarial setting. Less than a third of applicants are granted asylum in the interview stage. The rest are referred to immigration court.

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Experience affirmative asylum applications in the story of an asylum-seeker from Bangladesh.

If an asylum-seeker presents a claim at the border or is caught and ordered deported but expresses a “credible fear” of persecution in their home country, they can only file a “defensive” application — and then are sent straight to the immigration court system. Applicants have about a 50 percent chance of receiving asylum in the courts, though it varies widely by judge.

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Experience defensive asylum applications in the story of an asylum-seekers from Congo who asked for help at a port of entry.

When Congress passed the 1980 Refugee Act, they didn’t anticipate how often it would be used.

“When asylum was first written into the Refugee Act, it was not viewed as the path that maybe tens of thousands of people, or even thousands of people, might claim annually as their way to get in,” said Bon Tempo. “It was seen as a legal pathway for someone to gain admission, but that very few will pursue.”

That’s not what happened. The introduction of the act coincided with civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua that triggered a large-scale migration. Asylum applications quickly rose. Over the years, the expansion of affordable travel has also meant that asylum-seekers from all over the world can more easily reach the U.S. on visas to find immediate safety and then apply for protection. The number of asylum applications has fluctuated over the years, but in 2014, it began to rise sharply, this time mostly from Central Americans trying to escape rampant gang violence their governments have been unable to control. Most of them arrived at the border and filed defensive asylum applications.

“Part of the problem with modern asylum procedure is you have so many people applying, many more than the system can actually handle,” Bon Tempo said.

Though the law hasn’t changed, the Trump administration has been reshaping the asylum system in other ways.

The Trump administration has promised to cut both legal and illegal immigration. A big piece of this effort is reframing the asylum system as a national security issue instead of a humanitarian program and characterizing asylum-seekers at the border as illegal entrants.

“Congress has so far refused to pass draconian legislation the administration wants that would cut off access to U.S. refugee protection,” said Eleanor Acer, the director of the refugee protection program at Human Rights First. “The administration is trying to do everything it can… to limit access to asylum and to rush people through the process, giving the appearance of due process while at the same time undercutting it.”

When asked about the criticism, a spokesperson from the Department of Justice said the reforms are “common sense” and “designed to increase efficiency and productivity in an immigration court system that has languished after years of neglect and failed leadership, and all are made while ensuring that due process is not compromised.”

Much of the administration’s efforts have been aimed at the asylum case backlog.

The recent spike in claims from Central Americans at the U.S.-Mexico border has contributed to an unprecedented backlog of more than 680,000 cases in immigration courts, more than double the number in 2013 (these include both defensive asylum cases and other types of immigration cases). There are also 300,000 affirmative cases waiting to be processed by USCIS, an increase of 1,750 percent over the last five years. Asylum-seekers often wait three to four years to have their cases heard, and the process can take even longer if they are initially denied and then appeal their cases. In 2016, the most current year of complete data available, 20,455 applicants were granted asylum and 11,643 were denied. In the same year, more than 180,000 new asylum applications were filed.

Some, like Sessions, worry that a backlog invites perverse incentives. Once asylum-seekers file an application, some are eligible to apply for a work permit if they have not received a decision after 180 days. (It usually takes 240 days to actually get a work permit.) If their cases take years to be reviewed, that means they may spend all that time working and establishing themselves in the U.S., and eventually can apply for another form of legal residency.

Though Sessions argues there is “rampant fraud” in the asylum system, there is no clear evidence to quantify how widespread the problem is.

Experts say fraud does not define the system.

“We do a really good job of handling asylum fraud,” said a current USCIS asylum officer, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Even if someone manages to get a benefit in the short term, we always come back and get them. We do asylum terminations if we find evidence.” Examples include identifying rehearsed stories that are repeated over and over, or catching misrepresentations, like African men who claim persecution because they are gay, but later file for a wife’s residency papers.

Many asylum-seekers with legal representation also undergo physical and psychological evaluations to help support their case, and sometimes country experts are called to assess an asylum-seeker’s story. The Executive Office of Immigration Review, which oversees immigration courts, also has a  Law Library and Immigration Research Center to keep up-to-date on human rights conditions in different countries.

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Experience how asylum-seekers with legal represenation may be vetted in the story of an ethnically Tibetan man from Nepal.

Most immigration experts say outright fraud is rare. Even though many asylum cases are rejected, they are usually filed by people in good faith with legitimate fears, but who may not fit a narrow interpretation of asylum law.

Other false claims, as Javad Khazeli, a former ICE prosecutor from 2003 to 2010 explained, can be attributed to immigration scams. Over the years, he saw cases of immigrants duped by what’s known as a “notario” — people who falsely market themselves as qualified to give legal advice. These non-attorneys sometimes promise undocumented immigrants they can help them obtain a work permit, and instead file an asylum claim on their behalf. The person gets a work permit while they’re waiting, and then are surprised and confused when their case comes up, Khazeli, now an immigration lawyer, said.

But he questioned trying to paint the asylum system as rife with false claims. “One of the driving forces of the small percentage of fraudulent cases are notarios, sure,” he said. “How do you put notarios out of business? You make sure people have access to good legal services.”

Advocates say there’s a problem with the system that needs to be addressed: The government should provide asylum-seekers with lawyers, since the cases often involve life or death stakes.

This was a solution favored by many experts ProPublica spoke with. While asylum-seekers have the right to find legal representation, they are not entitled to a free lawyer. Applicants have legal counsel in only 37 percent of cases that go through immigration courts. Asylum-seekers held in detention in remote locations often have particular difficulty finding representation. This can make a big difference: 90 percent of applicants without representation had their cases denied in 2016, versus nearly 50 percent of applicants with lawyers.

“These are death penalty cases — you fear you'll be killed if you are sent back and you don't even have an attorney,” said Karen Musalo, the director of the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies at University of California Hastings. Even children are not guaranteed legal representation. Yet, studies have shown that children who have access to legal counsel are far more likely to show up for their hearing than those who don’t.

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El Salvador

Experience the struggle of working with a bad lawyer in the story an of asylum-seekers from El Salvador.

Though it’s difficult to estimate how much it would cost the federal government to provide legal counsel to every applicant in immigration court, a few studies have tried to put a number on it: A 2014 economic analysis estimated that such a program would largely be offset by reduced detention costs, and cost $4 million extra a year. A study from 2016 that focused on California estimated each immigration case would cost $5,000 in legal fees.

Instead, the Justice Department seems to have made it even more difficult for asylum-seekers to access legal counsel.

This month, Sessions announced the department would temporarily halt a know-your-rights and pro-bono legal program and telephone help-line that serves nearly 50,000 detained immigrants per year, in order to assess effectiveness and costs. The program costs $6 million annually.

“I don’t think we pay enough attention to our immigration court system,” said Manjarrez, the former Border Patrol agent. Lawyers who are familiar with complicated immigration law can also help make sure asylum claims are clear and well-documented, saving time, he said. “If checks are being cut and I'm the Border Patrol guy, and they say, 'We’ll give you more agents and more wall,’ I‘d say, ‘No -- send it to the immigration courts.’ It’ll help us in the long term, because they'll help the flow and start to slow detentions.”

The immigration court system has made progress in hiring new judges since Trump took office, putting the total at 334. But more than 100 positions are still vacant and advocates estimate it would take around 200 extra judges to tackle the backlog.

Another short-term tactic to stem the backlog and limit fraud is to process newer asylum cases more quickly. In March, USCIS announced a new policy: Instead of processing affirmative asylum claims on a chronological basis, they’ll now switch to handling the newest claims first. Lawyers are alarmed that clients with strong asylum claims who have been waiting for years to move on with their lives will now be put on hold indefinitely. “I think that’s going to have a devastating impact,” said Jaya Ramji-Nogales, a law professor at Temple University and the author of Refugee Roulette. “If their claim was granted, they could bring their family over and regularize their family’s status here. Now they’ll be stuck in limbo.”

But Meissner saw the measure as a pragmatic step to restore faith in the system and get asylum claims processed in a timely manner again. She said during her time leading the INS, the precursor to USCIS, she faced the challenge of reducing a backlog of more than 400,000 cases in 1994. INS instituted a similar last-in, first-out system and made asylum-seekers wait six months to get a work permit instead of as soon as they filed an application. The changes yielded results: new claims slowed and approvals went up. “These are tough decisions,” she said. “What you want to do is set up the system that makes it possible to do the job and curb the possibility of abuses.”

More worrisome to some are new policies aimed at the courts. 

Sessions has broad authority over immigration courts because they operate under the U.S. Department of Justice. This means he has the power to select immigration judges, overturn Board of Immigration Appeals decisions, and decide precedents, all with little oversight.

In April, the Justice Department introduced a quota system on immigration judges tied to their job performance ratings. The new rule requires judges to process at least 700 cases a year (they usually process an average of 678) to earn a satisfactory grade. Judge A. Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said such a change would damage the court’s credibility. “Quotas and deadlines that have been announced are, frankly, unreasonable,” she said. “The very concept is in conflict with the independent decision-making authority of judges.”

Last year, the Justice Department also released a memo encouraging immigration judges to “carefully consider administrative efficiency” before granting continuance requests, which allow asylum-seekers extra time to find legal representation or gather necessary documents. The memo cited a 2012 DOJ Inspector General report that found that “frequent and lengthy continuances” were a significant factor in increased case processing times and that over half of all cases surveyed had one or more continuances.

Lawyers predicted these new policies may actually increase the immigration court backlog because rushed asylum hearings would result in more lawyers appealing cases, arguing that due process was violated.

Recent changes aren’t just about speeding up asylum decisions and deportations.

On the campaign trail, Trump often decried what he called “catch and release” -- processing asylum-seekers with an initial screening at the border, and then releasing them on bond until their court date. His administration has begun detaining almost all defensive asylum-seekers coming through the border until their cases are heard, arguing that this is a necessary step to ensure the immigrants don’t melt away and miss their hearings.

But lawyers see the expansion of detention as an effort to deter asylum-seekers from continuing with their claims — which contravenes international law. “Our detention system is unique in the way that it is truly prison-like, even though we recognize that asylum is not part of the criminal justice process,” said Denise Gilman, a law professor who runs the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas. Keeping asylum-seekers locked up for months or even years when they’ve committed no crime further traumatizes people already suffering, she said. Some simply give up and accept deportation in order to leave detention.

Sessions has also indicated plans to make it even more difficult for some types of asylum cases to qualify for protection. In March, he referred two major Board of Immigration Appeals cases to himself. In one, he vacated a ruling that held asylum applicants have the right to a full hearing before a judge, an effort to cut off asylum-seekers who spend years trying to appeal denied cases or who have cases that, on paper, look unlikely to succeed. Advocates worry the decision may be used to summarily deport asylum-seekers who face language barriers or have difficulty documenting their asylum claims, especially those without legal counsel.                                                 

In the other case, he is reviewing whether victims of “private crime” – in this case, domestic violence – can qualify for asylum.  Experts predict the decision may also be used to prevent most Central Americans fleeing gang violence from receiving asylum.

Gang violence and domestic abuse fall under the most flexible of the five asylum categories: “membership in a particular social group.” This has been a controversial category for years, lawyers said, because it does not have a clear definition. In parts of Central America, people don’t face outright war, “but high levels of civil violence, often combined with an inability of the government to protect its people,” said Leon Rodriguez, director of USCIS from 2013 to 2017. “The upshot is that you have a lot of people who are pretty scared, and in a lot of cases, are really at risk of dying violently when returning to countries, but it doesn’t fit into the traditional definition of asylum and refugee status.”

Some judges regularly accept the “particular social group” categorization for women facing gender-based violence; others rarely do. In recent years, gang violence in Central America has risen to an unprecedented level and pushed countless people to flee for their lives, but the courts still only recognize Central Americans claiming gang persecution as legitimate asylum-seekers in narrow cases – around 80 percent of asylum claims from Central America were denied in immigration court in 2016.

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El Salvador

Experience the steps of an asylum claim that fits into the “particular social group” category in the story of a woman from El Salvador fleeing domestic violence.

While Sessions’ decision on the issue, expected in May, may narrow the definition to exclude almost all Central American claims, advocates have long argued for widening the language of “particular social group” to help meet the struggles of the specific conflicts that the world faces today.

 “Nobody would be able to predict what forms persecution would take in the future, so the authors of the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 protocol purposely designed a definition that would adapt to changing modern reality,” said Stephen Legomsky, the chief counsel of USCIS from 2011 to 2013. He favors expanding the “particular social group” language to fit people fleeing gender-based violence in countries that don’t have adequate legal systems to protect women and LGBT communities, and some people trying to escape gangs.

But these kinds of steps seem unlikely under the current administration. As Bon Tempo, the historian, noted, refugee policy has always been “a product of politics, and controversial.”

“I try to caution people against falling into two traps: the ‘Statue of Liberty’ idea: “give us your poor, your wretched,” open-door image. And the other extreme, like what happens in the 1930s, where European Jews are facing persecution from the Nazis and America does largely shut its doors,” he said.

“The reason immigration politics gets so hot is because it basically is an exercise in self-definition: This is what the U.S. is. This is what we stand for. And there are a lot of different opinions on what the actual answers to those questions are.”

What Happens After

Welcome to America.
Now, figure it out.

After fleeing persecution and violence, and being detained for months or more, some people who win asylum say they’re released without a clue about where to sleep or what government benefits they are entitled to.

Ilbouto Micheline began listing the countries represented by the little flags lined up on the mantelpiece of the former church rectory where she lives: Cameroon, Guatemala, Ethiopia. These are the places where Micheline’s current and former housemates fled from — immigrants who have won asylum from 42 countries over the past year.

Micheline pointed to the flag of Burkina Faso, the western African nation that she escaped amid life-threatening violence four years ago. Today, she lives in and manages this two-story home known as The Lighthouse, a temporary residence in Jersey City, NJ, for those released from immigration detention after seeking asylum to stay in the United States.

“When I arrived at the airport they asked me, ‘How long you want to stay?’” said Micheline, who had a valid visa to be in the U.S. for six months but instead declared she wanted asylum right then. “I said, ‘I’m not going back, my life is in danger, I need asylum.’ They said, ‘You need to go to detention.’”

Immigration agents, as part of a practice that began under the Obama administration but has since escalated, often incarcerate victims of persecution who walk across the border or land at airports. Micheline spent six months in Elizabeth Contract Detention Center, a privately run facility in an industrial park in northern New Jersey. “I didn’t know when people ask [for] asylum they treat them like criminals,” she said. “I was surprised.”

The bigger surprise for Micheline and so many other immigrants is what happens if they actually win their asylum cases and are permitted to live, work and collect benefits in the U.S.

Consider that at the four immigration detention facilities in New Jersey, which often hold immigrants who enter the country in New York City, those granted asylum are released at night, according to interviews with a dozen immigration activists and former detainees, often with neither bus tickets nor information on available housing. Those who don’t have relatives nearby or attorneys who can help them find housing sometimes end up in homeless shelters, or on the street. Others “come back to sleep in the detention” facility, Micheline said, to avoid wandering around at night.

Micheline watched one woman break down in tears when she found out she was going to be released from detention. “We ask her, ‘Why are you crying, you were in detention for like one year?’ She said she doesn’t know nobody in America, she doesn’t know where to go,” Micheline said.

Located in the former parish house of the Church of the Incarnation, The Lighthouse was created by a nonprofit called First Friends of New York and New Jersey to help fill this hole in the American immigration system, so new asylees without relatives or connections in the U.S. have that place to go.

Those fleeing persecution who are admitted and vetted while they are still abroad are considered “refugees,” and they have a whole system to help them settle in — representatives from federally funded nonprofits meet them at airports, place them in apartments with food and connect them to local welfare offices.

But “asylees” — who declare their fear of persecution only after they arrive on American soil — are viewed differently by the government. They’re offered some of the same benefits that refugees get, like cash assistance and welfare, but they often have to figure out what they’re entitled to.

A New Jersey church deacon, Jill Singleton, realized this problem when she started making visits to detained asylum seekers as a volunteer with First Friends. She met a man named Peter, who told her he was being released that evening.

“I asked him where he was going to go, and he said, ‘No idea,’” Singleton said. “And it just absolutely haunted me to think that… he had gone through everything he went through, got here, was put in detention… finally got out, and on the day he was getting out, he had no idea where he was going to go. He didn’t know another living soul in the United States.”

That night, Singleton had a dream about creating a “place of light” for asylees: The Lighthouse. “In my mind, every time I walk into the door here, I think of Peter and kind of think of this as Peter’s lighthouse,” she said.

First Friends opened The Lighthouse to provide a sanctuary for these asylees who are often doubly traumatized — both from the persecution suffered back home and their incarceration. Many don’t speak English or have much money.

So they’ll stay for days or months in this dormitory-like home. When The Lighthouse is full, First Friends places asylees in churches or private homes. First Friends also pays to house asylees at the YMCA in nearby Newark.

An asylum seeker who arrives at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City generally ends up in one of four facilities in New Jersey: Elizabeth’s detention center, or the jails in Hudson, Bergen and Essex Counties, which are paid millions of dollars a year to house immigrants. Each have different practices when releasing detainees.

About 2,000 people won asylum in New York and New Jersey in fiscal 2016, and many were detained while their cases were finalized. At the immigration court at the Elizabeth Contract Detention Center alone that year, 135 people were granted asylum -- a 44 percent approval rate. But beyond fliers that First Friends posts in the detention centers, it’s difficult to get the message to the newly free asylees about who’s there to help once they’re released. Sally Pillay, program director at First Friends, said these asylees are at risk of homelessness because immigration officials and their contractors don’t provide information on housing upon release. “They just open the doors and out you go and that’s it,” she said.

The official policy on releases from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) says detainees must be provided both "weather-appropriate clothing" and "a list of legal, medical, and social services that are available in the release community, and a list of shelter services available in the immediate area along with directions to each shelter."

In practice, advocates and former detainees said, this does not happen with any consistency, and county jails in New Jersey that house immigrants have varying practices. At the Essex County Correctional Facility, those released are indeed given lists of shelters and bus passes, according to Pillay, but at the Hudson County Correctional Center, while asylees are told they can show their jail bracelets to get free bus rides, they aren’t provided lists of shelters or available social services.

A Hudson County spokesperson referred a question about processing released detainees to ICE, which oversees detention. Likewise, at the Elizabeth facility, which is operated by the company CoreCivic, a representative said its "government partner," ICE, must answer questions.

ICE spokesman Emilio Dabul denied that detainees are released in this haphazard way and said the agency “ensures compliance” with its policy on releasing detainees. He said arrangements for release are made with immigrants’ families, sponsors or lawyers, but did not address what happens to detainees with no such contacts. And, in a written exchange, he did not respond to specific complaints that detainees are released at night, often without a bus pass or information on where to go, sometimes returning to the detention center to sleep.

Pillay said that for an immigrant without money, phone or a command of English, being released at night only compounds the difficulty. “Why can’t people be released during the day for safety reasons?” she asked.

A newly released asylee who makes it to the Lighthouse finds a bed, clothes and meals from all over the world. At The Lighthouse’s recent one-year birthday party, a banquet of food was laid out. A 56-year-old man from Ethiopia named Mesfin Wondmagegnhu made collard greens. He described being shot for writing an article back home against the government. He fled to two African countries and then to Brazil before traveling all the way north through Central America and then to the Texas border, where he was detained and sent to Elizabeth for a year in detention.

After his release, he spent five weeks living at the YMCA in Newark. Then First Friends moved him into The Lighthouse. “How do you live without First Friends?” he asked. “You don’t have family, you don’t have a friend, how do you live? It’s so difficult.”

Partnering with religious groups, First Friends served 110 people leaving detention last year, helping with housing, providing stipends for food and paying for transportation so asylees could move in with relatives elsewhere in the U.S. First Friends helps asylees get eyeglasses, English lessons and snow boots.

Asylees are also eligible for government help — medical assistance, food stamps and a few hundred dollars per month in cash, in amounts that vary from state to state and are supplemented by private donations. For example, New Jersey asylees enrolled with the nonprofit Church World Service are eligible for rental assistance and $50 per week in cash until they get a job — or for four months, whichever comes first. After that, they’re eligible for $335 per month in the federal Refugee Cash Assistance program for their first eight months as asylees.

But that money is not always doled out, because asylees aren’t aware it’s available to them. Ashley Freeman, president of the DASH Network, which aids asylum seekers in Texas, said she knows an asylee who showed up to get benefits but was told she only had three weeks of eligibility left. She had been granted asylum more than five months earlier, but didn’t know how to collect her benefits.

“Because there’s no system to let them know where to go, they’re just supposed to magically know that?” Freeman asked.


When Edafe Okporo was beaten by a mob back home in Nigeria for his work with a group that was aiding gay men with HIV/AIDS, he knew he had to leave. Okporo is gay, and same-sex relationships were criminalized in Nigeria in 2014.

“They broke into my apartment, dragged me out, beat me up in the streets, singing that I am evil,” he said. He was hospitalized for a week and then boarded a flight to John F. Kennedy International Airport, declaring asylum to the first uniformed federal officer he came across. He had a visa that allowed him to stay in the country for a few months, but with just $200 to his name, he couldn’t afford to live for long in New York.

Okporo’s declaration — proclaiming that because of his advocacy on behalf of gay and bisexual men, he faced death in Nigeria — did not afford him the warm welcome he expected. In fact, it got him handcuffed and shackled. He was taken to the detention center in Elizabeth.

“I was shocked,” he said. “I’m still shocked… The only thing I saw from that day to the day I was released from the detention center was just the George Washington Bridge on the way when I was being driven from New York to New Jersey… Before I came to this country, the narrative I got of America as a country [was that] the dignity of humanity is respected.”

After six months in detention, Okporo won his case. That evening, he was free to go. He was given the bag he arrived with, but no information from detention officials about where to go and how to find a place to sleep. He’d heard about First Friends, and called the agency’s toll-free phone number.

“When I was released that night, I was just waiting for a miracle to happen, and First Friends was the miracle that happened that night,” he said. In the days that followed, First Friends helped Okporo get his Social Security card, state identification and job permit. He also got welfare support -- $79 a month in food stamps, for three months, he said.

Okporo is now a volunteer with First Friends, helping new asylees who need a place to live. And he’s working at a New Jersey foundation, still helping those with HIV and AIDS.


The gap in the safety net for asylees after release is of increasing significance because asylees are being locked up for longer under the Trump administration. Those claiming asylum are increasingly being detained until they see an immigration judge rather than released on parole pending a future court date.

Asylum seekers filed a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security over this issue, but it’s part of a trend that began in the Obama years. Almost all detained asylees were granted parole in 2011 and 2012. That number dropped to half by 2015. And during a seven-month period last year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement paroled less than 4 percent of asylum seekers.

During that time, the Newark, N.J. office of ICE, which has jurisdiction over the asylees who end up at The Lighthouse, rejected all 10 requests for parole, according to the consortium of civil liberties and human rights groups representing the asylum seekers in the lawsuit. Some asylum seekers are detained for more than two years, advocates say, as they wait for an immigration judge to rule on their cases or come up with money for a bond to make bail and get released on parole.

Conservatives who have long criticized the asylum system for being financially wasteful and a security vulnerability now have an ally in the White House. President Trump believes terrorists and gang members posing as refugees and asylees can sneak into the country and wreak havoc, all while collecting federally funded benefits.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions shares that view. “The system is being gamed, there’s no doubt about it,” he said last year.

At The Lighthouse, the view of asylum is decidedly different. At the recent “birthday” party for the home, former and current residents joined with volunteers to sing “Happy Birthday” and then “Amazing Grace.”

“Their first welcome was not a hospitable one,” said Singleton, the deacon who developed the idea for The Lighthouse. “And I feel a real sense of responsibility for letting them know that not all Americans are that way. And we are loving, good people. And we want you here among us, as our neighbors, and our family.”

Additional reporting by Lylla Younes.

A Newsgame

Like any piece of journalism, The Waiting Game presents true stories in each of the game’s five narratives. They’re based on detailed records and accounts from five real asylum seekers, as well as interviews with people who worked directly with them, and with experts who work with asylum seekers on a regular basis. The places, major events and people in our narratives are real, as are the reasons each person sought asylum and the results of their asylum requests. We have omitted details to protect the identity of the asylum seekers.

In order to make their experiences playable as a game, we added some details to these stories. For instance, to portray events that in the real world took a long time, we’ve made many screens the user must proceed through, adding minor details — locations, environmental conditions, etc. — we can’t know. None of these scenic details change the underlying facts of a story. No characters are made up, nor are any people in these stories composites.

The five stories necessarily represent a fortunate minority of asylum seekers in the United States. The fact that they were able to get legal representation and all the advantages that are likely to come with it — such as no-cost medical and psychological evaluations — contributed significantly to their success, and because asylum affidavits and medical notes are not public records, the level of detail in these cases were made known to us through the professionals who work with asylum seekers.

Our software chooses randomly from a large set of possible phrases when it builds such game scenes. No two players will get the same scenic details in the same way, though the facts of each case are as they happened are identical for everybody who plays.

A newsgame strives for the same level of research and foundation in reality as a traditional news story, and seeks to help players understand a complex issue by giving them a more personal and emotional experience. In the case of The Waiting Game, we hope that a player understands the difficulties, dangers and precarious nature of seeking asylum in the United States by living the experience of an asylum seeker directly.

Additional design and development by Lena Groeger, ProPublica, Lylla Younes, WNYC, and Sara Santini, Playmatics. Additional writing by Lindsay Palmer and Patrick Mooney, Playmatics. Sound design by Hannis Brown. Illustrations by Sara Santini.

Sources: Mount Sinai Human Rights Program; ProPublica and Playmatics research