Steven Tendo kept everything he owned under his bunk bed mattress. His pillow was a lump of letters, transcripts, and postcards—all that remained from a past he had fled and paper-thin promises of what life could become. Tucked among them were photographs of Montana’s sprawling flatlands and mountains set against a blue sky. Montana reminded him of Uganda and home. A plane ticket to a new beginning in Helena, Montana, awaited him.
But he had to manage to be released from Charlie 2, a dreary dormitory at Port Isabel Detention Center in the Texas town of Los Fresnos, about 15 miles north of the border with Mexico. Tendo had been incarcerated many times in his home country, but the six months in custody of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement had been his longest. He had been at Port Isabel since shortly after arriving in the United States in December 2018, seeking political asylum. The facility stood near the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, a sanctuary for migratory birds. It had once been part of a military base, but now, surrounded by a 10-foot-tall chain-link fence with barbed wire, it looked unmistakably like a prison.
“You live in grief,” Tendo told me, “as long as you’re here.”
He hoped that time would soon be over. And so, on the June morning in 2019 of the fourth and final day of his asylum hearings, he prayed. At 34, Tendo was about 5 feet 8 inches, with a shaved head, piercing eyes, and a shy smile. He walked into the frigid courtroom wearing navy blue pants and a matching shirt with the detention center’s initials PIDC stenciled on the back. The room could accommodate only three wooden benches lined up on each side. The walls were so thin it was possible to hear the proceedings in the room next door.
The immigration judge was familiar with his case—how Tendo believed that his work as a human rights activist had made him a target of the Ugandan government, which had abducted and tortured him repeatedly. To tell his story Tendo had put to use all the English he had ever learned. He drew upon old memories blurred from the passage of time and others so fresh and haunting they stayed with him when he returned to his dormitory. Tendo had also shown the judge evidence he believed was indisputable proof of his story: he held up his left hand where there was a gap above the joints where the middle and ring fingers once had been.
Still, his lawyer, Thelma Garcia, who had been practicing immigration law for more than 40 years, knew that bruises, scars, and missing body parts alone might not be enough to convince a judge. She also knew asylum seekers could not be sure that their stories of persecution and victimization—so complex and unthinkable that they defied logic and common understanding of human behavior—would be believed. In fact, Garcia knew that given the way the system was set up, they likely wouldn’t be. For her clients to prevail and win asylum in the United States, everything came down not to a jury, or a hearing panel, but to a single person, a judge. Port Isabel had some of the toughest.
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