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Congolese Asylum-Seeker Reunited With Family After Almost Two Years Apart

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An asylum-seeker from the Democratic Republic of Congo was reunited with his family in San Diego on Sunday after almost two years in ICE detention.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 And asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of Congo was reunited with his family in San Diego last week. After almost two years in ice detention, Constantine Buchla left the Democratic Republic of Congo with his wife and seven children to escape political persecution. Once they arrived at the San Ysidro port of entry, Constantine was separated from his family and held in detention. KPBS reporter Max Rivlin Adler was there as his new church congregation rejoiced with a welcome home celebration on Sunday after fighting to get him free and back with his family. Max, thanks for joining us. Hi. Why was Bakala separated from his wife and children once they arrived at the u s border here?

Speaker 2: 00:43 So they arrived in November, 2017 and separating one parent if there was a two parent family that arrived at the border was fairly common at the time. Um, this was before the big uproar about family separations. That was last summer in 2018 but at the time it was common for the, usually the mother to be sent out of ice detention and into the community to await their asylum claims with the children and the father to be detained. And that's what happened here. So what purpose did that serve? Ice made the argument again and again that he would be a flight risk, uh, that they wouldn't show back up to pursue their asylum claims, that they would be in the country basically. Um, you know, living here without authorization and, and trying to stay off the grid as possible. But of course, because he was intending to apply for asylum along with the rest of his family. Um, this was not something that was the case and something that has lawyers once he eventually got them made time and time again

Speaker 1: 01:40 and there were talks of, of deporting him, correct.

Speaker 2: 01:43 Right. So when he first arrived, he didn't have a lawyer, like almost all immigrants. Uh, like all asylum seekers. They don't have lawyers when they arrive and it's incredibly tough to get them. So ice gives a detainees a list of lawyers to call. He called all of them. He couldn't get in touch with any of them and at each different detention center that he was taken to, uh, he was given a new list and he had to start basically from scratch. Uh, one of the big barriers for people trying to make their own asylum claims is that everything has to be filled out in English. Uh, Bacalla was fleeing from the Democratic Republic of Congo. He speaks French, he does not speak English and was using basically a French to English dictionary to do his own asylum claims. A judge found that he did not have a viable claim and he was pretty much ready to be removed before his family was able to locate a lawyer for him.

Speaker 1: 02:37 Now that he's been reunited with his family, what type of challenges may he have coming up ahead?

Speaker 2: 02:43 Well, uh, one thing is that it's incredibly difficult for, uh, asylum seekers to get a work permit. Uh, this is a long process that you have to prove several things. His wife has a work permit. Again, this is something that it's really helpful to have a lawyer to help you, it with community organizations that have specialties in this. So it's possible that he might never get a work permit. Um, but it's something he wants to definitely focus on. He comes from a a computer systems background and that is something that he's looking forward to. He said an interview is getting back to work, but in the meantime helping out at home. Like I said, he has seven children with him.

Speaker 1: 03:21 Right. So where does their immigration status stand today? So

Speaker 2: 03:24 the family and uh, the Father Constantine had separate immigration cases because while you are held in ice detention, your case gets transferred to whatever local area you're in. So while they were in San Diego, he was in Georgia or Virginia, he got transferred around quite a bit. So they actually had a hearing scheduled for later next month in September. And that just got pushed back because as I reported on last week, basically the immigration courts are now prioritizing asylum seekers who've been sent back to Mexico to wait out their cases and they're letting people who have are not being detained to wait years, oh months or even possibly years before their hearing. So it's incredibly murky right now. And they will be living in this legal limbo for at least a another year.

Speaker 1: 04:18 [inaudible] case unique.

Speaker 2: 04:20 No, his cases, his case is only unique in that he was able to successfully fight his removal. For the most part, people do not have anyone, um, defending them in court. They don't have access to attorneys. And of course we're really helped him out with this access to this really supportive congregation at St Luke's in North Park. All of these resources that Bacala had is not something that other immigrants enjoy. But the first part of his story, I would say is incredibly similar, where you are lost in the system, you do not know which direction to turn to. You do not speak the language and soon enough you're removed from the country. And that happens to a lot of people who have been, you know, at least at their initial screening deemed to have very credible fears.

Speaker 1: 05:05 And can you tell me more about the conflict going on in the DRC and the political persecution? Buchla experienced?

Speaker 2: 05:12 The Democratic Republic of Congo has a very, uh, weak democracy, uh, that is kind of tainted by the high involvement by western and Asian mining interests. Cause this is really, um, uh, rich with natural, uh, minerals. Uh, and so they had kind of a despotic ruler, Joseph Kabila, who took over from his father and ruled for 18 years. And so at the time that Bakala and his family left, there was a time of harsh political repression as Capela, uh, tried to hold onto power past his last term limits. So, um, co Bacala was involved in pro-democracy demonstrations and because of this, he was beaten, violently assaulted by police. His wife was kidnapped and sexually assaulted by police. It was a really grotesque in their telling situation. So that's what they were escaping from just recently in the DRC. There's a new government. Um, however, given the challenges of a Bola outbreak as well as the remaining interest by foreign multinational mining groups, uh, it's going to be a tough road ahead for them.

Speaker 2: 06:19 And what have you learned about how asylum cases of Congolese people are being handled at the southern border? So it's, it's not a great situation by any means. And what's actually happening is there's a huge backup at our southern border in Tijuana itself. You've seen the shift away from Central American migrants to now a majority of African migrants. And just this past weekend there were clashes between immigration authorities and African asylum seekers at the southern border of Mexico where Mexico is trying to kind of close off this route for Africans who are flying into places like Brazil, like Bakala did and his family did. Um, where you don't need a visa and you're able to go and basically follow the land route or the boat route up through the south of Mexico and to the northern border of Mexico and the southern border of the U S and a lot of people are very upset by the perceived corruption of Mexican authorities in giving preference to Spanish speakers when it comes to the very, very few slots available for people to enter the United States and claim asylum more challenges and working their way through the process. I've been speaking with KPBS reporter, Max Rivlin, Adler Max. Thank you very much. Thank you.

Speaker 3: 07:34 [inaudible].

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.