On a chilly April night in the desert outside Phoenix, Rasel Ahmed, his wrists and ankles bound in cuffs, shuffled onto a bus at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement airfield with a pit in his stomach.
From his home village in the rice fields of eastern Bangladesh, the 30-year-old restaurant worker had traveled through a dozen countries to reach the United States, nearly collapsing in relief when he saw the American flag flying over the border crossing at San Ysidro.
For 18 months he bounced among detention centers in San Diego, Louisiana and Alabama, praying for an immigration judge to let him remain in the country, get a job and support his family 8,000 miles away.
Now it appeared his time had run out.
Rasel sat near the front as the bus approached a plane looming beside an empty airstrip. Two dozen shackled Bangladeshis and Indians twisted in their seats, some shouting in protest, when the bus stopped.
An immigration officer who looked to be from Pakistan barked at the group in Urdu: “You’re all going home, either alive or dead,” he said.
The ICE-chartered flight that took off from Mesa, Ariz., on April 3 carried 85 Bangladeshis, Indians and Nepalis. They had reached the end of a long, unlikely journey to the United States.
They were among thousands of international migrants whose numbers are now surging across Latin America, taking advantage of travel routes and smuggling networks forged over decades by Latino immigrants destined for the U.S.
Nearly all had started in Brazil and snaked north for months, braving dense forests, roiling waters, bandits and gang-infested towns before arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. Some attempted to sneak in illegally and were caught; others surrendered to authorities, requesting asylum.
South Asians have become some of the biggest users of this expanding immigration pipeline. In the 11 months ending in August 2016, at least 4,060 Bangladeshis, Indians, Nepalis and Pakistanis traveled to the U.S. along this route, compared with just 225 seven years earlier, according to Customs and Border Protection statistics. Of those, 3,604 were arrested while crossing illegally, nearly a fourfold increase from 2012.
The passengers on the charter flight from Arizona to Dhaka had each paid tens of thousands of dollars to traffickers who promised them a chance at a new life. But the money was gone, months had been spent attempting the treacherous journeys and languishing in detention, and courts in the U.S. had rejected their asylum claims.
They had gambled, and lost.
As an officer began reading off names of the detainees, a few men resisted and lunged toward the door. Rasel stood up too. He thought of his ailing father who had liquidated the family savings to get him to this point, the hellish journey he had survived and the shame of returning to Bangladesh.
Rasel saw an officer point a small weapon, about the size of a handgun. Then he crumpled to the floor and fell unconscious.
He awoke in an airplane seat, his body encased in a navy blue blanket unzipped to the middle of his chest. His face was bruised; his eyelids felt like they had weights attached.
Seated in the row behind him, Dalim Ahmed, a 29-year-old Bangladeshi, saw Rasel slumped in his seat, barely moving.
“He looked dead,” Dalim said.
“If I had applied for a U.S. visa, I would never have gotten one”
In a tidy village in the eastern district of Sylhet, below azure hills that mark the Bangladeshi-Indian border, skull-capped schoolboys toss cricket balls in the dirt and brightly colored clothes dry under palm trees. Rasel, curly-haired and slightly pudgy, lived with his family in a two-room mud house on a plot shared with his uncles and cousins.
One uncle owned a restaurant where Rasel worked in the kitchen, earning about $40 a month. But with an eighth-grade education, there was little more he could aspire to in Sylhet. The sleepy tea-growing region’s main export is its people — fortune-seekers who have migrated to Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, taken blue-collar jobs and sent money back home.
The most desperate set off in ramshackle fishing boats for Thailand and Malaysia, many perishing in the Bay of Bengal. Those better off look to the West. In the 2000s, tens of thousands of Bangladeshis entered the United States on diversity visas, intended for semi-skilled immigrants from countries underrepresented in the U.S. population.
By 2013 so many had come that Bangladesh was dropped from the program.
“If I had applied for a U.S. visa, I would never have gotten one,” Rasel said.
Among the young dreamers of Sylhet, word spread of another option. Ecuador was allowing migrants from all over the world to fly in with little more than tourist visas. Smuggling networks offered passage up through Colombia and Panama to Guatemala and Mexico. From there, it was a bus or plane ride to the U.S. border.
The migrant trail through the Americas, Rasel decided, “was my only pathway.”
With his soft voice and delicate manner, Rasel did not seem cut out for the journey. He spoke no English; he had barely been outside Sylhet.
Then he reconnected with a childhood friend.
Mostafa Kamal had left Sylhet in 2004, flying into New York holding an immigrant visa. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen and bought a row house in northeast Philadelphia. When Kamal returned to his family’s village in November 2013, Rasel came to see him.
“He talked about the U.S. so casually. It sounded good,” Rasel said. “I knew living standards in the U.S. were better than in Bangladesh. If he said life wasn’t good there, I wouldn’t have believed him.”
A loan, with interest
Rasel’s father, Abdul Manik, was skeptical.
His second son had always been a bit starry-eyed. Rasel’s older brother was managing their one-acre farm and supporting the family; his younger brother was college-bound. His two sisters had been married, which had cost small fortunes.
A stomach operation two decades earlier had scarred Abdul Manik’s torso with grape-sized pits and weakened him so much that he could no longer work. He wondered how he could find the $30,000 smugglers in Dhaka were demanding to arrange passports, visas and plane tickets for the journey to the U.S.
“But Rasel was crazy about going,” said Abdul Manik, 65, whose short gray hair frames a round, creased face. “For three months he pressured me.”
Abdul Manik relented, selling their house and farmland to his brothers and putting his cattle up for auction. Even that wasn’t enough; he had to ask his brothers for an additional $12,000, which they only would loan him with interest.
In Bangladesh, where the average family lives on $150 a month, paying for a relative’s journey abroad is widely considered not a gift but an investment. At least 8% of the country’s economy comes from remittances sent home by workers overseas.
“I hoped he would find work in the U.S. and we would repay it,” Abdul Manik said. “He said he would support us and make me happy.”
Rasel’s older brother contacted a smuggler in Dhaka, who sent a folder with plane tickets and instructions. Rasel stuffed a couple of shirts, pants and shorts into a small suitcase and a backpack. In his pocket he carried a new Samsung phone, a gift from his aunt.
“Stay in touch with us on Facebook,” she said.
He rode a six-hour bus to Dhaka, where he boarded a flight to Dubai. It was his first time on a plane.
Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador…
He hopscotched across airports in Brazil, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, then took buses and taxis to the Colombian border. Security guards there confiscated his new phone and hundreds of dollars, leaving him with only about $150 he had stashed in various pockets.
He traded in his hard suitcase for a soft bag and boots, and ditched some of his clothes for the arduous walk ahead.
Along with other migrants and a rotating cast of coyotes, Rasel crossed mountains and rivers to get to Panama, where he spent several nights in the malarial, snake-ridden Darién jungle sleeping on his raincoat, his head resting on his bag. The sight of dead bodies lying in ditches along the trail nearly made him sick.
He drank from streams and rationed dates from his pocket, sneaking bites when others weren’t looking so he wouldn’t have to share.
At the edge of Nicaragua, he piled with a dozen migrants into a rickety fishing boat to cross the 20-mile-wide Gulf of Fonseca, bound for El Salvador. The rolling waves caused him to vomit; the salt water stung his eyes.
He and his companions were held by a Salvadoran gang for four days in a forest before being allowed to proceed to Guatemala and on to the southern Mexican border at Tapachula, a bustling migrant way station thick with Asians, Africans and Haitians aiming for America. Using the few words of English he had practiced, Rasel told the Mexican authorities that he was seeking political asylum in the United States.
They let him enter, but only on condition that he leave Mexico within 20 days. He flew to Tijuana and got a taxi to drop him near the border crossing on Oct. 14, 2014. He walked the last few hundred yards, until he could see the American flag.
“Whether you eat or not, we’re never going to let you go free.”
Like many Bangladeshi asylum seekers, Rasel planned to argue that he needed protection because he supported the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party, or BNP, the country’s largest opposition group, which Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government has hounded with growing ferocity since 2014.
He was allowed into the United States but confined to a two-man cell at the Otay Detention Facility outside San Diego, until a date could be scheduled for him to plead his case before an immigration judge.
The vast U.S. immigration court system has not been particularly kind to Bangladeshis. Only 13% of applicants from Bangladesh were granted asylum in the U.S. in the five-year period ending in September 2015, according to statistics from the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review.
Rasel had other things working against him. His case was assigned to Judge Jesus Clemente, a former military prosecutor who has denied 93% of the asylum claims he has decided since 2011, one of the lowest rates among immigration judges, according to data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
The first test of an asylum claim is whether the defendant can demonstrate a “credible fear” that he will be persecuted if he returns to his home country. Apart from attending a couple of BNP rallies, Rasel had not been politically active. Testifying via a video link from Otay — beamed into Clemente’s courtroom 20 miles away — Rasel could offer no evidence he had been threatened or harmed for his views.
“He had kind of a wishy-washy story,” said Taryn Jelovich, an attorney who represented Rasel and other Bangladeshi detainees. “The judge came to the same conclusion.” Clemente ruled that Rasel didn’t meet the “credible fear” threshold. He wouldn’t get an asylum hearing and would be set for deportation.
But there was a delay. With his passport missing — Rasel said his was stolen in Colombia — he couldn’t be sent home immediately, and Bangladesh appeared to be in no hurry to issue a new one.
Rasel called his mother every two to three weeks and told her not to worry. But he was breaking down and losing weight.
“He’s a very gentle soul, a very slight, soft boy,” his attorney said. “It always surprised me that someone like that could endure such a harrowing trip.”
After a year, he was transferred to a detention center in Louisiana and then to a notorious facility in Etowah County, Alabama, where he was placed in a dark cell inside a six-story tower.
In October 2015, 54 South Asian asylum seekers detained in El Paso, Texas, stopped eating in protest of their prolonged detention. The hunger strike made national news and spread to more than 100 detainees at 10 facilities, including Etowah, where Rasel went without food for 12 days.
Medical staff administered saline injections every morning and evening, but after a few days he had to be taken to a hospital. As he lay on a bed in handcuffs, a doctor inserted a catheter to draw a urine sample, a procedure that Rasel recalled as “merciless torture.”
An ICE officer who was monitoring him said, “Whether you eat or not, we’re never going to let you go free.”
Rasel broke his fast. Four months later, on a morning in March, a guard marched him down to the main floor. He was driven 450 miles to a detention center in Louisiana, then flown to a facility in another state, then to Arizona, where, although he didn’t know it, the charter plane would be waiting.
But the ordeal wasn’t over.
At the airfield in Mesa, as several of the detainees struggled to avoid being loaded onto the plane, ICE officers fired Tasers and wrapped them in full-body restraint blankets, according to accounts from Rasel and others.
Officers took cellphone videos of the prisoners as they lay on the ground, they said, then grabbed the bags by the handles and heaved them onto the plane, some landing with a thud.
“Like they were sacks of vegetables,” said Ahmed, the fellow Bangladeshi who had seen Rasel slumped in his seat.
The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general is investigating the incident.
ICE denies using Tasers to subdue the detainees, saying “deportation officers are not issued such devices.” The agency’s guidelines, however, allow for the use of weapons that deliver electric shocks.
Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for the agency, said officers did employ restraint blankets — tight cocoons that leave only the head and feet exposed— after “approximately a dozen of the detainees refused to comply with officers’ instructions and became combative, endangering themselves and ICE officers.”
Rasel was shackled and kept in the blanket throughout the flight to Bangladesh, more than 30 hours with stops. ICE officers removed the restraints shortly before he and 26 other Bangladeshis stepped off the plane early April 6 at the airport in Dhaka.
“I came to the U.S. because I thought they stood for human rights,” Rasel said. “But look what happened to us.”
“I think it would be better if I died.”
The cellphone rang in the middle of the night in Sylhet. It was Rasel, who hadn’t called in weeks.
“Where are you?” asked his mother, Pinjira Begum.
“Mom, I’ve been deported,” Rasel answered.
That didn’t sink in immediately. “Can you call someone?” she said.
“Mom, I’m in Dhaka.”
She let out a soft gasp. His father took the phone and told him to come home. Rasel at first refused, but finally he got on a bus back to Sylhet. When he got home, he collapsed in his father’s arms.
Seven months later, in mid-November, the family was living an hour’s drive from their former home at the clean, spacious house of a distant relative, who had offered the place rent-free.
“The money is gone, but at least I got my son home,” Abdul Manik said, his voice cracking.
Rasel was too depressed to work. His brother-in-law, a supplier of stones for construction, tried to bring him on as an assistant but Rasel showed little interest.
He has stayed in touch with other ex-migrants he met on the deportation flight, trading Facebook messages. Occasionally, they run into each other in the clogged, dust-blown streets of Sylhet, sometimes exchanging a few words of Spanish.
Rasel has not told his mother the worst of what he endured. Relatives have been harassing his father, demanding their money back.
“I never thought they would put such pressure on me,” Abdul Manik said. “I feel like I have nothing to stand on.”
He was quiet for a moment, a tear rolling down one cheek. “I think it would be better if I died.”
The debt has saddled Rasel and his brothers perhaps for life. Sinking into a plastic chair in his bedroom, he seemed to vanish in plain sight, staring into the distance or holding his head in his hands.
“I don’t feel any strength to do anything,” he said. “Mentally and physically, I am broken. I just feel it was the biggest mistake I ever made.”
Additional credits: Lily Mihalik