This story is published in collaboration with Mother Jones
Steven Tendo kept everything he owned under his bunk bed mattress. His pillow was a lump of letters, transcripts, and postcards — reminiscences of a past from which he had been running. Tucked among them were photographs of Montana’s sprawling flatlands and mountains set against a blue sky. Montana reminded him of Uganda and home. Perhaps, one day he hoped, he might live there.
For six months Tendo had lived in Charlie 2, a dreary dormitory at Port Isabel Detention Center in the Texas town of Los Fresnos, about fifteen miles north of the border with Mexico. Tendo had been incarcerated many times but never for this long. He had been at Port Isabel since shortly after arriving in the United States 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 looked unmistakably like a prison.
“You live in grief,” Tendo said, “as long as you’re here.”
He hoped he would soon be gone. And so on the June morning in 2019 of the fourth and final day of his asylum hearings, he prayed. 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. Tendo shivered. He believed he had done what was asked of him, telling the story of his flight and why he feared he would be killed if he were deported back to Uganda.
He hoped the immigration judge would believe him.
By now the judge was well familiar with his case — how his work as a human rights activist, he said, had made him a target of the Ugandan government. 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. He had also shown the judge evidence he believed was indisputable proof of the story he had told: the gap above the joints on his left hand where the middle and ring fingers had been.
His lawyer, Thelma Garcia, often asked clients to show any physical proof of the harm they claimed to have suffered. “I’ve had people drop their pants before,” she said. Garcia had been practicing immigration law for more than forty years and her experience had taught her that bruises, scars, and missing body parts alone might not be enough to convince a judge. Nor could asylum seekers be sure their stories would be believed. Often their accounts of persecution and victimization were so complex and unthinkable that they defied logic and common understanding of human behavior. Garcia understood that 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.
“If they don’t find you credible,” she said, “whatever you say, it’s not going to count toward anything.”
Steven Tendo’s case and fate had fallen to Judge Frank T. Pimentel, a former assistant United States attorney appointed to the immigration bench in 2017 by then Attorney General Jeff Sessions. As of 2020, according to a review of decisions rendered by immigration judges between 2015 and 2020 by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, Pimentel had denied almost eighty-nine percent of 288 asylum cases. This placed him among those judges most likely to reject an asylum claim; there were judges across the country who granted asylum in over sixty percent of the cases they heard, and those who granted asylum to only one or two percent. Pimentel was closer to the latter. He worried Tendo. Pimentel, he said, “spoke softly but wasn’t a soft man.”
Steven Tendo was 34 years old. He was about five-foot eight inches tall, with a shaved head, piercing eyes, and a shy smile. A plane ticket to a new home in Helena, Montana awaited him. But only if Judge Pimentel believed him.
Ugandans boast that the country’s weather is so good and soil so rich and fertile that seeds will grow wherever they’re thrown. So it was that Steven Tendo, who was born in 1984, came of age in a world of plenty. His mother was a princess and his father a local chief in Buganda, once the most influential of Uganda’s traditional kingdoms. Tendo’s father was a personal appointee of the kabaka, or king, and enjoyed power and prestige. He had five children and an eight-bedroom house on the top of a hill and more than 2,000 cattle grazed the vast compound. The family had servants and hosted parties and luncheons most weekends with performances by local musicians. On Sundays, Tendo used to watch from a balcony as people came from afar to bestow such gifts as bananas, rice, and meat upon his parents.
This good fortune ended when Tendo was 13. Both parents, still in their early forties, died of AIDS, which by the 1990s had infected almost thirty percent of the population in parts of the country. Relatives descended on the family home, making financial claims. In time and with nothing to call their own, the children were left to provide for themselves. Tendo took on odd jobs as a gardener, a cashier, and at a publishing company assembling newspaper pages. During the day, he studied.
Tendo’s parents were devout Christians — the name means “praise” in their native Luganda language — and he grew even closer to his faith in the years after their death. He eventually was ordained a minister and founded his own nonprofit organization, ELOI Ministries. He traveled to preach in neighboring countries like Rwanda, Kenya, and Tanzania. At home he became an advocate for the incarcerated, advising them on their rights to legal representation and also counseled young people about the dangers of drugs and crime. His neighbors, who would later write letters in support of his asylum claim, thought him humble and courageous and appreciated his inviting Mzungu, the white people, to teach their children about Christian values.
In 2010, Tendo entered into an agreement with the government’s Ministry of Gender, Labor, and Social Development to provide health and education services to children, women, and the elderly. But in February 2011, things took a turn when Uganda held its presidential elections. Yoweri Museveni, a former guerrilla leader who rose to power in 1986, was declared the winner in a process tarnished by accusations of corruption and fraud. Protests followed but Museveni’s National Resistance Movement swiftly repressed them. The fraught political moment led Tendo to shift some of the organization’s efforts towards civil education and access to justice programs. The organization started encouraging young people, who make up almost eighty percent of the country’s population, to register to vote.
The government, he would later tell Judge Pimentel, regarded these initiatives as opposition to its rule. Threats followed. Tendo said he was called into a meeting with a government official who demanded that he quit all civic participation initiatives or risk suffering the consequences. Tendo said he was told, “Don’t say I did not warn you.”
One morning in April 2012, Tendo was on his way to work when he stopped at a gas station in the capital city, Kampala. Two men got out of a Toyota Mark II and one opened his coat just enough to reveal a weapon. They forced Tendo into their car and ordered the gas station’s manager to keep Tendo’s vehicle. They covered Tendo’s head with a sack so he would not know where they were taking him.
The men drove for hours until finally at dusk they reached one of the city’s many hills where Tendo could see what looked like military barracks. He had been taken to what was called a “safe house,” one of an unknown number of detention facilities where the Ugandan security forces were accused of torturing political prisoners, according to Human Rights Watch. Members of the Parliament’s Committee on Human Rights have since reportedly been denied access to these facilities, which government officials have acknowledged exist but for the purposes of intelligence and security operations and not torture.
Inside, Tendo said, two armed officers slapped him on both cheeks. “Who’s sponsoring your organization? Which political figure is behind your activities?” they kept asking. Tendo’s nose bled and he cried for mercy. One of the officers then approached him and Tendo saw he held a wire cutter. Slowly, the man started cutting Tendo’s fingers piece by piece. The pain was so bad that he could no longer think.
“I lost words,” Tendo told Judge Pimentel, as he held up his hand to show him where the fingers were missing. “I lost words to tell them.”
He was transported to a military clinic where a doctor reattached what he could of his severed fingers. But Tendo said his captors would not free him. Instead they kept him without food for days. He had been in their custody for three weeks when an officer arrived with new orders: Tendo was to receive what was called the “VIP” treatment, a euphemisim for torture that left no visible marks.
He was jailed in an underground room with a single source of light. The space was empty except for what Tendo said was a python. The snake had a rope tied around it. It was too far from Tendo to bite him, but every time one of the jailers pulled the rope, the python whipped its tail against Tendo. The torture, he told the judge, lasted for four or maybe six hours — at some point he lost track of time.
He recognized the commanding officer as a leader of a government-sponsored anti-terrorism unit known as the Black Mamba. The paramilitary group got its name from a deadly African snake.
“It’s like an insect that has fallen in the ants,” Tendo told Judge Pimentel. “The ant will eat anywhere. That is what happened to me.”
Asylum cases are a high-stakes test in storytelling, in conveying a narrative judged to be plausible. Asylum seekers tell their stories to an often skeptical audience. Is this person lying? Could this possibly have happened? They are asked to recount events most would hope to forget, and do so again and again, to asylum officers, lawyers, and finally, judges. This can go on for months, and all the while they are expected to tell their stories consistently, never overlooking details, or volunteering too much information. Inconsistencies that cannot be accounted for can result in a denial and deportation.
Nor are asylum seekers afforded the same protections as defendants in a criminal trial, who are considered innocent until proven guilty. Legal representation is not guaranteed and there is no presumption of credibility.
So it was that during the second day of hearings, Tendo encountered a skeptical Judge Pimentel.
“When you went missing back in 2012, did your family report your absence to the police?” the judge asked him.
Tendo said his family had called an uncle in the Ugandan military who had heard rumors that he had been sent to one of the “safe houses.”
“No one?” the judge continued, “including your wife, including your relatives, went to the police and said, ‘our dear brother, our dear husband is missing, and we don’t know where he is?’”
Tendo had tried to explain how his family had gotten word of his whereabouts. The gas station manager, he told the judge, had found a laptop and a phone inside his car and called his organization’s office. The employees then told Tendo’s sister that he had been taken. He testified that when his relatives and coworkers learned where he was being kept they staged a protest outside demanding his release or that he be taken to court to respond to any charges. He was freed a week later.
“The trickiest thing, Your Honor,” Tendo said, “is that once the government is done behind something, they will do everything possible to make sure that they frustrate any efforts towards rescuing you from its hands.”
“So wait a minute, Mr. Tendo,” said the judge. “Now, I’ve got to pause you there.”
“So basically what you’re telling me is, nobody goes to the police for anything in your country?”
“They called my—Your Honor, if it is not involved in government, or if it’s not the government trying to witch hunt you, but—”
“Well, how would your family know that?”
“They got rumors from the petrol station where I left the car, Your Honor—”
“Mr. Tendo, my point is, is that your family didn’t know you were abducted from a petrol station for quite some time. They couldn’t have known that.”
“No, they didn’t know, but my—”
“So the excuse about the petrol station, you’ve got to try better, Mr. Tendo. You’ve got to do better than that.”
Tendo fell silent.
“Right? I mean, people go missing, people get frantic.”
“Your Honor,” Tendo replied, “even people are killed, and no reports are done at police, because even if you go to police and make a report, nothing is going to happen.”
“Well, that’s my question. So you’re saying in your country, people just don’t go to the police when people go missing and disappear?”
“Unless if they—”
“I mean, if that’s your testimony, then—”
Tendo told the judge that he had been arrested and detained more times than he could count and tortured in more ways than he could remember. On one occasion, he said, his interrogators threw cold water on him while threatening to cut his head off and feed it to alligators. On another, they burned him with candle wax and hot plastic. Tendo submitted letters and affidavits from a neighbor and coworkers who witnessed his arrests over the years. One described how Tendo would cry for help when armed men picked him up and drove him away, leaving blood stains along the road. Sometimes it would be several weeks, sometimes months, before Tendo returned home, always with “horrible stories and scars on his body,” wrote the neighbor.
One of those who wrote on Tendo’s behalf was a prison official who had become an admirer of Tendo after seeing how many times he had been in and out of detention. In a signed declaration the official said: “It is a foregone conclusion that in the event that Steven Tendo is deported back to Uganda, he will not survive the wrath of the security agents who wish to harm him.”
The torture continued. Tendo told the judge that In May 2013, men from the Black Mamba raided his office and took him to another unidentified “safe house” on the Kololo hill in Kampala. They stripped off his clothes and handcuffed him to an iron board. They tied a brick to his genitals and left him hanging for seven hours, until he started bleeding. They also poured cold water and pepper sprayed him. During one incarceration at the maximum security Luzira Remand Prison, an examination documented in a letter from a medical superintendent at the hospital to which prisoners were referred revealed torture marks on his head, chest, back, legs, buttocks, genitals, and hands.
But even as he continued to be arrested and tortured the Ugandan government still allowed Tendo to leave the country. In 2014, he attended a religious conference in the United States. When he returned to Uganda, he told the judge that he was immediately taken into police custody and held for twelve days. After he was released, he said, a judge ordered him back to prison for twenty days, which turned into three months.
What he did not know until later, he testified, was that his wife at the time and the friend who had been the best man in his wedding were spying on him and sharing information with the government. Tendo also believed they were behind a scheme that led him to be charged with multiple counts of obtaining money by false pretenses, which were eventually dismissed, documents show.
In 2016, Museveni was re-elected for a fifth five-year term. Once again, the elections fell short of international standards, marred by allegations of voter intimidation and lack of transparency, with the main opposition candidate being arrested ahead of the voting. In its aftermath, there were reports of widespread censorship and prosecution of journalists, as well as arbitrary detentions and extrajudicial killings.
In 2019 the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor reported that the Ugandan government was “reluctant to investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights abuses.” Another study by Uganda’s Makerere University Law School’s Human Rights and Peace Centre found that the use of torture by security forces appeared to be “institutionalized and well planned,” with as many as seventy different techniques such as electric shocks and submersion in water. The reports described treatment very much like Tendo testified had happened to him: armed non-uniformed men conducting arrests and instances of prolonged detention in police custody, “safe houses,” and military barracks. About half of the country’s prison population was detained before going to trial, according to the State Department’s human rights report.
Tendo said he continued to be targeted for arrests and beatings. Once, he told the judge, he filed a complaint with an oversight body within the national police claiming he had been the victim of a “character assassination” attempt. In August 2017 Tendo had been invited to a meeting at a local restaurant with someone he had met in prison. The man had just recently been released and, as part of his nonprofit work to reintegrate the formerly incarcerated, Tendo said he was going to help him find a job.
But the business lunch turned out to be a set-up. It was a rainy day and the man invited Tendo to come to his house to dry off. Once there, Tendo was surrounded by police officers and two other men in plain clothes. They ordered him to take off his clothes and forced him to hold packs of condoms as they took pictures. Still naked, he was then made to walk along a busy road at 2 in the afternoon—a “walk of shame” that Tendo said was intended to associate him with homosexuality, which is criminalized in Uganda.
The national political landscape was looking increasingly dire in 2017. In December, Museveni, by then 73, signed a bill lifting a constitutional age limit for the presidency, paving the way for him to run for re-election in 2021, in what critics have called a “military coup.” Around that time, a resistance movement called People Power started to gain traction, especially among the young. Singer-turned politician and Parliament member Robert Kyagulanyi Sentamu, popularly known as Bobi Wine, who has been arrested multiple times and established himself as the face of the opposition, led the group known for its red attire and berets.
Tendo said he was accused of supporting the People Power movement. He had then moved to a different village, unable to stay in the same place for more than a week. In 2017, while in hiding, Tendo learned that his uncle, a senior police officer, had been shot to death outside his home. In August 2018, Tendo’s elder brother Yasin Kawuma was killed while driving Sentamu to a political campaign gathering.
“I knew that I was the next target,” Tendo told the judge.
In September 2018, Tendo left Uganda again, but this time with no intention of returning. He traveled through Ethiopia, Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. During his initial asylum screening interview in the United States, Tendo told an officer that while at the airport in Mexico City, he was beaten and threatened by Mexican immigration officials: he said they told them that If he didn’t get back on the plane, they could find people who would sodomize him. Tendo said he was taken to a detention center where he was kept for 27 days. When he was released, the Mexican officials gave him 45 days to regularize his immigration status or leave the country.
“I felt abandoned in the city center,” Tendo told the asylum officer.
He flew to Reynosa, the Mexican city close to the border with McAllen, Texas, where he said he was again detained for more than a month. After being released, Tendo went to a shelter, where he met Jennifer Harbury, a well-known retired attorney who works with migrants in the Rio Grande Valley. Harbury advised Tendo and another Ugandan asylum seeker he had met in Mexico City to travel to Matamoros where they would have an easier time crossing the international bridge to Brownsville on the U.S. side. “Mexican immigration [officials] and the gangs were grabbing everyone that was not anywhere near the bridge,” Harbury told me.
In Reynosa, Tendo also connected with Valerie Hellerman, a former nurse and executive director of Hands on Global, a Montana-based nonprofit organization that leads medical teams to refugee camps in Greece and the U.S.-Mexico border. Hellerman would later recall how Tendo and his fellow countryman stood out among the other migrants, mostly from Central America, huddling by themselves. “They seemed very desperate,” Hellerman told me. “I remember asking them what would happen if they went back home and they said they’d be killed. That was clear in their minds.” Hellerman gave them money to get to Matamoros. She was struck by the men’s insistence on crossing the border the “legal way,” waiting for their turn at the bridge.
Hellerman continued corresponding with Tendo and the other Ugandan asylum seeker after they crossed the border and were placed in a detention center in Texas. They complained to her about the conditions inside — how their bunk beds were right next to the one bathroom shared by dozens of people and how they felt they were mistreated because they were Black. She offered to be their sponsor and to house them. Both men would eventually have their cases heard by Judge Pimentel. The second man was granted asylum and upon his release was welcomed by Hellerman and her husband into their Montana home and church. The man joined an international refugee resettlement program and found a job.
Tendo, meanwhile, remained in detention.
In May, 2005 Congress passed the REAL ID Act, which established security standards for the issuance of driver’s licenses and other identification documents with the goal of curtailing identity fraud and deterring potential acts of terrorism. The law included measures to prevent terrorists from abusing the immigration system to obtain asylum.
“There is no one who is lying through their teeth that should be able to get relief from the courts and I would just point out that this bill would give immigration judges the tool to get at the Blind Sheik who wanted to blow up landmarks in New York, the man who plotted and executed the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York, the man who shot up the entrance to the CIA headquarters in northern Virginia, and the man who shot up the El AI counter at Los Angeles International Airport,” said thebill’s sponsor Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin. “Every one of these non-9/11 terrorists who tried to kill or did kill law-abiding Americans was an asylum applicant. We ought to give our judges the opportunity to tell these people no and pass the bill.”
The act raised the bar for asylum seekers across the board. Scholars critical of the act argued it would do little to improve national security since terrorists, including those cited by Sensenbrenner, already had their cases denied. Instead, the legislation has made it easier for immigration judges to deny cases based on credibility, with attorneys calling it nothing short of a tragedy for people with genuine claims.
In 2019, for instance, a Texas immigration judge found an asylum seeker from Cameroon not credible based entirely on what he considered fraudulent evidence. Appeal documents show that the judge questioned the authenticity of an affidavit because of inconsistencies in the spelling of the attorney’s name as written on the document and on the biography page of his law firm’s website. A letter from a website designer saying that he had mistakenly replaced an “n” with an “m” was enough to make sense of the confusion and the judge’s decision was eventually reversed on appeal.
The act also encourages judges to attribute meaning to a person’s demeanor and candor. The way someone sits or stands, how nervous they appear to be, how responsive they are, or the pace of their speech can all be used against them. When deciding the case of an asylum seeker from Togo, one immigration judge told the woman “passiveness and demureness” was not the order of the day. “If you’re really strong in your convictions you’ll express it in a strong manner,” the judge said. “If your answers are weak the Court may believe that you’re [sic] claim is also weak so conduct yourself accordingly.”
But non-verbal cues tend to be unreliable and misleading or, as then Chief Judge Frank Hoover Easterbrook at the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals put it, “the method of the lie detector without the polygraph machine.” An asylum seeker who suffered severe trauma might sound vague or on the edge. Similarly, someone who averts eye contact while testifying may come across as unreliable or insincere when, in fact, that behavior signifies respect for authorities in his or her culture.
Researchers say immigration judges are especially susceptible to implicit bias when examining credibility issues. They might not be familiar with a specific country’s customs and circumstances and imperfect translation can lead to cultural misunderstandings. Some countries like Ethiopia, for instance, follow a different calendar which might raise questions about the timeline of relevant events in the case. To fill contextual gaps, judges inevitably bring to the bench their own assumptions and views of the world, often Western ones, when gauging the plausibility of a claim. Many of them have spent their careers working as attorneys for the Department of Homeland Security or prosecutors with very little or no experience in immigration law.
Immigration judges enjoy such wide discretion in determining the outcome of a case that experts have often compared the asylum process to a game of roulette, where winning can be as random as the luck of the draw. Over the years, disparities in decisions among and within U.S. immigration courts have been extensively documented. In San Francisco, Syracuse’s TRAC data shows, an asylum seeker’s shot at winning asylum could range from less than ten to ninety-seven percent, depending on the judge, while in Atlanta, often referred to as an “asylum-free zone,” a particular judge has become notorious for rejecting every single case over a five-year period.
Federal courts of appeals have long found a pattern of misconduct among immigration judges characterized by hostile, cruel, and abusive behavior. The sheer volume of cases addressing such issues, according to the opinion of Seventh Circuit judge Ilana Diamond Rovner, should “sound a warning bell to the Department of Justice that something is amiss.” In the fiscal year 2018, the department received complaints of misconduct against twenty-four percent of immigration judges. The majority were related to due process and in-court conduct, and more than a third had to do with bias. Available data indicates that no judges were disciplined that year.
To level the playing field, immigration lawyers are increasingly turning to outside help: expert witnesses. They can be legal historians or academics with relevant knowledge about the conditions of a certain country who can contextualize an asylum seeker’s claim. The expert might also be a social worker or mental health specialist who is in a position to explain and make observations about certain behavior caused by trauma or gaps in testimony that might otherwise be misinterpreted in court. Based on what they know from research and fieldwork to be true about a country, expert witnesses can say in court or in writing what they think would happen if the asylum seeker were deported.
“The only way to cut through all the complexity and inequalities of immigration courts is for expertise to be a requirement,” said legal historian and professor of African History at the University of Arizona Benjamin N. Lawrance. “Unless [judges] have the information in front of them, they’re making decisions based on their gut instincts or on cases they’ve heard before, which is contradictory to the whole promise of asylum that every case will be considered on its merits.”
The experts’ job is not to advocate on someone’s behalf. In fact, some choose not to meet the asylum seeker in person so they can remain impartial and neutral observers. But what they have to say can have a real impact, even if most asylum seekers can’t afford to hire an expert witness. “You can write an article or a book but it’s not the same as playing a role in saving someone’s life,” said Susan Dicklitch-Nelson, a professor of government at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania who has served as an expert witness in more than one hundred political asylum cases from Cameroon and Uganda in courts in the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom. Her opinion has been cited in a precedent-setting decision finding that former child soldiers with the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda should qualify for asylum.
Since the 1990s, Dicklitch-Nelson has seen how stereotypes play a role in immigration courts. She once served as an expert witness in a case involving sexual orientation where a Ugandan asylum seeker’s credibility was being put into question because he didn’t come across as “effeminate” enough. Dicklitch-Nelson has also witnessed firsthand how, on paper, some asylum seekers’ stories can seem so implausible that they might be hard to believe. She has doubted some herself. “It’s unfortunate when people who don’t have a credible claim say they do because it makes it harder for those who do have legitimate claims and are not trusted,” she said.
But she reckons that most cases are not open-and-shut. “It’s very seldom that you have a case of a lily, a white num [orchid] that has been assaulted by bad rebel forces,” Dicklitch-Nelson said. “If something is so candid and perfect it raises suspicion to me rather than if there are inconsistencies.” Inconsistencies, she added, signify our humanity. “What most people don’t understand is that the entire future of your life is hanging on maybe a date or two. But how many of us remember the exact day we graduated from high school?”
Closing arguments in the case of Steven Tendo’s asylum request took place on the afternoon of June 24, 2019. Tendo’s lawyer Thelma Garcia argued that her client had been credible and consistent, having given detailed and specific testimony. “The government has done everything in their power to break this man,” she concluded, emphasizing that he had suffered psychological and physical harm.
The government’s attorney, Lily Dideban, focused on Tendo’s credibility, specifically asking the judge to evaluate his behavior.
“The respondent has not been candid nor forthcoming with the Court,” she said. “His claim is replete with implausible, inconsistent, and unbelievable claims.” Tendo’s demeanor, she went on, was rehearsed and his responses studied. Finally, she asked: “What reasonable person would keep returning to their country if they objectively and subjectively believed that the government that has helped them, will persecute him or her, acquiesce to this torture?”
Judge Pimentel had questioned why Tendo’s school records indicated that he had been born in 1985 as opposed to 1984 — his correct birth date as stated in passports and many other official documents — and pointed to discrepancies regarding travel dates and destinations in Tendo’s visa applications to attend religious conferences in the U.S. from years before. He also noted that Tendo had failed to present evidence like medical records attesting to his torture in 2012 and corroboration that his deceased relatives were, indeed, his uncle and brother.
Garcia was concerned. She had taken note of the judge’s body language during the hearings and sensed that he was growing skeptical of Tendo. She had advised Tendo to “tone down,” fearing the judge might have found him arrogant or that he was “putting on airs.”
She had reason to be concerned. As he delivered his verdict it was clear that Judge Pimentel had found it hard to believe in Tendo’s version of events.
“It is not more likely than not that the Ugandan government would acquiesce in or turn a blind eye toward any harm respondent might face,” he said, adding that If anything the government had repeatedly afforded Tendo due process and treated him fairly, as proven by the memorandum of understanding signed with his organization back in 2011 and a certificate of good conduct from the police saying that Tendo had never been convicted of a crime.
Steven Tendo, he ruled, was to be deported back to Uganda. When he heard the decision, shock rippled through Tendo’s body, a feeling he had only experienced once before: when his torturers severed his fingers. Back in the dorm he cried himself to sleep.
“The judge sentenced me to death that day,” he said. “If I knew what I know now I would have fought until my last breath.”
But Tendo would have a second chance at winning asylum. Asylum seekers who are ordered deported may turn to the Board of Immigration Appeals, an administrative body that has jurisdiction over the decisions of immigration judges.
Although only a fraction of asylum cases are eventually appealed, the federal circuit courts have issued opinions stating that the Board fell below the minimum standards of legal justice. Some lawyers and immigration policy experts claim the Board has turned into a mere “rubber stamp” for immigration judges’ decisions. During the Trump administration, the fairness of the entire process was further put into question following the promotion of immigration judges with a record of disproportionately denying cases to the board.
The Board reviewed Judge Pimentel’s decision and denied Tendo’s appeal, citing inconsistencies raised by the judge and the argument of lack of evidence. He was now represented by Lisa Brodyaga, a Harlingen immigration attorney and co-founder of the organization Refugio del Rio Grande. She believed that Judge Pimentel had based his decision on what she regarded as “trivial issues.”
With the denial of his appeal, the outlook of Tendo’s case was looking grim and he said that Immigration and Customs Enforcement was pushing to get his travel documents ready for his deportation. But then two weeks later, Jennifer Harbury, the retired attorney helping Tendo, learned about new developments in Uganda that might yet change everything.
In the early hours of Christmas Day 2019, seven heavily armed men broke into Tendo’s twin sister’s house, where she was alone with her three children. Based on their uniforms, she recognized that some of them were members of the government security forces, while others were dressed in plain clothes. The men beat her with sticks on the head, back, hands, and legs, saying they had reason to believe that Tendo was back in Uganda and that she was hiding him.
Tendo’s sister screamed until she lost her voice. When the children tried to scream, the men slapped them and ordered them to put their heads under the bed and stay quiet. They threatened to kill her and dip her body in acid. There was no point in reporting anything to the police because they were untouchable, they told her. To prove their point, the men also bragged about having tortured Tendo by burning him with hot candle wax.
“They asked me if my brother’s two fingers grew back because they wanted to cut off more,” she wrote in an affidavit. Tendo’s sister does not remember what happened next, only that she woke up in a hospital. Besides multiple bruises and swelling on the right arm, she also had a severe headache and blurred vision. A medical report showed that she had suffered from a concussion and post traumatic depression.
Her right hand was so badly bruised that she couldn’t sign the declaration to be submitted as evidence in Tendo’s case. Instead, she had to use a thumbprint. In photos sent to Harbury via WhatsApp, she appeared lying in a hospital bed with bandages around the head, right arm, and knees. She would later go into hiding.
Tendo always had a deep bond with his twin. They were the youngest in the family. “I tried to picture them beating my sister,” he told me. “Sometimes it gets too much.”
His lawyers would now try to show that the new evidence, had it been available at the time of the hearing, would likely have changed the outcome of the case. If they somehow succeeded, the case would be reopened and returned to the immigration judge. To supplement the testimony from Tendo’s sister, they also received a declaration from the prison official familiar with Tendo’s torture.
The prison official had since found a renewed purpose to help Tendo. In 2017, while attending the funeral of a relative, the official had met Tendo and learned that they were, in fact, distant cousins. In a declaration, the official stated that an immigration authority had disclosed in a casual conversation that deportees were “very hot business.” Once they arrive at the airport, the official said, they are treated as suspected terrorists and immediately handed over to the security forces.
“Running away from your tormentor is no work done,” the prison official told me. “You’ll still end up in their hands.”
In late March, a contract employee at Port Isabel Detention Center tested positive for coronavirus, according to local news reports. Tendo told me at the time the detainees received little guidance about safety so he watched cable news to stay informed. Advocates and lawyers started denouncing the state of hygiene and health conditions inside, including insufficient soap and hand sanitizer supplies, no social distancing measures, and guards circulating without masks. Another Ugandan asylum seeker in the same dorm as Tendo told me that the common eight phones and tablets weren’t sanitized after use and the exposed toilets were only cleaned twice a day. Soon, detainees were staging hunger strikes in protest.
Tendo’s lawyers and supporters became increasingly worried about his health. He had now been in detention for two years and has been suffering from high blood pressure. During one of our many timed video calls, Tendo wore a white tee-shirt and with his left hand, he scratched his right upper arm. He showed me bumps and rashes associated with diabetes and a skin infection. He was unable to maintain a balanced, low-sugar diet since meals often consisted of sandwiches, oatmeal, or rice. He often felt hungry, a reflection of his lack of energy, but his multiple requests to change the diet or increase daily food portions went unheeded. He had lost almost thirty pounds and at times he felt dizzy and numbness in his limbs.
After an outside doctor with the Migrant Clinicians Network evaluated his medical records, which amounted to 930 pages, he concluded that Tendo’s immune system had been compromised and any infection could kill him. The government has claimed in court filings opposing Tendo’s release to have prescribed him appropriate medication and diet since his arrival in detention. But Tendo’s lawyers said it took months for nurses to start checking his blood sugar levels twice a day since he was not allowed to keep a finger-prick testing device as a safety measure, as well as to provide snacks of fruits and milk, according to an August lawsuit seeking compensatory damages for ICE’s disregard for Tendo’s health.
Tendo’s eyesight quickly deteriorated, a result of his high blood pressure. He started feeling a sharp pain behind his right eye that spread to his entire face. With time, he said, it was as if a white sheet covered his eye, blurring his vision. Tendo was eventually diagnosed with cataracts and, according to his medical records, at risk of going blind.
Since the start of the pandemic ICE had released hundreds of vulnerable detainees across the country. Tendo was never among them. Repeated attempts to gain his release because of his chronic medical conditions were rejected by the agency.
In mid-April, Tendo sent Harbury a message that read: “I think they wanna kill me and deport a dead body. I am so frustrated, Jennifer, wondering if they have a personal grudge against me.” About a month later, he went on a hunger strike to protest his prolonged detention. In a letter shared with advocates and the press, Tendo wrote “A dead body can not be detained” and closed with “In God I Trust.”
In late April, Cathy Potter, the attorney who filed the civil lawsuit on Tendo’s behalf, asked for a court order to immediately release him to “prevent potentially irreversible injury, up to and including death.” A district court judge denied it. By June, confirmed COVD-19 cases had spiked in the facility and more than thirty detainees reportedly tested positive.
“Cases are just mushrooming and they’re putting everybody who has symptoms in the same room,” Potter said. Around that time, Tendo started coughing, developed a fever, and had difficulty breathing. He could no longer smell his deodorant, another symptom of COVID-19.
Tendo’s messages to me over the following weeks and months grew increasingly desperate.
“I can’t bear the pain any longer.”
“I am fair and tired of this place.”
“It’s too much.”
Then in August, Tendo said his dorm had been placed under quarantine. A detainee who had tested positive was sleeping three beds away from him. “I don’t know what will happen to me if I get it again…I am just scared,” he wrote. “If this virus doesn’t kill me, nothing will.”
Around that time, Tendo’s best friend in detention, Geoffrey, was released to await his asylum hearing. The two had met for the first time in the Port Isabel library and learned they came from the same region in Uganda. Geoffrey had fled the country after facing retaliation prompted by allegations from his own family that he was gay. Tendo, he said, taught him how to read the Bible and helped him research his case. They also shared grievances about the state of affairs in their country.
“Whoever’s trying to say anything against the government… those don’t get to leave the country, are in jail, are persecuted,” Geoffrey told me. “He’s at least lucky he managed to leave the country. People who try to help others, show other people the truth, that’s how the government treats them.”
Without his friend, Tendo’s connections with the outside world became all the more important. He had people like Barbara Soros, a pen pal from Vermont who sent him books about the life of Napoleon and by the anti-Nazi German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They corresponded about spirituality and shared recipes and meditation practices. They also wrote about his possible deportation.
“I think I serve in a way as a kind of advisor to him,” Soros told me. “They’re all just floating in there, not really in this country. In jail, you have a sentence: two months, three years, you know that and you’re trying to accommodate day by day. In the [immigration] system there’s nothing really to accommodate. Everything is left so ambiguous.”
On August 31, 2020, Tendo was informed that he would be transferred the following day. He protested saying he had his long-awaited cataract surgery scheduled for the following week. The next morning, a Tuesday, officers walked into the dorm and told him to pack his things. “You’re going,” they told him. According to Tendo’s account, he resisted and a group of officers grabbed him and knelt on his back to cuff his hands and legs. “They lifted me up like a coffin in the air,” Tendo said.
As far as Tendo and his lawyers knew, he was going to a different detention center in Laredo. Instead, they took him to the international airport, where Tendo saw another Ugandan waiting to be deported. “It’s a hoax and a lie,” the man told him. “They’re deporting you.”
“I entered the plane and I stopped seeing human beings, only machines,” Tendo said. “They didn’t listen. I couldn’t tell them I was sick.”
Tendo’s destination was the Alexandria Staging Facility in Louisiana, often the last stop before a deportation flight. He was set to be deported on September 3, the day he was supposed to have surgery. Meanwhile, Harbury and other volunteers were scrambling to locate Tendo and start a campaign to halt his deportation. In a letter to the Acting Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, forty-four Members of Congress wrote to express concern over Tendo’s imminent return to Uganda and asked the agency to release him on medical grounds while his federal appeal with the conservative Fifth Circuit was pending. Amnesty International and other human rights organizations also mobilized around his cause. On Facebook, a photo of Tendo smiling in a suit and red shirt and tie was turned into art.
Tendo spent two nights in Alexandria before boarding another plane to Arizona, where he was remanded to the Florence Service Processing Center. There, Tendo met at least ten other asylum seekers from Uganda, many of whom had also been victims of torture. At around midnight on September 7, Tendo learned that he wasn’t going to be deported after all. At least not yet. He stayed and prayed with the others until 3 a.m. and watched as they cried and moved towards the plane.
“I will never forget that day,” Tendo said. “I was in so much fear.”
In November, Tendo celebrated his 36th birthday, his second in detention. He received twenty-one letters and birthday cards — some from as close as Vermont, others from as far as Germany — which he was able to read after his successful cataract surgery in September. Tendo gathered thirty-four detainees in his dorm and bought soda from the commissary for each one of them. They made two cakes with cookies and milk in a microwave and beef tacos with chili and beans.
“My birthday was indeed a success,” he said. “Officers looked in amazement, one of them told me he had never seen what I did in the last 18 years he has been working here. It’s a day I will never forget maybe it represented a farewell for me as well from detention.”
That farewell finally came without a warning. On February 10, 2021, Tendo said ICE officers showed up at his dorm and told him he had 15 minutes to pack his belongings. For a brief moment, he still thought they might try to deport him, but as Tendo was heading out, he saw detainees in different dorms shouting and cheering him on. After 26 months in detention, he was set free on parole.
“I looked back and thought about my friends who are still detained and I started hurting for them,” he said. “I used to feel so bad that people were leaving me there.”
His lawyers and advocates couldn’t explain the circumstances of his sudden release. It could have been the result of an order from a DHS official to create space for new arrivals. Perhaps it was a response by the new administration to negative publicity surrounding the deportations of migrants from Haiti and Cameroon.
After I heard he had been released, I called his lawyer, Lisa Brodyaga, to ask what had happened. “Who knows, somebody might have woken up on the right side of the bed,” she said. “It gets pretty arbitrary.” She’s also “cautiously optimistic” about his asylum case moving forward. Last September, although the BIA rejected a motion to reopen the case, a judge dissented, finding Tendo had overcome the negative credibility determination and the new evidence combined with the previous record in his case “likely independently establishes the respondent’s asylum claim.” That opinion could help sway the Fifth Circuit in Tendo’s favor, Brodyaga said.
Tendo was released just in time for the deadly winter storm that left millions of people without power and water. He stayed with another advocate for a few days before joining his sponsor Harbury in Weslaco, Texas. A future move to Montana is not out of the question.
On his first night as a relatively free man, Tendo still woke up at 5 a.m., imagining he had to get in line to be counted by the detention officers. When I called him a week later, he celebrated being able to talk on his own phone line, having space to run, and eating big pieces of chicken, fish, mango and oranges for his meals. His sugar levels have already gone down. Tendo plans to get a work permit, go back to school to study law, and continue his advocacy work in the US and Uganda, where the sitting president was once again re-elected. He still needs to wear an ankle monitor.
“It’s unbelievable that I’m free,” he said. “Sometimes I think to myself: is this really happening? Yes, it’s happening.”