TACOMA, Wash. - Dressed in a blue prison jumpsuit, 21-year-old Allie Muktar -- the only one who can speak English well in a group of about 40 Somali men -- interprets legal tips from a pro-bono attorney in a meeting room of the Northwest Detention Center.
All the men are seeking asylum in the United States after entering the country through Mexico. They are part of a growing number of East African immigrants who in recent years have used routes traditionally traveled by Latino immigrants.
"I've seen, read all of your (stories) and you all have the chance to qualify to stay here," Betsy Tao, a lead attorney for Northwest Immigrants Rights Project, tells the group.
Muktar translates. The men listen attentively.
Nearly 80 Somali nationals have been transferred to the detention center in Tacoma since March, sending the lone free legal aid firm that serves the detention center scrambling to try to help the asylum seekers navigate the country's complex immigration laws.
Nearly 260 Somalis have reached the U.S.-Mexican border in the first eight months of the fiscal year 2010, eclipsing the more than 240 who sought asylum the entire year before, according to statistics from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The number of Somalis arriving at the border in 2009 were more than double those in 2008.
A handful of Eritreans and Ethiopians are also seeking asylum after using the same migration route, Tao said.
"We've tried to do the best we've can with the limited resources we have," Tao said.
For the past few years, Muktar and other East Africans have journeyed by air, sea and land to reach the United States, taking them through routes in Mexico and Central America.
Their journies to the United States involve planes, cargo ships and cars before they set out on foot to reach the U.S.-Mexican border.
At the border, the asylum seekers look for America authorities and ask for asylum. Customs officers then conduct a screening interview to gauge if their stories are real.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Lorie Dankers says the government is well equipped to handle the influx of East African immigrants entering through Mexico. The group arrived in Tacoma as the government sought adequate bed space. The detention center in Tacoma was recently expanded to 1,575 beds, up from just over 1,000.
Tao said many of the Somalis in Tacoma traveled through a dozen countries to get to the U.S. often paying fees starting at between $5,000 to $6,000. Muktar said he paid $10,000.
The suspension of a refugee program and the continuing instability of Somalia are fueling the migration.
Somali refugees say they are fleeing repression by armed militias defending majority clans and the Islamic militant group al-Shabab, which has been labeled a terrorist organization by the United States.
In 2008, the U.S. suspended a family reunification program for refugees over fraud concerns. The number of Somalis admitted by refugee programs dwindled to about 4,000 last year. There are about 87,000 Somalis in the country who have settled in cities like Minnesota and Seattle. Most arrived through U.S.-sponsored refugee programs.
Tao said it's too early to tell how the dozens of asylum applications will turn out.
Muktar's route took him through Kenya, Djibouti, Dubai, Russia, Cuba, South America, Central America and Mexico. He was detained for ten days in Costa Rica and for 28 days in Mexico.
He and others were robbed at gunpoint while crossing the Costa Rican-Nicaraguan border. He crammed into a truck to cross Central America, and finally took a cab from an airport in Tijuana to reach the San Ysidro border crossing.
"All I thought, to be honest, that to come here all problems would be solved," Muktar said. "I know this country helps people all over the world. People in this country know the situation in our country."
Muktar left Kismayo, Somalia when he was 10 years old after unrest there forced his uncle to send him to Kenya with a relative. His entire family had already been killed in the mayhem. He left Kenya when authorities there started deporting and arresting Somali immigrants.
"My expectations were maybe high that I would get help... I don't know what to expect now. I was like kind of freaked out the first time with the big chains all over our legs. 'God, what did I get myself into?' But I'm still expecting nothing but the best."