Asylum Seeker Stretches The Truth For A Better Life
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Nafissatou Diallo admits that she lied to U.S. immigration officers about being gang raped. She made up the story, she says, to help win her case for asylum. Fabricated or embellished, asylum stories are not unheard of.
Suketu Mehta writes about that phenomenon for the August 1st issue of The New Yorker magazine. He tells the story of an African woman in New York City who is seeking asylum, a woman he calls Caroline.
Mr. SUKETU MEHTA (Author, "The Asylum Seeker"): The first time I met Caroline, she said to me: When you're an illegal immigrant without papers in America, you are not you. Most of the time, you are somebody else.
So Caroline lived with three different identities. She rented a name and a Social Security number from another African immigrant, and she worked at a supermarket where she had to live under the shadow of this other name. And then she had another identity as a torture and rape victim from Africa. She was applying for asylum.
So it was a kind of veiled schizophrenia. She lived under this multiplicity of names and aliases, which enabled her to survive in New York.
SIEGEL: As you say, she claimed that she had been raped in her native country, and she had not been. Was there any truth to her story, generally, and did she have a well-founded fear of persecution if she were to return to her native land?
Mr. MEHTA: Like many of these stories, there was some truth and some untruth to her story. So she most definitely did have a well-founded fear of persecution. Her parents were supporters of the opposition in her country, and their house had been broken into by soldiers. She had been beaten by soldiers, her family had been beaten; but she hadn't been raped. And she was told that in order to present a compelling narrative to the asylum officers, it would be better if she faked that she had been raped - because so many women in Africa who apply for asylum have been raped.
SIEGEL: Now, when you say she was told these things, there actually is a supportive community - in this case, in New York City - that's helping people who are applying for asylum to game the system, effectively.
Mr. MEHTA: Right. And every community - every immigrant community - have these asylum story shapers, who are variously known as notarios or case builders. And some of these people are paid, and others just want to help other people in the community. They're not really trained, but they think they know what the system expects from an asylum petitioner.
SIEGEL: You were actually present - do I have this right? - when Caroline went before an immigration officer; a man, you write, with a reputation for being tough, for turning down a lot of asylum seekers. Would you describe the interrogation of Caroline as a tough one?
Mr. MEHTA: It was a tough interrogation, and the asylum officer was diligent in asking for details of this rape. And Caroline, sensing that he wanted details of the rape, gave him the story that he wanted.
Now, I had noticed earlier on that Caroline had gone to a clinic for torture survivors in New York, where there were these group psychotherapy sessions. And she would go there, and the therapist would provide drugs to people who'd been tortured. And I asked her what she said in these therapy sessions, how she knew what to say about the rape. And she said she read the symptoms on the drug bottles, and repeated them to the therapist.
So in the same way, she had read the symptoms of someone who might be raped, and persecuted and gave them back upon command.
SIEGEL: I have to confess that now being myself two generations from the boat that sailed into the country, I identify at least as much with the hearing officer, or the immigration officer, as I do with the applicant for asylum.
So he's sitting there, asking her a question: Were you raped? Yes. Did you go to the hospital? Is there some document? Yeah, there is, but it's not here. There are papers somewhere back in my home country. How can he conceivably verify the story that he's being told?
Mr. MEHTA: Well, that's a very good question. And my sympathies, too, are with the asylum officer. He's got the awesome responsibility of deciding whether or not to let in a person who, if he makes the wrong move, could be sent back to be raped all over again. And I think that the immigration system needs more resources.
The average immigration judge, for example, has 1,200 cases in his or her docket. Immigration judges have far fewer legal clerks, to do more investigation of these documents, than other federal judges.
SIEGEL: One impression, though, one comes away with from reading your article is that whatever else one might say of Caroline and her community, it's not a group of naives who are merely adrift in the big city, here in the United States. It's a smart, shrewd way of getting legal status in the country.
Mr. MEHTA: No, they're not naive, and they're not deadbeats. They work extremely hard. They might be victims, but they're also survivors. And in the end, I found myself really admiring Caroline's enterprise. It's the American story, after all, of immigrants coming here; facing great hardship of whatever kind - economic duress, political persecution - and somehow, willy-nilly, making their life in this new land.
SIEGEL: In the end, she was granted asylum. Her case prevailed.
Mr. MEHTA: That's right. In the end, the officer found her narrative compelling enough and granted her asylum, and she is a model American citizen by most measures. She has a job, a car and a husband. She goes to church every Sunday. She pays her taxes, and she's never taken a dime from the government.
SIEGEL: Well, Suketu Mehta, thank you very much for talking with us today.
Mr. MEHTA: Thank you for having me on the show.
SIEGEL: Mr. Mehta's article, in The New Yorker, is called "The Asylum Seeker."
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