Challenges of Gaining Asylum in the U.S.

Legislators in Washington are debating the Real ID measure, which contains a provision that would make seeking asylum in the U.S. more challenging. Marianne McCune of member station WNYC has the story of one applicant from Sierra Leone.

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It's called the REAL ID Act. Congress is currently considering legislation that would prevent states from giving driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants. The bill would also make it tougher to get asylum in the US. Marianne McCune of member station WNYC has been following one asylum applicant from Sierra Leone, and she sent this report.

MARIANNE McCUNE reporting:

Bashir's(ph) life in New York City is a kind of purgatory between the bloody civil war he escaped in Sierra Leone and the safety he hopes to find in the United States.

Unidentified Man: Take care of the doors.

McCUNE: So when he watches the city go by through the windows of an elevated subway train, he's not all here.

BASHIR: My person is here.

(Soundbite of bell)

BASHIR: On my mind--in the trouble over there.

McCUNE: Six years ago in Sierra Leone, he says, he came home to find a group of rebels about to rape his sister. His father was a local imam, and when he tried to stop them, Bashir says, they shot his father.

BASHIR: I see--kill my father, like that.

McCUNE: Bashir's wife had already fled the civil war with their children. Now he escaped, and eventually friends helped him come to the US to apply for asylum. Pangaj Malak(ph) is his attorney.

Ms. PANGAJ MALAK (Bashir's Attorney): He would get very emotional and very upset. It was very devastating for him to even talk about it.

McCUNE: But Malak will have to push Bashir to tell his story again and again, with as much specific detail and consistency as possible. In the immigration system, applicants must prove they're telling the truth, that they have a legitimate fear of persecution. Asylum officers and government attorneys and judges scour the stories for holes.

Ms. MALAK: They have to be that way because there are so many cases that are not true.

McCUNE: Of the tens of thousands who tried to apply for asylum last year, some 40,000 got their cases heard. And of that group, about a third were granted the right to stay. But people who are rejected by immigration judges can appeal their cases to a federal court. And, say proponents of tightening laws, many use appeals to delay deportation. The REAL ID Act would give more weight to the decisions of immigration judges who could reject applicants based on any inconsistency in their story or a suspicious-seeming demeanor. Rosemary Jenks of the group Numbers USA says that authority will allow them to prevent people from manipulating the system.

Ms. ROSEMARY JENKS (Numbers USA): This bill is specifically trying to ensure that we're not going to give asylum to a terrorist and that we're not going to let a terrorist use the asylum system in order to prolong his stay.

McCUNE: But opponents of the measure predict people facing horrific situations at home will be turned away from the US with no chance to appeal. And Anwen Hughes of the advocacy group Human Rights First says since September 11th, applying for asylum has already gotten harder.

Ms. ANWEN HUGHES (Human Rights First): The level of corroboration that's expected has been steadily rising. The level of investigation of people has been increasing.

McCUNE: Hughes says it's difficult now to get enough documents to prove who applicants are and what they saw. She fears obtaining all the evidence REAL ID would require will prove near impossible in cases where applicants fled great danger or persecution and brought nothing with them.

BASHIR: This my last work.

McCUNE: Bashir is lucky he has what he has.

BASHIR: My father is dead; the death certificate--is this all?

McCUNE: Last year, he says, he found his wife and kids were alive in a refugee camp near Sierra Leone's border. And since then, his wife has managed to travel to a phone a few times. So they've spoken. Attorney Malak has been urging him to get letters from his wife and friends describing conditions at the border.

BASHIR: It's not safe.

Mr. MALAK: That's what I need to see in the letters. Why is it not safe?

BASHIR: OK.

Ms. MALAK: Do you understand? That's going to be...

BASHIR: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

McCUNE: The letters are crucial to Bashir's case because since he came to the United States, Sierra Leone's civil war has officially ended. He has to show proof of the atrocities he's already experienced and convince the judge he still has reason to fear.

BASHIR: I'm scared.

McCUNE: Bashir's attorney and immigration advocates say he deserves a refuge from his fear. They say people in his situation will have a harder time getting it if the proposed changes to asylum law are passed. Proponents of the changes say it's too easy for fakers to manipulate US laws. And if Bashir's case is legitimate, the changes will not prevent him or people like him from winning their cases. For NPR News, I'm Marianne McCune in New York.

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