U.S. Settles with Kenyan Asylum Seeker

Rosebell Munyua arrived in the United States from her native Kenya in 2001, but was turned away by U.S. customs officials. She was later granted asylum in the United States and then sued the Department of Homeland Security for negligence. Last week, the government settled. It admitted no wrongdoing, but paid Munyua more than $87,000.

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On Monday, the Senate slightly softened a congressional plan that would make it easier for judges to reject claims of asylum from immigrants coming to the United States. Thousands of refugees apply for asylum here each year, claiming political prosecution or violence in their home countries. But if immigration officials think their claims are false or insufficient, they're sent home. In 2001, Rosebell Munyua was sent back to Kenya, but later returned and eventually won asylum. Then she sued the government for negligence and last week won more than $87,000. She spoke with NPR's Farai Chideya first about the fear she felt in Kenya because of her political activism.

Ms. ROSEBELL MUNYUA (Immigrant): Government officials harassing and beating on my family and threatening them to kill them and many more.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

I understand there was an incident where your children were bound while you were being questioned.

Ms. MUNYUA: Oh, well, they just, you know, stuck them together and put a plastic bag on them. That was scary.

CHIDEYA: So tell us specifically what happened to you when you came to the United States seeking asylum.

Ms. MUNYUA: Well, it just got to a point whereby we get--you know, one of their paperworks for the immigrants to get into the United States--called the I-94, and there's a place where you have to fill in the return date, and because I wasn't planned on returning, I tried to seek help from one of the officials. That's when they started interrogating me.

CHIDEYA: What kind of interrogation?

Ms. MUNYUA: Well, they wanted to know why, you know, I couldn't fill it up, and I told them it's because I wasn't sure whether I was going to be granted to stay as a refugee. So I didn't know what to write, and that's when one of the officials said I should have said that to the American Embassy in my country that I wanted to come here, and the purpose of coming was to come and stay.

CHIDEYA: How do you understand their reasons for sending you back? Because the US officials did send you back, is that correct?

Ms. MUNYUA: Yeah, they did send me back, but the reason why, to my understanding at the time, was because I didn't tell the American Embassy in my country that I was coming to seek asylum.

CHIDEYA: Do you think that if you had gone to the US Embassy in Kenya and you had requested asylum, that you would have been allowed to leave the country?

Ms. MUNYUA: No.

CHIDEYA: So you ended up coming back to the United States and suing the US government. What made you decide to do that?

Ms. MUNYUA: I believed, and I still believe, that it was always good to talk about it other than sit back and hurt from the inside so that justice may be done, that that may not happen to anybody else, not only me.

CHIDEYA: Now the US government doesn't acknowledge any wrongdoing in the suit. What lessons do you think that the US government should learn from this case?

Ms. MUNYUA: That it's always good to take time and find out before they can say--they can send any immigrants back. It's always good to thoroughly check and listen and take the time to listen. I would want to know why they are afraid to go back. There is the fact that I said that I was afraid to go back--you know, I would just focus on that point and help as much as I could.

CHIDEYA: Tell us a little bit more about what's going on in Kenya. From what I understand, under US immigration law, people who are fleeing for political reasons are treated differently than people who are fleeing for economic reasons.

Ms. MUNYUA: When it comes to economic reasons, there are parents there that have lost their families because of what the country's like. When it comes to economic, they have nothing to give to the children. So some of them just, you know, dump their children, not wanting to know what's going to happen to them. But on the other hand, when it comes to political reasons, then that's even worse, because when you are living in a town where you know that anytime somebody can walk in and take your life, then either way, I would say they're both the same thing, because they cost lives. It's life-costing.

CHIDEYA: Rosebell Munyua is Kenyan. She won asylum in 2002 to come to the United States. The Department of Homeland Security settled with her to pay her for what was considered negligence on her part. They acknowledge no wrongdoing. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. MUNYUA: And thank you for your time, too.

CHIDEYA: Farai Chideya, NPR News.

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