Last week, the House marked-up H.R. 391, the “Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act of 2017.” The bill would create significant obstacles for asylum seekers, and increase the risk to unaccompanied children fleeing harm. Provisions of the bill caused me to think of an op-ed I had written 24 years ago, which was published in The Wall Street Journal. A different bill, a different President, but many of the same arguments apply. So many years later, I still become emotional when I remember, as we stepped out of the airport terminal, the little girl excitedly crying out in Farsi: “Maman, azad shodim, azad shodim!” (“Mommy, we’re free, we’re free!)
‘Mommy, We’re Free!’ -- In Defense of Asylum Rights
By Jeffrey S. Chase
Five years ago I met Goli (not her real name), a three-year-old Iranian girl detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Goli’s parents were political opponents of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s government. Her father was missing in Iran, either killed or imprisoned. Goli and her mother were forced to seek refuge in, of all places, Iraq. They had spent the last two years in a camp there. Goli was small for her age and sickly; she needed surgery unavailable to her in Iraq. She had never had a real home, or even her own doll.
When Iraq’s war with Iran ended, Goli and her mother were expelled by Saddam Hussein. They could not return to Iran, where the war’s end was celebrated with the arrests of hundreds of members of the mother’s opposition party. With little money and nowhere else to go, the mother paid a smuggler to get her and her child to the U.S. with a false passport. There, they would apply for asylum. A relative of her husband’s, a physician living in Michigan, would help them settle and arrange for Goli’s much needed medical care.
Goli and her mother were detained on arrival at Kennedy Airport by the INS. They were immediately scheduled for a hearing before an immigration judge; I was their attorney. When we met, Goli had a high fever. A doctor had prescribed antibiotics, but the security guards had not found time to purchase them. A week later, when she had taken the antibiotics that I insisted be provided, she felt better, and a friendlier captor played with the girl, using her handcuffs as a makeshift toy.
Thanks to the rights afforded by our current asylum laws, Goli and her mother were released after a few weeks to live with their relatives in Michigan. When her mother carried Goli outdoors for the first time, she cried, “Mommy, we’re free!”
Representing asylum seekers entails much work and aggravation with little or no pay. The reward is a happy ending. I have known nearly 100 others like Goli and her mother who have found refuge here in the U.S., away from the terror and chaos reigning in their home countries. But recently, President Clinton announced legislation, sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.), that would end such happy endings. Reacting to a “crisis” that doesn’t exist, he has decided to show his political toughness by going after the world’s most vulnerable group, refugees.
Under the president’s bill, asylum seekers arriving here without proper documents will have no right to a lawyer, or a hearing, or an appeal. The bill ignores the fact that many refugees are forced to escape their homelands without valid papers because there is no time to obtain them or because applying for and carrying the proper documents is too dangerous.
There are other troubling provisions. According to the new bill, if refugees escaping certain death at home try fleeing to the U.S. aboard a plane that stops in Germany, for example, they would immediately be deported to Germany--even if they never stepped off the plane there. This provision is similar to one in many Western European nations, whereby refugees are expected to apply for asylum in the first “safe” country they reach. But sending refugees back to a country where they were “last present” is no guarantee that they will not be deported to their nation of origin.
As an immigration attorney, I’ve heard hundreds of asylum claims: in my office and in detention centers, in courts and airport terminals. Asylum seekers are not terrorists; they are people like Goli and her mother. Nor are they statistics; they are flesh and blood. This phrase takes on added meaning when the flesh is marked with bullet wounds, cigarette burns and other remnants of torture.
I can still see the Afghan teenager, much of whose face was blown off by a Soviet land mine. I still hear the Muslim man from Bosnia, who wept as he told me how Serbian troops stopped the United Nations bus he rode. He was spared only when the would-be executioners discovered that the bus was leaving the country, thus assisting them in their “ethnic cleansing.” After finally escaping Bosnia, he stopped briefly in another country en route to the U.S. The Clinton legislation would deport him, and similarly the Liberian boy I met who told me how he survived a massacre by a rival clan by lying still among the corpses until the attackers left.
Even some who are sympathetic to such cases may feel that the U.S. cannot accept all of the world’s refugees. We don’t. There are 17 million refugees in the world. Of the 300 million aliens the INS inspected last year at ports of entry, only 15,000 applied for asylum. This means that 0.005% of the people who sought admission to the U.S. were asylum applicants. Ironically, such exemplars of human rights as Iran and Pakistan accept far more. Contrary to media reports, we have not “lost control of our borders” to “teeming hordes” of asylum seekers. While some individuals abuse the system, their number is too small to justify all the ills assigned to them by nativist organizations.
Under the proposed legislation, if refugees somehow managed to reach the U.S. directly, they would have to present their cases on the spot at the airport to a junior level INS official. The asylum seeker would have no right to compile evidence supporting their requests for asylum, call witnesses, or even consult a lawyer. If this legislation becomes law, a person fighting a parking ticket would have more rights in our country than a Muslim fleeing certain death in Bosnia.
The answer to the asylum question is not to turn away genuine refugees. Administrative improvements to preserve legal protections for refugees are urgently needed. More asylum officers and faster and fairer processing of asylum cases would eliminate any instances of abuse. They would also make possible more happy endings for the world’s future Golis.