Immigration Snapshot: Asylum

“Refugees”, as defined by U.S. law, have a well-founded fear of particular sorts of persecution.  “Asylees” are people recognized as refugees after they arrive in the U.S.  People don’t get asylum automatically.  They must apply for it.

Some U.S. immigration judges grant over 90% of the asylum cases before them, while others deny over 95%.  This gives the lie to our pretense that we have a government of laws, not of personalities.

Joey in Shackles (yes, innocent refugee "detainees" are shackled when transported or brought to court)

Asylum cases take months or years to adjudicate, yet most asylum applicants are barred from working to support themselves.  They are ineligible for public assistance.  We make them into beggars – unless we “detain” them and make them into prisoners.

Asylum provides relief from persecution based on race, religion, nationality, social group membership, or political opinion.  Threats for other reasons don’t count.

You’re the sole survivor of a village wiped out by the army or guerillas?  If it wasn’t targeted for one of the listed reasons, you lose. The army or the rebels will kill you if you refuse to join them?  They’re just recruiting, nothing personal; you lose.  Gangsters will kill you because you refuse to pay protection money?  That’s crime, not persecution; you lose.

You get the idea.

Then there are the tricks and traps that disqualify you for asylum, like “material support” for people using force to overthrow any government.  As reported by Human Rights First:

A refugee from Burundi was detained for over 20 months in a succession of county jails because the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the immigration judge who would otherwise have granted him asylum took the position that he had provided “material support” to a rebel group because armed rebels robbed him of four dollars and his lunch.

HUH!?  This is what we pay immigration judges, county jails, and DHS to do?  Imprison a refugee who lost his lunch?

By this definition, we all are material supporters of terrorists, because our tax money goes for efforts to overthrow governments around the world, Libya being only the latest example.  (Incredibly, the “material support” rule applies even to opponents of “enemy” governments.)

While an asylum case is in process, refugees may spend years in “detention,” even when our government agrees they aren’t criminals.  There’s a logic to this.  Our lock-’em-up policy creates jobs for lawyers, judges, paperpushers, guards. Local governments make big money by renting extra jail cells to DHS; they’re happy to lock up docile, innocent refugees who are not entitled to the services guaranteed to hardened criminal convicts.  Corporations negotiate rich contracts for building and running commercial jails for DHS.  Suppliers of goods for this gulag profit handsomely.  Government officials build staffs and bureaucratic fiefdoms, accumulating power and rising in rank.

With so much money sloshing around, don’t expect U.S. “detention” policy to change.

U.S. taxpayers won’t pay for a lawyer to expedite a detainee’s case, yet in 2009 they paid an average of $122 per person, per day, to jail applicants like the refugee whose $4 and lunch were seized by rebels.  At $122/day, his imprisonment cost us over $70,000.  For nothing.

Well, not quite for nothing.  That taxpayer money helped gin up the economy.  Too bad it didn’t create anything useful.  It would have been easier, more ethical and more efficient simply to give it away.

Our government does a riff on Rep. Harper’s 1798 response to French diplomats’ bribe request: “Millions to detain, but not one cent for counsel!”

Given our complex and irrational laws, refugees without lawyers are unlikely to get justice.  Human Rights First has found and trained free lawyers for thousands of refugees.  Yet HRF isn’t big enough or rich enough to meet the demand.

Relying on an overworked, underfunded private organization is not how we should provide justice in America.  But for now, supporting Human Rights First is the best we can do to right this wrong.

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