Winning asylum in the U.S. is remarkably difficult, especially if you came from the wrong part of the world.
For the 86,053 people that sought asylum in the United States last year, the road forward is long and steep. For example, Johanna Cece, an Albanian woman, is currently the center of a legal battle that underlies the difficulties those that seek protection from the U.S. face.
Cece, an unmarried woman, was left in Albania alone when her parents emigrated to another country in 2001. As a young woman without a family to protect her, she was in immediate danger of kidnapping and being sold into sex trafficking. After being targeted by a trafficking gang, she fled — first, to other Albanian cities, and then to Italy. On a fake Italian passport, Cece traveled to the U.S. and applied for asylum. Her application was denied by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) on the basis that she is not a member of a recognized protected social group.
The denial was appealed to the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, where the BIA’s decision was overturned, stating that Cece is eligible for asylum, but leaving the issue of if she will actually get asylum to federal authorities. In the majority ruling, Judge Ilana Rovner argued that although Cece was not in a protected group, her call of persecution is not unlike women that sought and were granted asylum based on the threat of honor killings, female mutilation and religious adherence outside of personal ideology, and should be honored.
In dissent, Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote that the majority’s decision expands asylum law to embrace “everyone threatened by criminals, rebels, or anyone else a nation’s government does not control.
“This makes eligible for asylum everyone who faces a substantial risk of harm in his native land, no matter the reason,” Easterbrook wrote.
“Crime may be rampant in Albania, but it is common in the United States too. People are forced into prostitution in Chicago,” he said. “Must Canada grant asylum to young women who fear prostitution in the United States, or who dread the risk of violence in or near public-housing projects? If there were reason to think the Albanian government in cahoots with the traffickers, Cece would have a better case; but when the record shows no more than ineffective law enforcement, there’s no basis to infer persecution.”
America’s obligation to the “huddled masses”
In Easterbrook’s dissent lies the nature of the modern debate on asylum in this country. As the number of asylum requests from the Mexican border has doubled in the last three years, the question of the United States’ obligation to shield the innocent has become increasingly more pressing. For the current fiscal year, “credible fear” claims have, as of the end of June, reached 14,610, compared to 6,824 claims in the previous fiscal year. This number only represent “defensive” applications, or applications from asylum seekers that have yet to enter the country.
Figures from “affirmative” applications, or applications from asylum seekers already in the country, are unavailable.
The basis of these claims is founded in the ongoing Mexican Drug Cartel War, which, since 2006, has pitted the Mexican military and the Mexican Federal Police in a pitched battle against many of the major drug cartels in Mexico for control of the Mexican states of Baja California, Durango, Sinaloa, Guerrero, Chihuahua, Michoacán, Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, Veracruz, Coahuila, Jalisco, San Luis Potosí, Nayarit, Zacatecas, Oaxaca, Morelos and Sonora — which constitute almost 60 percent of the nation, the whole of the Mexican-American border and almost the entirety of the Mexican Pacific coast.
Since the fighting started, between 90,000 and 106,000 people have been killed, making this war one of the bloodiest ever fought on North American soil. Among those killed were 58 reporters and nearly 1,000 children. In 2013 alone, more than 6,800 people have been killed.
The growing numbers of refuge seekers on the Southern Border — which the Department of Homeland Security recognizes as a “modest amount”: about 30 out of 170,000 daily legal border crossing in San Diego, for example — reflects the growing fear of danger and harm faced by Mexican civilians in their own homes. This “backdoor” entrance into the United States, as opponents of immigration reform see it, offers justification for a hardening of entrance requirements.
Currently, Mexican citizens face a 91 percent rejection rate for asylum requests, per the DHS. The majority of asylum request come from Chinese citizens and refugees from African nations. Despite this, the “asylum issue” presents a problem that stands in the way of progress on immigration reform, particularly in the House. “Frankly, I don’t think the House should pass any bill until the administration shows its willingness to confront and fix this problem,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R – Ala.). “This is a direct threat to the orderly administration of our immigration law.” Sessions feel that even the perception of an easy way into the country may drive thousands to try.
The American asylum process
According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, winning asylum is remarkably difficult, especially if the applicant came from the wrong part of the world. In 2012, only 29 percent of the 86,053 applicants that applied for asylum — 24,969 — actually won their cases.
In the U.S., there are two classifications of refugees. The first classification is based on the promise that anyone that is already in the country will not be removed from the country if the person has suffered persecution or is in danger of facing persecution in his/her home country on the basis of politics, race, nationality or social membership.
The second classification offers asylum to those abroad who are members of groups recognized by the U.S. government as being of “special concern,” immediate families of admitted refugees and “persons facing compelling security concerns in countries of first asylum; persons in need of legal protection because of the danger of refoulement; those in danger due to threats of armed attack in an area where they are located; or persons who have experienced recent persecution because of their political, religious, or human rights activities (prisoners of conscience); women-at-risk; victims of torture or violence, physically or mentally disabled persons; persons in urgent need of medical treatment not available in the first asylum country; and persons for whom other durable solutions are not feasible and whose status in the place of asylum does not present a satisfactory long-term solution,” per the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Resettlement Handbook.
These classifications beg interesting questions. Wouldn’t it be in violation of American policies to send illegal Mexican immigrants back to a war-zone? Should immigration be racially or ethnically aware: is there really a difference between a West African asylum seeker and a Mexican asylum seeker? Even if an asylum seeker earns admission into the nation, does that mean an easier road to citizenship?
The American Dream
As reported by NBC News, Ahmed Fadiga, who fled persecution in his native Cote d’Ivoire after speaking out against the ruling party, spent seven months in detention prior to appearing before an American immigration judge on charges of entering the U.S. on false paperwork. Fadiga won his case and was granted asylum.
Asylum, however, does not equal permanent residency in the country. In order for a refugee to gain citizenship, the refugee must apply for a green card after one year of residency in the United States. When the green card is granted — which is estimated by the USCIS to take less than six months, but have taken as long as 10 years with appeals — the refugee must wait at least five additional years before becoming eligible for citizenship. At that point, the refugee is put into the application queue, which can take an indeterminate amount of time to process through.
After nearly four years of being an “asylee,” Fadiga opted for a shortcut. Non-citizens that serve in the U.S. military are naturalized after six months of satisfactory service. Spc. Fadiga, now an American citizen, brought over his wife and is now happy after finding his American Dream.
But, military service is not a realistic option for all citizenship seekers. In seeking a road forward regarding immigration and the complexion of the future population of the nation, the American people must ask if preservation of the idea that all are welcome in this nation is more important than maintaining entrance quotas and ensuring preference to “native-born Americans.” The nation must ask if it cares about the disenfranchisement of the individual.
Engraved over the main entrance to the Statue of Liberty is “The New Colossus,” a 1883 poem from Emma Lazarus written in commemoration of the landmark. The “Mother of Exiles,” as Lazarus called the statue, represented America’s promise to offer a second chance to those the world disregards. As the famous words of the poem ring in the nation’s collective memory, “Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,/Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,/I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” The nation must determine if these words still matter.
“We care. We’re a humanitarian nation,” said Kathleen Campbell Walker, an El Paso-based immigration lawyer who handles asylum cases. “That’s just who we are.”