Putting it in Perspective: Focusing on the Who, not the What

Posted by Rachel Horn on Mon, Nov 21, 2011 at 13:23 pm

On October 25, 2011, I had the privilege of attending the conference “Reaffirming Protection: Strengthening Asylum in the United States,” which commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Refugee Convention. Gathered at Georgetown Law for the occasion were representatives from the NGOs, government officials, and academics and students concerned about immigration and asylum in the United States.

The discussion focused on identifying the major challenges facing asylum seekers in the United States and on establishing a set of “pledges,” aspirational guidelines for the future of immigration reforms. The first panel discussed the detention of asylum seekers in the United States, the second discussed bars to protection, and the final panel discussed the gaps and complications in the current system for asylum adjudication. Each panel was informative, and together they provided a full-spectrum perspective on the ongoing struggle to improve the United States’ asylum system. However, three presentations diverged from the empirical model of the rest of the conference and reminded us that behind the statistics, the theories, and the processes are not nameless asylees, but people.

The first eye-opening moment came when we viewed a brief video clip about an asylee who had fled from Equatorial Guinea. He had been severely tortured and imprisoned because of his ethnicity and culture. He was overjoyed when he obtained a two-year visa to the United States. However, when he arrived at the airport and told the immigration officer that he wished to declare asylum, he was thrown into immigration detention. For him, it was like being imprisoned again. Fortunately, this man was able to gain access to a pro bono attorney who worked with him tirelessly until he was granted a hearing. The hearing took five minutes, and he was thankfully granted asylum. While it was a decisive victory, as the man’s attorney pointed out, it was ridiculous that it took nearly two years to get to that point. The video was moving and set the tone for the importance of the day; however, even more striking was the realization that the asylee in the film was sitting two tables away from me and participating in the day’s conference.

The second presentation was a brief speech by Sister Josephe-Marie Flynn, the author of Rescuing Regina: The Battle to Save A Friend From Deportation and Death. The book tells the story of Regina, an asylum-seeker from the Republic of Congo. A wife and mother of two, she fled Congo after being raped, tortured, and imprisoned. Sister Josephe-Marie read aloud from the portion of the book that details how Regina was taken from her home in her pajamas in the middle of a cold Wisconsin winter night by two immigration officers and thrown in a U.S. prison. She told the story of the first visit between Regina and her family, where her little boy struggled to touch her through the thick glass between them and her little girl stared at her mother with tears streaming down her face. But Sister Josephe-Marie also told the story about how she, a self-described “feisty nun,” together with Regina’s husband and a “pit-bull Chicago lawyer,” fought until she was freed.

The final moment came from Alejandro Mayorkas, the Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), who delivered the closing remarks. Mayorkas read aloud a letter from a recent asylee who passionately thanked the people who aided her in achieving asylum and shared a bit of the way her life had changed since finding that security in the United States. The story itself was emotional, but the poignancy of the moment came when Mayorkas choked up delivering it. He himself is a refugee from Cuba, and on several occasions has described what it meant for him and his family to be able to seek freedom in the United States.

These three moments were examples of the joyful conclusions that can occur at the end of the uphill battle that many asylum seekers face. At the same time, they illustrated some of the most significant issues in the process, such as the “detain-first, investigate later” response to entering asylum seekers and the struggle of those who do not have the fortune to encounter qualified pro bono counsel like the advocates that aided the asylee profiled in the film and Regina. However, these moments were perhaps the most fitting with the overarching theme of the day, which was identifying the pledges advocates and constituents can ask the U.S. government to make to improve the process for the asylum-seekers who enter the United States.

These stories reveal that the focus can’t be entirely on what the data shows us, or which reform package best appeases all parties. The pledges that the government will make, and the pledges that the organizations and individuals who work in this field continue to make, are not just to the goal of bettering the system—they are to the people whom it benefits as well.

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