Asylum from the System

CNN.com ran an AP story today about an immigration judge's granting political asylum to a couple from the Congo. It's a lovely story and certainly an exciting day for David and Regina Bakala and their children. But the piece comes off as rather naive, failing to understand the immigration system or at least to put this case in context.

According to the article, Regina had been fighting an order of deportation for 10 years, since a judge rejected her claim for asylum in 1997, her allegations of rape and imprisonment perpetrated by Congolese troops seemingly ignored by the court. She says her lawyer at the time mishandled the case. She only received residency now as a derivative of David's asylum claim, based on a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, stemming from months of torture.

Asylum cases are denied frequently -- and often on technicalities. Consider Milton Teahjay, a Liberian who, as a member of the opposition party, became part of Charles Taylor's government. After displeasing Taylor, Teahjay fled attempts on his life and escaped to the USA. His face and name dotted the landscape as an enemy of Taylor's oppressive dictatorship. His name floated up as a possible successor once Taylor was deposed. He surely would have faced death had he returned to Liberia -- even after Taylor fled death squads loyal to him continued to operate. Yet an immigration judge rejected his asylum claim because Teahjay arrived 15 minutes late for a hearing, delayed by traffic on the roads. He had arrived promptly for all of his other hearings, but the judge took this excuse to sentence the man to death by removal from the country.

Now, that might be an extreme example, but many such deserving asylum cases (these are not economic refugees) end in defeat because of technicalities, lawyer error, or unjust jurisprudence -- and not based on the merits of the case. The inefficiency of the system is also a problem. Should it really have taken 10 years since Bakala's original denial for her to receive the decision she deserved? With a system so inefficient and riddled with unfairness, no wonder so many immigrants prefer to risk living off the radar.

The Bakalas' story spotlights a church that helped push through their cases. The couple's lawyer said "it seemed insurmountable at the start, but publicity and the church's support helped." Most cases aren't blessed with that kind of support. So consider the injustice of a system that one must manipulate with outside, institutional backing and publicity to win what (at least without first-hand knowledge of the evidence) looks like an open-and-shut case. What about those people -- as deserving or more than the Bakalas -- who don't have that kind of support? How are they to trust such a system? How are we?

Border fences and workplace raids have nothing to do with this. That's why what advocates call "comprehensive reform" must accompany the headline discussions of enforcement and guest-worker programs.

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