Lawmakers Poised to Make Change to Asylum Rules

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This evening, legislators in Washington may finalize a proposal that would significantly tighten immigration laws in the United States. The REAL ID Act may be attached to the Iraq War appropriations bill.

The Act is best known for a measure that would prevent states from giving drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants. But, it ALSO includes changes to procedures for seeking political asylum.

WNYC's Marianne McCune has been following an applicant from Sierra Leone through the sometimes agonizing process of gathering and presenting the necessary evidence.

REPORTER: Bashir’s life in New York City is a kind of purgatory – between the bloody civil war he escaped in Sierra Leone and the solace he hopes to find in the United States. When he watches the city go by through the windows of an elevated subway train … he’s not all here.

BASHIR: My person is here, mais all my mind in the trouble over there.

REPORTER: Six years ago in Sierra Leone, he says, he came home to find a group of rebels about to rape his sister. His father was a local imam, and when he tried to stop them, Bashir says, they shot his father.

BASHIR: I see he’s kill my father. Like that. I can’t do nothing.

REPORTER: Bashir’s wife had already fled with their children. Now he escaped to the neighboring Republic of Guinea. And when the war came to Guinea, he says, friends helped him come to the U.S. to apply for asylum. Pankaj Malik is his attorney.

MALIK: He would get very emotional and upset … what he witnessed … pretty horrific … it was very devastating for him to even talk about it.

REPORTER: But Malik will have to push Bashir to tell his story again and again, with as much specific detail and consistency as possible. Unlike in criminal courts, where defendants are assumed innocent until proven guilty, in the immigration system, the applicants must prove they’re telling the truth – that they have a credible fear of persecution. Asylum officers and government attorneys and judges ask for the goriest details and seemingly meaningless details, and scour the stories for holes.

MALIK: They have to be that way because there are so many cases that unfold and they see that are not accurate and not true.

REPORTER: Tens of thousands of people apply for asylum in the U.S. each year, and only a small percentage are granted the right to stay here. Proponents of tightening asylum laws say applicants have too much leeway to appeal to federal courts and delay their deportation. Rosemary Jenks of the conservative group Numbers U.S.A. says immigration judges do their job well and the tightened provisions of the REAL ID Act give them more discretion so they can prevent people from manipulating the system.

JENKS: This bill is specifically trying to ensure that we’re not going to give asylum to a terrrorist. And that we’re not going to let a terrorist use asylum in order to prolong his stay in the United States.

REPORTER: But opponents of the measure say people facing horrific situations at home will be turned away from the U.S. with no chance to appeal. Attorneys say there’s already wild variation in the ways immigration officials decide cases. A federal commission reported great disparities last February. REAL ID would enable judges to turn down asylum seekers based on any inconsistency in their stories or a person’s demeanor. Anwen Hughes of the advocacy group Human Rights First says applying for asylum is already harder than it used to be.

HUGHES: The level of corroboration required has been rising, the level of investigation of people has been increasing.

REPORTER: Hughes says it’s difficult now to get enough documents to prove who applicants are and what they saw. She fears the proposed changes will make it near impossible in cases where applicants fled great danger and brought nothing with them.

BASHIR: This is my passport proof I’m de Sierra Leone …

REPORTER: Bashir is lucky he has what he has.

BASHIR: My father is dead. The dead certificate is this one.

REPORTER: Last year, he found out his wife and kids were alive in a refugee camp near Sierra Leone’s border. And since then, his wife has managed to travel to a phone a few times, so they’ve spoken. One afternoon in a Queens office, Bashir tells his attorney he’s going to talk to his wife again today. Attorney Malik has been urging him to get letters from his wife and friends describing conditions at the border.

BASHIR: It’s not safe.

MALIK: That’s what I need to see in letters, why is it not safe. You understand? That’s going to be your case.

BASHIR: Yeah yeah....

REPORTER: The letters are crucial to Bashir’s case because since he came to the United States, Sierra Leone’s civil war has officially ended. He has to show proof of the atrocities he’s already experienced, AND convince the judge he still has reason to fear.

BASHIR: I’m scared.

BASHIR: allo?

REPORTER: When Bashir finally hears his wife’s voice over the phone, he smiles so big you can see leftover flecks of blue chewing gum in the cracks between his teeth.

BASHIR: ....yeeeaaa.

REPORTER: They speak for a few minutes and he tells her she needs to write him the letter soon. She tells HIM their 7 year old girl is sick and she needs money … and there’s a baby crying near the phone she’s borrowing.

REPORTER: Eventually there’s just too much noise and commotion on his wife’s end and she asks him to call back later.

BASHIR: Say I’m gonna call her tomorrow, cause baby’s gonna cry.

REPORTER: He hangs up.

BASHIR: I’m not feel good, let’s go.

REPORTER: Bashir’s attorney and immigration advocates say he deserves a refuge from his fear. They say he’ll have a harder time getting it if the proposed changes to asylum law are passed. Proponents of the changes say it’s too easy for fakers to manipulate U.S. laws – and if Bashir’s case is legitimate, the changes will not prevent him or people like him from winning their cases.

For NPR News, I’m Marianne McCune in New York