I was sitting at my desk when the phone rang. It was a client I hadn’t heard from in a while, a woman from Kenya who’d suffered unimaginable horrors in her native land but, thanks to an understanding immigration judge, was now living safely in Reading.
Her voice trembled. “Christine,” she said, “I have some very bad news. 'John' was killed.”
John was her brother, another client who had been denied asylum by a different, not-so-sympathetic judge. Tired of filing appeals and waiting the years that it took before someone believed that his life was truly in danger, John went back to Kenya to see his wife and two sons. He was murdered, shot through the head in front of his family.
This is my day: I go to work, meet with clients, write briefs and deal with a broken system of laws. Reading human rights reports and articles about the violence in foreign lands is a part of the job and doesn’t trouble me as much as it used to. Much as I hate to admit the fact, I’ve become somewhat inured to the persecution I read about and have learned to focus only on the things that will help my client gain asylum. I’ve even horrified myself by hoping that a country on the brink of civil war will actually topple over so that my client will win his case.
I’ve told myself this is what a good lawyer should do, ignoring the fact that a good human being would recoil from that rationalization. But when you deal with this type of thing on a regular basis, you tend to become pragmatic about persecution.
And then you get a phone call from a sobbing woman telling you that her brother has been murdered in front of his wife and sons. And you become angry about the arbitrariness of our system, and how broken it truly is.
Immigration is a lot more than the black-and-white analyses that you hear on Fox or CNN, more than the ‘illegals’ roaming our streets, more than the clichés of the ‘innocent’ alien child or the ‘criminal’ border jumpers. And asylum practice is the worst.
Unlike any other area of the law except for the criminal, mistakes here can get you killed. I have no doubt that if the immigration judge who denied John’s case could have looked into a crystal ball and seen the image of his body, sprawled and bloody on the front step of his home, he wouldn’t have cavalierly dismissed the case by calling it ‘frivolous.’ He would have erred on the side of discretion (the discretion he was entitled to exercise under the Immigration and Nationality Act) and given this man asylum.
I know that some people would question why a man who was afraid of being persecuted in his homeland would willingly return to that country. Why, they would ask, couldn’t he just flee to Canada, or some friendlier country in Africa (there aren’t many, in Africa.)
But when you’ve gone through the legal system, trying to do things the right way, and told the truth under oath and submitted documents and fingerprints and waited an ungodly amount of time for your next hearing, it must be a soul-crushing experience to have a judge size you up in a few short minutes and say “denied.” Even after you’ve given him medical documents from a Boston hospital that prove your legs were broken and haven’t ever fully healed, leaving you with a limp. Even after you’ve provided police affidavits, authenticated by the State Department, showing that you were harassed by political opponents in Nairobi. Even after your sister and brother-in-law were granted asylum on virtually identical facts.
After all of that, it’s not surprising that you begin to wonder whether it was worth it to be separated from your wife and children all these years, only to have a skeptical judge say he’s not buying it.
I don’t entirely blame our judges. They have a very difficult job to do, and most of them are ethical and solomonic in their decisions. They try and do justice, and don’t want to have deaths on their consciences.
But some of them are so caught up in technicalities that they are unwilling to appreciate how truly dangerous the rest of the world is. A few years ago, a boy from Honduras begged a judge for asylum because he was afraid the gangs would kill him if he went home. The judge disagreed, and he was deported. Two weeks later, he was murdered by a gang member.
I’m not saying that we should grant every asylum case. There is fraud. But I can’t stop hearing the voice of John’s sobbing sister.
And wondering, what if?