Tough rules delay cases Anti-terrorism efforts require stricter proof of persecution, including documents that can “reasonably” be obtained.
Jailed and tortured in Ethiopia, Samuel Tafesa made it to Mexico,
then waded across the Rio Grande into the United States.
Now in Denver, he’s begging for asylum protection, claiming that
Ethiopian police beat him with sticks on the bottoms of his feet
and held his head under water, trying to coerce information about
fellow members of an opposition political party.
“I’m afraid to go back to Ethiopia,” he said. “If I go back,
I’ll be killed.”
For Tafesa and tens of thousands of other asylum-seekers, sanctuary
in America has become harder to attain. U.S. officials are
subjecting them to increasingly rigorous scrutiny, government
officials and legal experts say.
New anti-terrorism measures require stricter proof of persecution,
including documents that can “reasonably” be obtained.
Tafesa, 22, called back to Ethiopia repeatedly, asking his mother
to get what she can for his lawyer, Michael Litman.
Today’s higher standard of proof makes cases more complex and
prolongs them, with government attorneys sending documents to a
Homeland Security forensics lab for testing.
“We have a tradition, but we want to make sure people seeking
(asylum) have a rightful entitlement,” said Mike Everitt, a unit
chief in the lab near Washington, D.C.
The new measures are contributing to a record immigration-court
backlog – 3,370 cases pending in Denver, a third involving asylum,
federal statistics show. That’s double Denver’s pending caseload
six years ago.
Department of Justice officials said 166,200 cases are pending in
immigration courts nationwide, including 33,194 in Los Angeles,
8,546 in Chicago and 9,455 in Orlando, Fla. In 2000, 125,764 cases
Dana Marks, a sitting judge in California and president of the
National Association of Immigration Judges, said dozens more judges
The system is “unbelievably overburdened,” squeezing judges’
ability to make life-or-death decisions, Marks said.
“Why are we treating the asylum system this way? If we pride
ourselves in America for treating refugees right, why aren’t we
providing resources to ensure they get prompt and fair treatment?”
Now, fewer people are applying for asylum, though the reasons for
the drop aren’t clear.
Some 54,452 applications were received last year in immigration
courts, down from 74,627 in 2002 and 84,904 in 1997, records show.
Adjudicators for the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration
Services, who often see asylum-seekers first, received 36,502
applications last year, down from 65,201 in 2002 and 149,000 in
1995, according to a senior USCIS official who spoke on condition
of anonymity, in accordance with agency policy.
In Denver, about one in three cases handled is approved. Asylum
experts say it’s too early to gauge whether the new standards for
proof will change that percentage.
USCIS adjudicators approved 27 percent of cases they handled this
year, down from 43 percent in 2001, according to the senior
official. In immigration courts, stats show 23 percent of
applications processed last year were approved, up from 20 percent
Previously, asylum-seekers often were accepted solely on the basis
of government “country condition” reports and testimony that
judges found to be credible and persuasive.
Today’s higher standards requiring documentation that could
“reasonably” be obtained “change the burden of proof,” the
official said. But “there’s still the allowance” that an
applicant who can’t obtain documents can win asylum if deemed
credible, he said.
“Out of reach for many”
One problem caused by the more frequent demand for documents is
that hiring document and medical experts raises legal costs, said
Regina Germain, legal director at the Rocky Mountain Survivors
Center and author of a legal text on asylum law.
“I fear recent changes … could put asylum out of reach for many
people who flee with little more than the clothes on their backs,”
In Tafesa’s case, an Addis Ababa police document his mother sent
says he was imprisoned for 17 days in 2005 for being a member of
the Coalition for Unity and Democracy Party. The document accuses
him of involvement in “illegal demonstrations” and “promoting
unhealthy propaganda and causing conflict of people against
It says he was released from prison on the condition he cease all
political activity and check in weekly, which he failed to do. It
warns: “The police department will track you and your family
The government is vetting those documents. His case is scheduled
for a hearing in May.
Meantime, he works under a temporary permit, washing rental cars at
Denver International Airport for $8.85 an hour that he uses mostly
for legal fees.
His father and brother in Ethiopia have gone missing, and his
6-year-old son, Mathais, is bewildered, Tafesa said before work
“He asks me: ‘Where are you?’ I tell him I’ll be there one day,”
Tafesa said. “What can I do?”