AMBI: Hi may I have your notice? Thank you. May I see some ID please? All right. Congratulations, you've been granted asylum by the United States
NARATOR: THAT'S WHAT EVERY ASYLUM SEEKER COMING TO THE U.S. WANTS TO HEAR.
AMBI: Keys, door open, Abdulai: "come in please"
NARRATOR: FOR ABDULAI BAH, WHO FLED THE BLOODY CIVIL WAR IN SIERRA LEONE, IT WAS THE END OF A LONG ORDEAL.
AMBI: door closing
NARRATOR: LIFE HERE IN STATEN ISLAND, NEW YORK, WHILE NOT EASY, IS AT LEAST SAFE. THE 23 YEAR OLD STUDENT RECEIVED ASYLUM FIVE YEARS AGO. THE YEAR BEFORE, HE HAD BEEN ABDUCTED BY THE REBELS IN SIERRA LEONE, AND FORCED INTO THEIR ARMY. THEY WERE BRUTAL.
ABDULAI: There was two questions: do you want long sleeves or short sleeves. That means, they're going to cut his hands, you know, right here.
NARRATOR: ABDULAI MAKES A CHOPPING MOTION ON HIS ARM AS HE EXPLAINS THAT THE REBELS WOULD CUT OFF PEOPLE'S HANDS AT THE WRIST OR THE ELBOW, DEPENDING ON THEIR ANSWER TO THAT QUESTION.
ABDULAI ARRIVED AT NEWARK AIRPORT WITH A FALSE PASSPORT AND WAS TAKEN TO AN IMMIGRANT DETENTION CENTER WHERE HE STAYED FOR 3 1/2 MONTHS.
ABDULAI: No one told me at the airport that I was going to be taken into a detention center. So I wasn't ready for that. And handcuffs and chains, it makes you look like a criminal.
NARRATOR: REMEMBER, THIS WAS WELL BEFORE SEPTEMBER 11, 2001. THE ASYLUM SYSTEM HAD ALREADY BEEN OVERHAULED IN 1995--TO CLOSE SECURITY LOOPHOLES. THOSE NEW REGULATIONS INSTITUTED MANDATORY DETENTION OF UNDOCUMENTED ASYLUM SEEKERS, AND STREAMLINED THE ENTIRE PROCESS.
AMBI: Asylum office background
NARRATOR: BUT THE MAJORITY OF ASYLUM SEEKERS ENTER THE US LEGALLY. THEY APPLY AT ONE OF 8 ASYLUM OFFICES ACROSS THE COUNTRY. ABOUT 46 THOUSAND PEOPLE APPLIED IN 2003, THE LAST YEAR FOR WHICH STATISTICS ARE AVAILABLE.
AMBI: Asylum office metal detector
NARRATOR: THE ASYLUM OFFICE IN NEWARK, NEW JERSEY, LOOKS LIKE A DOCTOR'S WAITING ROOM--EXCEPT THERE ARE METAL DETECTORS AT THE ENTRANCE, AND POSTERS ADVISING PEOPLE OF TRANSLATION SERVICES ON THE WALLS.
AMBI: Asylum office, Receptionist: "262?"
NARRATOR: AN ASYLUM APPLICATION IS REVIEWED BY AN ASYLUM OFFICER. THE CUT-AND-DRIED CASES ARE DECIDED IN THE OFFICE, AFTER AN EXTENSIVE INTERVIEW AND BACKGROUND CHECK. IF A PERSON IS GRANTED ASYLUM, HE OR LEAVES WITH A SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER AND A WORK PERMIT. BUT IF THERE'S A QUESTION WITH THE CASE, IT'S REFERRED TO AN IMMIGRATION JUDGE. 50 OR 60 ASYLUM APPLICANTS COME THROUGH THE NEWARK OFFICE EACH WEEK. SUE RAUFER IS THE DIRECTOR:
RAUFER: To be eligible for asylum one has to have- suffered persecution in their past, or have a well-founded fear of persecution. And it has to be based on one of five, what we call protected grounds, characteristics: race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.
NARRATOR: THIS DEFINITION IS DERIVED FROM THE 1951 UNITED NATIONS' REFUGEE CONVENTION. BUT IT WASN'T UNTIL THE REFUGEE ACT OF 1980 THAT THE U.S. PUT THESE STANDARDS INTO FEDERAL LAW.
AMBI: Asylum office. Receptionist: "Just fill out the top, but don't sign anything below..."
NARRATOR: ASYLUM SEEKERS RARELY HAVE DOCUMENTATION OF THE PERSECUTION THEY CLAIM TO HAVE SUFFERED, WHICH IS WHY ASYLUM OFFICERS MUST INTERVIEW EACH APPLICANT. RAUFER AND HER COLLEAGUES SAY THAT EVERYONE EMBELLISHES AND EVERY STORY HAS INCONSISTENCIES.
RAUFER: There are inconsistencies that are material to the claim, and that are serious. And there are inconsistencies that arise out of, either your nervousness or your forgetfulness, or your interest in embellishing your story. So that's part of the job of the asylum officer is to figure out what they're dealing with.
NARRATOR: THE REAL ID ACT THAT WAS JUST PASSED BY CONGRESS INCLUDES SOME OF THE MOST SIGNIFICANT ASYLUM LEGISLATION SINCE 1995. THE LAW WILL ALLOW A JUDGE OR ASYLUM OFFICER TO DENY A CLAIM BASED ON MINOR INCONSISTENCIES, OR EVEN ON THE DEMEANOR OF THE APPLICANT.
KIRKORIAN: are they uh, shifty eyed, do they sound credible?
NARRATOR: MARK KRIKORIAN IS THE DIRECTOR OF THE CENTER FOR IMMIGRATION STUDIES, A THINK TANK IN WASHINGTON, DC. HE APPLAUDS THE NEW LEGISLATION WITH ITS EMPHASIS ON AN APPLICANT'S BEHAVIOR.
KRIKORIAN: experienced asylum officers and immigration judges can well uh, be expected to get a feel for illegal aliens who have been coached to pretend to be underground Catholics from China, for instance.
NARRATOR: BUT LETICIA ALLEN, A SUPERVISOR AT THE NEWARK OFFICE, SAYS THAT A PERSON'S DEMEANOR ISN'T ALWAYS THE BEST INDICATOR THAT HE OR SHE IS TELLING THE TRUTH.
ALLEN: you may interview somebody and they tell you great details of a certain prison and torture that they endured there. It may turn out that that person worked at that prison and actually did the torturing. On the other hand, the person might be so traumatized that they're telling the story with no emotion, and it really happened to them.
NARRATOR: THE REAL ID ACT REQUIRES MORE DOCUMENTATION FROM ASYLUM SEEKERS--AND GIVES MORE DISCRETION TO JUDGES AND OFFICERS IN DECIDING CASES.
ONLY 29 PERCENT OF CASES REVIEWED IN ASYLUM OFFICES IN 2003 WERE APPROVED. THAT MEANS MOST WERE REFERRED TO JUDGES. FOR MARK KRIKORIAN THERE IS ONLY ONE CONCLUSION TO DRAW FROM THIS:
KRIKORIAN: most asylum applicants are in fact, lying. The question we need to face is where do we draw the line. How many bogus applicants do we let in, and how many do we turn back at the risk in order to keep bogus people from getting asylum. I'd have to say that tightening up asylum has a lot to recommend it.
ABDULAI: The government, I understand their concern.
NARRATOR: ABDULAI BAH DOES WORRY ABOUT THE SECURITY OF HIS ADOPTED HOMELAND. BUT HE'S NOT SURE THE GOVERNMENT IS ON THE RIGHT TRACK WITH THIS NEW LEGISLATION.
ABDULAI: Because you have you know, some of the bad guys out there, you know, the liars. I think they should be using other ways to make sure they're getting the right people
NARRATOR: FOR NPR'S JUSTICE TALKING, I'M SARAH ELZAS IN NEW YORK.
Producer: Sarah Elzas with Olivia Bueno
Recorded in Lyndhurst, NJ, and Staten Island, NY,
with help from Rachel McCarthy in Washington, DC
Edited by Steve Mencher