Amara (not her real name) was beaten and raped by low level government employees in Ethiopia. Then she was abused by the American immigration court system.
I met Amara after her application for asylum had been denied. She was in the immigration court system and the US government was seeking to remove her from the United States. She turned to a nonprofit organization, which in turn referred her case to me, to renew her claim for asylum in front of an immigration judge.
What was the crime that the Ethiopian government workers punished Amara for? She had been born and raised during a peaceful time. But during a time of border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Amara had the temerity to be of mixed Ethiopian-Eritrean descent. She had left the country before the tensions erupted, living in Italy and studying hairdressing. But when the tensions increased, her family, including her husband, disappeared. So Amara went back to Ethiopia to look for them.
Upon her return, she was arrested at the airport based on her Eritrean ethnicity. She was held in a cell for several days, during which she suffered unspeakable abuse. On her release, the officers handed Amara a deportation order and told her to leave the country. She remained for a few weeks, hiding at a friend’s home to recover from her ordeal. Then she made her way to the United States, where she applied for political asylum. She was terrified to return to Ethiopia.
But Amara had a weak case. All she had to support it was her own testimony and two original documents from Ethiopia: the deportation order and her marriage certificate. The government attorney who was attempting to have Amara removed from the United States sent the documents out for forensic examination. An analyst who knew nothing about Ethiopia concluded that the documents were false. Although the government attorney had this information for six months, she chose to blindside Amara and me with the analyst’s report on the day of Amara’s hearing. The immigration judge found nothing wrong with this abuse of process, and allowed the testimony to proceed.
In an attempt to be fair, the immigration judge told me that I could have a second hearing date, when I would have the opportunity to rebut the analyst’s testimony. My witness on that day was an emeritus professor who had spent some fifty years studying and teaching about Ethiopia, had lived in Ethiopia for several years, and had learned the native language, Amharic. Yet the judge would not allow him to speak because he was not a forensics expert.
In her decision denying Amara’s political asylum, the judge relied heavily on the evidence with which I had been blindsided, and which I had not been allowed to rebut. She substituted her own professional judgment for that of my client’s therapist, and misstated several facts of the case.
The Board of Immigration Appeals rubber stamped the immigration judge’s decision.
Finally, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the highest federal court in Illinois, reversed the denials, calling for a new, unbiased judge to finalize the case in immigration court. Amara finally won political asylum, more than five years from the day she started the process.
During the five years, Amara had to prepare for trial over and over, rehashing the story of her torture and rape, because of the government attorney’s delays. After the Board of Immigration Appeals denied her case, while she was waiting for the federal court to rule, she lost her right to work in the United States for over three months and had to survive on the charity of friends.
There are many thousands of stories like Amara’s; those who have sought the refuge promised by the words on the Statue of Liberty, only to learn how far this country has come from the spirit of those words.