Bill Shifts Burden to Asylum-Seekers

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) wrote the Real ID legislation.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) wrote the Real ID legislation.
By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 1, 2005

Soldiers in Cameroon seized Flaubert Mbongo in broad daylight in 1996 and hauled him to jail. They beat the bottoms of his feet with a heavy stick and threatened to kill him for helping to create a democratic party opposing President Paul Biya.

A few years later, Jean Pierre Kamwa was startled when soldiers smashed through the door of his dormitory room at a university in Cameroon's capital city. As one soldier attacked him, he said, another told him his punishment would be worse if he continued to organize students who protested shoddy conditions.

Both men fled to the United States in the 1990s. The men, after claiming that they were persecuted by their government, endured long waits for asylum while attorneys and U.S. authorities investigated their stories in one of the most rigorous asylum processes in the world.

Mbongo, of Silver Spring, and Kamwa, of New York, were eventually allowed into the country, but future applicants might not have the same success, according to advocates for people seeking asylum. Under the proposed Real ID Act, which is being negotiated by a House-Senate conference committee, asylum-seekers will have an even more difficult time proving their cases, and the number of immigrants seeking asylum would likely continue to plummet, the advocates say.

The legislation would place a heavier burden on applicants to prove claims they were persecuted at home. They would be expected to make persuasive cases of mistreatment, preferably with documented evidence, something that people on the run rarely have. Immigration judges who do not believe the immigrants' claims could order them deported even before their appeals run out, and federal courts would no longer have recourse to step in.

"The Real ID Act will make it much more difficult for asylees like Flaubert and Jean Pierre to get asylum in this country," said Eleanor Acer, asylum program director for Human Rights First, whose attorneys represented both men.

Under the proposed legislation, Mbongo, who received a court stay of deportation, would likely have been sent back to Cameroon, where he could have been arrested and tortured again, Acer said. He was granted asylum in 2002 after a newspaper reporter traveled to Cameroon and verified his claims.

To those who believe in tighter restrictions on legal immigration, however, the asylum process is yet another way for terrorists or criminals to gain entry to the United States. They point to the cases of Mir Aimal Kansi and Ramzi Yousef, who committed terrorist attacks on U.S. soil after exploiting the asylum process.

Kansi entered the U.S. illegally, then applied for asylum in 1992, was allowed to stay under a general immigration amnesty and was granted a work visa. On Jan. 25, 1993, he attacked CIA employees waiting in traffic outside the Langley headquarters, killing two and wounding three. He was apprehended abroad in 1997, convicted, and executed in 2002.

Ramzi Yousef asked for asylum and was released pending a hearing. In the meantime, he helped plot and carry out the 1993 World Trade Center bombing that killed six people and injured more than 1,000. He was captured, convicted and imprisoned.

"Is there any limit to how many fake asylum applicants should be let in in order to keep one legitimate applicant from being deported?" asked Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. "In order not to send this person back, do you have to say yes to everybody?"

The Clinton administration tightened the asylum process in 1994, requiring automatic detention of refugees, the taking of fingerprints and photographs before release, and a lengthy hearing process.

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