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.
The Real ID legislation was introduced by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who said it is intended to implement recommendations made by the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
In addition to restructuring the asylum process, the legislation would force states to verify documents submitted for driver's licenses.
Even traditional allies are butting heads over the measure, which has some expressing concerns about its impact on America's standing as protector of people fleeing oppression.
"Getting asylum is the most difficult way to enter the country," said Patricia Lyman, director of Just Law International, which helps people fleeing religious persecution. The Real ID bill would create "a situation where a judge can exercise discretion and say 'if you don't have a police report, that's too bad.' "
Krikorian said, however, that "human rights groups on the left persuaded some Christian conservative groups that people who were persecuted on religious grounds would be sent back. This is something the left has been trying to make a case for, especially among Christian conservative groups. I think they're being misled."
Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations for NumbersUSA, a conservative group that advocates stricter immigration laws, said the Real ID requirements are not excessive.
"Congress is saying . . . the burden of proof is on you," Jenks said. "You need to prove to the court that you need protection. . . .
"If you say so and so sent you a letter, then where's the letter? If the person says, 'I left it at home, I can't get it,' the judge might say, 'Okay, fine, describe it to me.' If the defendant doesn't produce it where it's reasonable, then that figures into their decision."
Four Senate Republicans -- John McCain (Ariz.), Sam Brownback (Kan.), John E. Sununu (N.H.) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) -- successfully fought other conservatives who attempted to attach the Real ID bill to a measure to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and provide tsunami relief in Asia.
The bill is being negotiated in a House-Senate conference committee because it is attached to the war spending bill that Republicans pushed through the House.
On Monday, the Bush administration issued a statement supporting the immigration revisions, but said it "has some concerns with the House-passed version of the bill and will work with the conferees to make sure these concerns are addressed."
Between 1980 and 1994, any immigrant who crossed the border could claim persecution, ask for asylum and receive a permit to work legally in the United States while his or her claims were investigated. The process could take 10 years.
That ended with the CIA shooting and the World Trade Center bombing. With tougher rules in place, the 140,000 people who applied for asylum in 1995 fell to about 30,000 last year, according to the government.
The next year, 1996, Mbongo arrived at Dulles International Airport with fake identification documents and was hard-pressed to prove his story of beatings and torture at the hands of Cameroon government soldiers. He was shackled and detained in jails in Prince William County, Alexandria, Virginia Beach and Fredericksburg.
He spoke only French, he said, and his first interview occurred without an interpreter. He did not understand the questions but labored to answer them anyway. Later, with an interpreter at his side during a hearing, Mbongo told a fuller story that seemed full of inconsistencies to the immigration judge.
"I thought I would be deported," Mbongo said.
He was saved by a San Jose Mercury News reporter who traveled to Cameroon and verified a document that Mbongo said proved his story.
Kamwa was more persuasive. After arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport in 1999, he spent three years documenting his claim that soldiers raped him in his room and on the same day marched a female student activist across the campus without clothing to humiliate her.
"They hit you with a baton," Kamwa said. "They say, 'Stop any kind of activities. If you do it again, we will kill you.' They beat the bottom of the foot, and you wouldn't be able to stand."