Doctor's Immigration Ills
Russom Ghebrai's Hospital Says It Needs Him. The U.S. Says He Has to Go.

By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Russom Ghebrai walks the corridors of Greater Southeast Community Hospital with quiet authority. Seventy hours a week, he dons the white coat of his profession and attends to patients on the fringes of medical care.

On the eighth floor is a 36-year-old man with HIV and kidney failure. Next door to him, a parolee with heart problems. Patient after patient, typically indigent, uninsured and suffering a tangle of diseases and complications.

"We are blessed to see you," he tells them.

In the eyes of his colleagues, Ghebrai is a physician of dedication and skill. But to the U.S. government, he is a deportable alien. Having denied a claim for asylum, it has ordered him and his wife to return to their native Eritrea. They must provide proof to officials by Monday that they have applied for Eritrean passports and begun arranging their travel.

Ghebrai's case skews the images often invoked in the debate over immigration. He is a doctor serving some of the most medically needy residents of the nation's capital. At a hospital that almost closed last year, in part because of its inability to attract doctors to care for this population, there is amazement.

"We have somebody who wants to stay in this for the long term," said Wietske Moore, a family nurse practitioner, "and we're then going to kick him out?"

It was Ghebrai's wife, Minya, who filed for asylum, recounting her arrest, detention and torture at 19 by soldiers for the authorities who then controlled Eritrea. Ghebrai arrived several months later and his name was added to her request, as sometimes occurs with spouses. Both were allowed to remain while the case was pending.

But repeatedly the government deemed her story not credible, based on discrepancies in their testimony and issues with documents their attorneys submitted. One judge questioned the couple's identities and marriage.

Haunted by nightmares and flashbacks dating back two decades, Minya is a changed person today. With every denial, she has become more despairing.

In the rare moments when her husband lets down his guard at work, the strain shadows his face. "Help me, God," he prays daily.

'Chain of . . . Failures'

Both entered the United States on legitimate visas: she as a business visitor, he as an exchange visitor.

Minya fled Eritrea in 1994, not long after being pulled from her workplace by security forces, interrogated about her past political activities and warned to watch her step. Her husband says that was when he learned she had been imprisoned a half-dozen years earlier.

Eight months pregnant, Minya left their young daughter with Ghebrai and flew to the United States from Asmara, a capital slightly smaller than the District.

He followed in 1996 after receiving an opportunity to train at the Veterans Affairs medical center in Los Angeles. He was a senior doctor in Asmara's biggest hospital, which had swelled to 800 beds during the years of fighting between Eritrean rebels and Ethiopian troops. But his position offered little safety. Officers came around to press him about his wife's whereabouts. He sent their daughter to relatives in Kenya.

They have yet to be reunited.

"Why don't you bring her here?" wonders the couple's 5-year-old son, who, like his 13-year-old brother, was born in the United States.

Minya filed for sanctuary several months after her visa expired. The claim for her and her husband rested on her history in the Eritrean Liberation Front, a revolutionary group that fought for independence from Ethiopia but these days is one of many organizations targeted by Eritrea's leaders. U.S. law specifies that asylum can be granted for past persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based on political affiliation.

The law also addresses religious beliefs. Although the evangelical church where the couple worships would be banned in Eritrea -- U.S. officials and international human rights groups have accused its rulers of using violence to repress religion -- no lawyer raised faith as an issue.

"You can get arrested for being at a prayer meeting," said Dan Connell, an expert on Eritrea who lectures on journalism and African politics at Simmons College in Massachusetts. The dates Minya cites for her detention and abuse are "absolutely credible," falling within a decade of terror and secret jails, he said. Many citizens still live in fear, he added. "This is a consolidated dictatorship."

The application wended its way through a multi-stage system of both administrative and judicial review. Jan Pederson, the attorney now representing the couple, describes their decade-long legal journey as "a chain of multiple failures."

The first immigration judge they encountered held multiple hearings and then was put on leave because of a derisive quip to a Ugandan woman in another case. His replacement decided that the couple needed to retell their stories and then seized on inconsistencies in Minya's testimony, particularly the number of times she said she had been raped in prison. Unless she was lying, he concluded, that was something she would never confuse or forget. The day he denied her and her husband asylum, he punched "Play" on a tape recorder and let it announce his ruling as he exited the courtroom.

Immigration judges have considerable discretion on the issue of credibility. Inconsistencies are not automatically reasons for asylum to be refused. Yet their next attorney, who argued the case before an immigration appeal board, failed to address conflicting details on several key points of their previous testimony. His lapse proved devastating.

The board turned them down. And last fall, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit dismissed their petition without scheduling arguments. A few weeks later, that lawyer was suspended for his incompetent counsel in their case.

The Baltimore office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is in charge of the couple's removal. "It can be very unpopular when someone's been told they do not have the right to live here," acknowledged Dorothy Herrera-Niles, the assistant field office director.

The office has been generous in its handling of the case. Because of Minya's emotional state and their two young children, neither Ghebrai nor his wife was taken into custody. In mid-January, however, at what they expected to be a perfunctory visit to the ICE office, Minya was handed a copy of the Eritrean Embassy's one-page passport renewal application and given 30 days to return it.

She was shaking when she left. "I wish I'd never been born," she said.

"We can't change the judge's decision," Herrera-Niles said later. "She's had her due process, and it's basically just time for her to go."

They have almost no options now. Pederson, who had been counting on psychological evaluations confirming Minya's diagnosis of acute post-traumatic stress, hopes to convince the Baltimore immigration director that there are humanitarian reasons to grant her clients what is known as "deferred action." That would put their deportation on hold, but with no guarantees.

Pederson also has advised Ghebrai to look toward Canada.

'He Contributes So Much'

Their pastors at Immanuel's Church in Silver Spring are rallying around them as the couple searches for strength and direction. The Sunday after Minya's appearance in Baltimore, the scripture from Revelation that greeted them at the morning service seemed prophetic: "See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut."

Doctors and nurses at Greater Southeast are lending support, too. Ghebrai, 47, began working at the hospital in 2005 after finishing a residency program at Howard University Hospital that qualified him to practice in this country. In his early years here, the internist supported his family in part by pumping gas.

"He contributes so much," Chief Medical Officer Cyril Allen said. "He was just as important to the hospital staying open as anyone."

Allen and other principals at the hospital have written testimonials on his behalf.

Last week, Greater Southeast elevated Ghebrai's stature, naming him director of one of its physician groups. Given the uncertainty of his future, he wasn't sure he should accept the title.

Finally, he agreed, adding another responsibility to his burden: the demands of his work, the concerns about his patients and, above all, his worries for his family.

"We just need peace," he said. "Whatever it is, we need peace."

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