Then, for eight years, I waited.
Katty and I completed our master’s degrees, then our PhDs, all while continuing to advocate for a peaceful transition to democracy in Syria. I worked on governance projects at the Carter Center, the U.S. Institute of Peace and the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, and, when thugs began pillaging antiquities, I proudly lent my academic expertise in Syrian archaeology to global efforts to track their trade.
I despaired as President Donald Trump ascended to power by demonizing immigrants, but found inspiration in those who blocked his most openly prejudiced plans — including then-Sen. Kamala D. Harris, who stood up to his Muslim ban by personally championing the cause of my brother Nael. Thanks in no small part to her advocacy, Nael became one of the first Syrians to enter the country as the first ban was defeated.
When President Biden took office this year with Harris by his side, we had renewed hope that an end to our waiting was finally in sight. Ours was a textbook asylum case, we were assured, sure to sail through approval once sanity returned to the federal government. That hope, it turned out, was misplaced. On May 10, the United States rejected my application for asylum, putting me and Katty at risk of deportation, and throwing into uncertainty the future of our infant daughter, a U.S. citizen with no legal standing in Syria.
The rejection notice was Kafkaesque, riddled with contradictions and outright falsehoods. The asylum officer ignored substantive evidence and claimed that we would face no danger if we were to return to Damascus — a mind-boggling assertion, directly at odds with the U.S. government’s own recognition of Syria’s patterns of persecution in the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. Most absurdly, the officer maintained that because Syria’s intelligence agents had not directly conveyed a threat to me while I was in the United States, there was insufficient evidence they might cause me harm. To state the obvious: Syria’s notorious secret police does not regularly send activists written notice of plans to disappear them into secret prisons.
The Biden administration has taken some steps to reverse Trump-era policies so far, such as raising the refugee cap and extending asylum protections to people facing domestic abuse or gang violence. But if a straightforward case like mine is still slipping through the cracks, it is clear those changes have only scratched the surface.
Although the lack of transparency in the asylum system makes its problems difficult to diagnose, a few glaring ones merit prompt correction. To start, the Biden administration should take steps to reduce the vast discrepancies in outcomes between adjudicators. The approval rate for affirmative asylum cases at the Boston Asylum Office, where my case was reviewed, dropped from 40 percent in late 2016 to below 8 percent at the end of 2019, even as the national average remained around 30 percent, according to data cited in a recent ACLU lawsuit. Most of these cases were later approved by a court, showing they had merit and had been denied unlawfully by an office that seemingly embraced the Trump agenda more than others.
Toward that aim, officials should increase accountability and access to recourse within the system. Under the current structure, asylum officers are miniature authoritarians, wielding unchecked power over the cases they decide. In my case, that power enabled the officer to brush aside my attorney’s legal rebuttal as well as the expertise of leading Syria scholars Steven Heydemann and Lisa Wedeen, who wrote in to refute demonstrably false information cited to justify my denial. Applicants should have recourse to challenge such inaccuracies, preferably in court or at a minimum through an internal mechanism like the one used in the United Kingdom. Finally, individual officers’ rejection rates should be subject to public scrutiny, so patterns of discriminatory rulings can be identified and stamped out.
I recognize that any such changes might come too late for Katty and me; under the rules of affirmative asylum as they stand today, we cannot appeal the decision. However, we are hopeful that sharing our story may inspire policymakers to address the failings of the U.S. immigration system, which is unfair, lacking in due process and driven by political priorities — and not fairness and logic and the law. People seeking refuge in this country deserve better.