Political Activism’s Case for Asylum

Members of the Darfuri community meeting for a religious holiday in Kensington, Brooklyn. (Safia Samee Ali/NYCity Lens)

Members of the Darfuri community meeting for a religious holiday in Kensington, Brooklyn. (Safia Samee Ali/NYCity Lens)

Mohammed Ebead fled Sudan nine years ago, when the war in Darfur hit full steam killing his brother, uncle and several family members in what he calls a government sanctioned genocide.  After being arrested twice in Sudan for being “non-Arab,” Mohammed says he came to the U.S. by way of Chad, hoping to start a new life on his own terms—under the protection of asylum.

Mohammed isn’t shy about his experiences, in fact he’s adopted a high profile as the activist president of the Darfur People’s Association, an active advocacy group based in Kensington, Brooklyn that loudly criticizes the actions of ruling president Omar al-Bashir.

His political activism dates back to the early weeks of his U.S. arrival in 2005 when he joined the Darfur People’s Association. “I have to tell people what’s happening in Sudan. I’m not going to wait for asylum to protest,” said Ebead.

Like thousands of other asylum-seekers who come to this country every year from around the world, Mohammed denounces the government in his native land, knowing full well that there is a possibility that his asylum bid could fail and he could be sent back; a gamble that could jeopardize his life if he is deported. But many legal experts say there is a potential payoff for this risk, as well. A life of highly visible activism can contribute to a compelling case for asylum. But this assertion sparks a larger debate on immigration as many critics argue that political activity in this country is little more than a ruse aimed at making it easier for many asylum-seekers to manipulate the system.

Current trends in U.S immigration show that the odds are stacked against those seeking political refuge in the U.S. Applications are at an all time high since 2010, while chances of receiving asylum remain low.

In recent years, the number of asylum-seekers has skyrocketed. A UN reports a twenty- eight percent global increase in asylum applications since 2012—with the United States sitting on the higher end of that figure. After holding the top slot for the last four years, the U.S received the second highest number of asylum requests after Germany in 2013. Last year, approximately 88,400 individuals applied for asylum in the United States and only 15,266 or seventeen percent received it.

Many attribute the low probability of gaining asylum to anti-immigration sentiments that have increasingly gained momentum in recent times. Last month, a Gallup poll showed that forty-one percent of Americans oppose increasing immigration into the U.S.

The national mood towards immigrants is quite negative and skeptical, especially when it comes to asylum –seekers, said Monica Feltz, executive director and an attorney with the International Justice Project.  “The current sentiment lacks compassion, it presumes that those seeking asylum here are doing so through an easy choice, made through a series of easy decisions, and delivered on a silver platter by way of an easy and easily manipulated process.  To the contrary, there is nothing easy about asylum,” said Feltz.

In order to make a case for asylum, the U.S requires an individual to prove, with several pieces of corroborating evidence, that they have suffered persecution or have a well-founded fear that they will suffer persecution if they return to their home country. Persecution can be a result of one’s politics, race, nationality or membership in a particular social group, “a case for asylum is better anytime you can show a connection between the type of characteristic a government seeks to repress and an individual with that characteristic,” said Dan Smulian, professor of immigration and asylum at Brooklyn Law School.

The legal process usually involves a long paper chase of notarized certificates and affidavits from witnesses still living in an asylum-seeker’s home country. Obtaining these documents is often difficult in countries with repressive regimes that are keeping a close eye on their people. But without the necessary documentation, winning an asylum case is difficult and unlikely.

Last month, Mohammed Ebead and the Darfur People’s Association led a rally in Manhattan demanding that Sudanese president al-Bashir be brought to justice for “crimes against humanity.” The rally drew dozens of protesters and garnered some media attention. In addition, as DPA president Mohammed writes open letters to Congress and the U.N. asking them to take a more aggressive role in the war in Sudan. He protests on Facebook with anti-government posts and gives talks in public forums regarding war conditions back home. On two occasions, Mohammed travelled to Washington D.C. to speak in front of advocacy groups on the conditions of refugees living in camps.

Sarah Cartsonge has represented numerous asylum seekers privately and for non-profit legal advocacy groups. She said that protest, like Mohammed’s, can be influential in an asylum case. In order to show asylum, there has to be a genuine risk of persecution, and openly opposing a ruling regime may pose a genuine risk according to Corstange. “Speaking out against a political party can put you in more danger if you are deported back. The more presence you have on Facebook, blogs, at speeches and rallies can present a stronger case for asylum,” said Corstange.

A heightened political profile often triggers surveillance by governments that are continuously monitoring what is being said about them. If an individual is particularly loud in their criticism, they will be on the radar, which may increase chances of future persecution. This undoubtedly raises the stakes for an asylum –seeker.

Experts say that heavy involvement in advocacy can also contribute to testimony that is necessary for an asylum case. “If your level of political activism is making headlines, you will have several group members and advocacy leaders who can testify on your behalf in an asylum case,” said Jaya Ramji-Nogales, Professor of Law and 
Co-Director of the Institute for International Law and Public Policy at Temple University Law School. “If it’s hard to get facts from witnesses back home, these advocacy members can help corroborate your case here.”

But these politically active asylum- seekers come under fire by many conservative critics who contend that activism can be easily fabricated. Critics like Ira Mehlman, of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, go so far as to say that true political activists stay in their country and protest to change regimes.

Mehlman feels that the legal system can be easily manipulated if individuals pretend to be politically active or say a few controversial things for the purpose of legal status. “If political activism becomes a factor in asylum cases, it raises the possibility that people will begin criticizing their governments just to get into the U.S.,” said Mehlman. He feels it will be easy to make bogus cases of asylum with bogus examples of political activism.

Other experts say, however, that there are ample ways to combat fraud.

It may not always be fool proof but generally adjudicators are capable of discerning fraud. Judges should be able to detect honesty over something manufactured, especially when it comes to political activism, said Teresa Woods, who is the associate director of the Refugee Representation Project at Cardozo Law School. Woods said that a judge weighs evidence on a case by case basis, including the level and history of activism. “Honesty is integral and many times activism alone doesn’t make an argument for asylum, activism can be used to prove political opinion, for example,” said Woods. An individual with a weak asylum case to begin with probably won’t be granted asylum with a few weak instances of political activity, according to Woods.

Another safeguard to prevent false asylum claims is the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate, a post 9/11 agency put in place to oversee immigration fraud. FDNS officers conduct background checks and address other red flags that come up during the processing of immigration applications and petitions, including any fabrications.

Mohammed Ebead received asylum three months ago and continues to blaze forward with his awareness crusade. His demonstrations have not lessened, his passion has not lessened. He believes it is his duty to do whatever he can for those left behind in Sudan. “People in Darfur have waited thirteen years for justice. Their only hope, only help, only voice is us. We have access and ways to reach people they can’t because we are here. It’s my job to be their voice. I have to do that.”