Jonette Christian’s recent BDN OpEd alleging a serious problem with asylum fraud misconstrues the real situations of many asylum seekers living in Maine and around the country.
Not every asylum claim is successful, but denial of a case does not mean the claim was fraudulent. All too often, the success of an asylum claim depends on whether the applicant had a lawyer representing her. Statistics show asylum applicants who do not have lawyers are much less likely to win their cases. Within the Pro Bono Panel of Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, or ILAP, attorneys who represent asylum clients maintain a 97 percent success rate while asylum seekers facing deportation without a lawyer are approved just 11 to 12 percent of the time. We have seen this trend play out in case after case in Maine.
Take the story of Claude from the Democratic Republic of Congo: Claude came to the United States out of necessity, for his safety. Claude is from a minority ethnic group in the DRC, which has faced persecution, including genocide. He fled the DRC after being tortured, detained and threatened with death by DRC government officials. When he fled, Claude was forced to leave behind his family and a career as a pastor and community leader. He looked hard for a lawyer in Maine but had no money and could not find someone to represent him for free. Claude’s first asylum application was denied because, without the help of a lawyer, he made small mistakes in his asylum filing — not because he committed fraud. His case then was sent to the Boston Immigration Court. This time, however, he found a free lawyer from ILAP, and it made all the difference. Claude won his case. His children and wife are with him here in Maine, where Claude works as an educator. One of his children attends an elite New England college on a full scholarship; another is pursuing a master’s degree from the University of Maine.
Claude’s story represents the norm, not the exception. In our work, we often see individuals who first applied for asylum on their own and were denied because of translation errors or minor mistakes and misunderstandings. But, individuals such as Claude who are fortunate to get the help of a lawyer often end up winning their cases in the end.
In terms of actual fraud, there already are sufficient penalties built into the process to deter people from fraudulently seeking asylum. Submitting an asylum application begins a process that includes numerous security checks and the scrutiny of trained officers on the consistency and credibility of an asylum claim, sometimes including forensic testing and field investigations. If a case is denied, the applicant faces deportation. Those who file frivolous applications are subject to criminal penalties and a permanent bar to immigration.
The system already has many checks in place to assure that those who are granted asylum truly need it. Denying asylum seekers the right to work should not be seen as a viable or just way to deter fraud.
We applaud Sen. Angus King’s efforts to get asylum applicants working sooner through the introduction of legislation that would shorten the time they must wait for work permits — from six months down to one. Already, both domestic law and international treaties allow those who need protection to legally remain in the United States while their cases are pending, and these one-year renewable work permits are valid only while the asylum application is being processed. If their cases are ultimately denied, they will no longer be able to work, and they will face deportation.
Why not allow asylum seekers to work while they are going through the process, instead of force them to rely on public benefits or charity organizations? Like Claude, the asylum seekers we see want nothing more than to become self-sufficient — to work and provide for their families. Reports by the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and the Maine Development Foundation tell us that bringing more immigrant workers into the workforce will be essential for Maine’s economic future. It is in our interest to allow new residents to work while going through the immigration process and building their new lives here in Maine — because it benefits them, their families, the businesses that employ them and our state economy as a whole.
Anna Welch is Associate Clinical Professor at the University of Maine School of Law. She runs Maine Law’s Refugee and Human Rights Clinic and teaches immigration law. Sue Roche is executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project.