No Place Like Home

Thousands of Somalis fled when their country committed suicide a decade ago. Now the local INS office has found a way to send them back.

Hassan does not expect sympathy in exchange for his story. He isn't the sort of man who weeps, he explains simply. "Maybe I do not look like a refugee," he says. "Maybe they expect me to act a certain way, and I do not." To survive in exile, Hassan has amassed deep reserves of confidence and patience. Paradoxically, this same self-possession may have gotten him into his current predicament.

In his initial July 1996 interview, Hassan described his exodus to an intake officer at the INS asylum unit in Houston. "He was beaten on the front and back of the head with a baseball bat and gun and kicked," the officer noted in her report. Though she found no reason to doubt Hassan's claims, neither did she determine that his Daarood clan affiliation would constitute a "well-founded fear of persecution" if he were returned to Somalia. "Applicant has failed to establish...that the Hawiye remain inclined and motivated to harm him."

The Texas INS officer also offered a recap of the political situation in Somalia. "Current country conditions show that the Hawiye exist in the central region stretching from Mogadishu, and the Daarood are located in the northeast horn and along the Kenyan border. The other major clans primarily occupy the other remaining areas of Somalia. The well-foundedness fear would depend on the nature and durability of the alleged threat and the applicant's physical location in the country.

Daniel Corrigan

"Applicant failed to prove that he could not safely reside in other areas of Somalia not occupied by the Hawiye such as in the northeastern part of Somalia and near the Kenyan border," the report concluded, before referring Hassan's claim to an immigration judge.

Hassan, who then spoke only a broken facsimile of English, at first thought the interview went well. He has since grown more cynical about the INS asylum application process. "To be honest with you," he says, "I believe they have a quota system that's basically random. I answered all her questions and she seemed sympathetic. But it's based on the fact that they simply have to accept a certain number and turn a certain number away. So she saw me and decided that I would be one of the ones to be turned away."

In fact, INS officials assert that there is no quota, and that each case is evaluated on its own merit. Yet statistics show that between 1995 and 1999, almost exactly half of Somali refugees filing for political asylum were denied. Jennifer Prestholdt, director of the refugee and immigrant program at the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, says that while there may not be an official quota system, the massive influx of East African refugees might also prompt INS officials to weed out less well-documented claims. "There's a lot of concern about fraud in the Somali community because so many people fled for their lives with no proof of their identity," she says. "With so many Somalis here, there's a tendency to rank the strength of those cases."

Hassan, who'd escaped without even so much as a family photo, faced the same incredulity at his immigration court appearance. The hearing was held at the Atlanta office of the Executive Office for Immigration Review, an administrative court dealing solely with immigration matters, which is separate from the INS (though both are under the aegis of the Department of Justice). Hassan had not yet received a work permit and could not afford to hire a lawyer; the volunteer attorney with whom he ended up was inexperienced and uninterested, and, he says, simply didn't show up for his court date.

Instead, he represented himself. According to Hassan, the judge took an immediate dislike to him. "He thought, 'This guy is an arrogant guy.' He basically threw my case out. Maybe he's seen too many people crying; I'm not that kind of person. That's not my way of dealing or getting sympathy."

Indeed, in his decision the immigration judge, William Cassidy, wrote that Hassan "was annoyed to the point of arrogance and anger when questioned regarding the nature of his claim." Cassidy further suggested that Hassan might not actually be Somali. Because of his lack of documentation and the ease with which he'd obtained a Kenyan passport, the judge speculated that he was a Kenyan citizen. Nor did Cassidy accept an affidavit from two of Hassan's friends supporting his claims of Somali nationality. "There is nothing showing in the course of the application to identify these people as Somali," he wrote. They couldn't refute his opinion because none of them had passports: It has been virtually impossible to secure travel documentation in Mogadishu since 1991.

The judge, bolstered by his impression that Hassan was educated and "someone of means," opined that he would not face persecution if returned to Mogadishu, Kenya, or Ethiopia (though he could not reside legally in either of the latter). He noted, also, that because Hassan had used a counterfeit passport to cross the border, he had broken U.S. law. (Most immigration lawyers agree that such an infraction should not be the sole basis for denying asylum.) "As previously stated," Cassidy concluded, "the burden is upon the respondent to show what his true nationality is. The Court did not find that he has done so."

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