Last Saturday, we attended a free intake clinic in Hollywood as a group. After half a day of interviewing potential clients, the DukeEngage group sat in a circle with an attorney from Americans for Immigrant Justice and the director of Hispanic Unity of Florida, the organizations running the event. The AIJ attorney was describing her work. She mentioned that one of the most difficult parts of her job were moments when a potential client didn’t have any path to legal status. In a strange way, she said, she found herself hoping that a client had experienced great difficulty that would qualify them for asylum, a U-visa, a T-visa or another visa based on situations of trauma or persecution.
From my own observations, asylum cases especially focus entirely on these difficulties. The narrative that the attorney crafts, while completely true, must highlight past persecution or the threat of future persecution in order to convince the judge to grant relief. The more helpless an asylum applicant appears to be, the more likely their case will be successful in court.
Stressing the neediness of asylees is also ever more important politically—if people don’t see incoming refugees as worthy of protection and support, the host country can make it much more difficult for them to secure their status and access resources they need. People so easily forget the struggles that many asylum applicants endured: under the zero-tolerance policy, asylum applicants are detained when they enter the country, and a Jeff Sessions decision recently made it much more difficult for survivors of gang violence and domestic violence to qualify for asylum. It’s clearly a dangerous thing when people forget the struggles that individuals have gone through to reach the United States.
Still, it is incomplete to focus so heavily on the weakness and vulnerability of immigrants, even to their legal benefit. I talked with one woman from Venezuela who was considering applying for political asylum because of police violence against and imprisonment of political activists like her. Her situation in Venezuela had been dire: living on a few dollars a month, lacking access to treatment for a medical condition, and facing the constant threat of violence for expressing her political views, she could hardly have been more vulnerable. But at the same time, she continued fighting for what she believed in. She hopes to someday have sufficient safety to return to Venezuela, where she felt her fight against a repressive government would best be continued.
The overwhelming impression she gave me was not one of helplessness, but one of vitality determination. I think this is true of most people who make it through persecution at home, the often-arduous journey to the U.S., and the difficulties of settling in the United States and fighting expensive, time-consuming and complex legal battles just for permission to stay. Of course, Americans shouldn’t buy into the notion that asylees are just “pretending” to be needy—having compassion for their struggles is key to providing protection to them in the U.S. But it would be equally heartless, ignorant and dehumanizing to forget asylees’ and refugees’ strength and human potential as we think about both immigration policy and asylees and refugees as human beings.