Denying protections for asylum seekers denies them opportunities to seek safety
I’ll never forget the day Pedro and Sandra Ramírez (names changed) first came to my office. Soft-spoken and kind, the elderly Venezuelan couple radiated grace and warmth — a welcome contrast to the dreary November weather that day.
As I always do in an initial interview with potential clients, I asked the couple about their background as well as their reasons for coming to the United States. Tears welled in Pedro’s eyes. He covered his face with his hands as he wept.
The couple then recounted the horrifying events that forced them to flee their native Venezuela and seek safety in the United States. Before coming to the United States, Pedro worked as an accountant for a U.S.-based company in Venezuela, while Sandra taught at a local public elementary school. As Sandra explained, “Before the violence, we loved our life in Venezuela. Our family and friends were there. We were active in our church there and made a good living there. It was our home.”
But with the election of President Hugo Chávez in 1998, their idyllic life in the country they loved changed almost instantly. Upon taking office in 1999, President Chávez declared a “Bolivarian Revolution,” engaged in widespread censorship and stripped the judiciary of its independence. The economy collapsed. Crime, insecurity and corruption skyrocketed, as did the government’s violent suppression of political opposition.
The Ramírez’s fought to save their country. They voted, organized, protested and signed a public referendum opposing Chávez and his regime. They knew these bold actions could cost them their home, their livelihoods, their safety and even their lives, yet they persisted out of a deep love for their compatriots and their country, as well as their firm commitment to the principles of freedom and democracy.
In retaliation for the Ramírez’s bold calls for a free and democratic Venezuela, the Venezuelan government responded forcefully. It published the Ramírez’s names on a list of “enemies of the state,” which forever labeled the family as dissidents in a country that punished such activity with arrests, beatings, torture and even death. Once on the list, the threatening phone calls began, warning the family to end their protests or “face the consequences.”
Yet the couple persisted in their courageous dissent, even as conditions worsened under Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro. As a result, the government fired Sandra from her public school position. It also later seized Pedro’s company, leaving all of its employees jobless. With no income and no means of obtaining new employment as political pariahs, the couple began living on their savings until the government froze their bank account.
Pedro, who has a heart condition, could no longer receive his medicine or medical care and the couple began to starve as food became scarce. The family then began receiving threatening notes on their cars and at their home, warning that they were being watched and eerily describing their daily activities with great detail. The incident that finally forced the couple out of their native country was when three masked gunmen in military uniforms charged into the couple’s home, tying them up, beating them and leaving them for dead. As the gunmen beat the elderly couple, they screamed, “This is what you get for opposing the Revolution! Chávez lives!”
Knowing their death was imminent, the Ramírez’s decided they had to escape the country they loved, making the difficult decision to flee to the United States to seek asylum. As Sandra recounted, “Pedro’s accounting degree couldn’t save us. Our bank savings couldn’t save us. Only God saved us, thanks to this beautiful country. There was nothing we could do to protect ourselves but leave. To whom could we turn in Venezuela? The same government that wanted us dead?”
As a signatory to the United Nations’ 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, (later codified in the Refugee Act of 1980), the United States is legally bound to provide certain procedural and substantive protections for asylum seekers such as the Ramírezes, to ensure their humane treatment and meaningful, reasoned consideration of their claims. But the process is far from easy.
Once asylum seekers enter the United States to seek protection, they face a long, arduous, highly politicized and highly uncertain asylum process with equally difficult odds. Immigration courts nationwide denied 65 percent of asylum claims in 2018, highlighting the rigorous nature of the process. Depending on the circumstances, asylum proceedings include a strenuous series of interviews and/or adversarial hearings to determine whether they are eligible for asylum protection — that is, whether they hold a “well-founded” fear of persecution in their home country and whether the persecution is on account of a protected ground, which includes race, religion, national origin, political opinion and membership in a particular social group.
Many asylum seekers are incarcerated as they pursue their claims, even though they have committed no crime. And even though asylum law is exceedingly complex, statistics obtained by Syracuse University show that a large proportion of asylum seekers in immigration court — many of whom do not speak English and are not familiar with the U.S. legal system — face this daunting system alone, since they do not enjoy a right to government-appointed counsel.
Thankfully, after a long process, the Ramírez’s asylum applications were approved. The couple is now living happily and safely in the United States, where they are beloved members of their community, but many of their fellow asylum seekers continue to suffer. Especially in light of these many obstacles, the recent systematic erosion of these well-established and decades-old protections for asylum seekers is an affront to the rule of law and our nation’s bedrock values.
These protections and the constitutional due process rights that accompany them, can be changed no more by the president than the right to bear arms, or any other individual right, can. To deny these protections to asylum seekers such as the Ramírez’s not only denies them the opportunity to seek safety from oppression, but betrayed the ideals of freedom, equality, democracy and the true rule of law that we hold dear.
Amelia McGowan is a staff attorney with the Mississippi Center for Justice and is an adjunct professor of law. Her immigration practice focuses primarily on asylum.