Blog → April 14, 2024

My First Asylum Case: An Attorney's Perspective on Asylum in the United States

Kristen Dayley

I took my first asylum case in 2016, when our national dialog on immigration took a decidedly negative turn. As a corporate attorney, I had no experience in immigration law, but my license allowed me to represent individuals fleeing severe persecution and I signed with a local non-profit to offer my help.

My first asylum client was a young mother and her two small daughters. I could see myself in Saba (names have been changed). She is the oldest of five children, as am I, and her family makeup was identical to mine – four girls and one boy. Saba’s childhood was spent in Kabul, Afghanistan, a city that became increasingly dangerous during the war in the 1980s. By the mid-1990s, much of the city had been destroyed and Saba’s family fled to Pakistan by hiding in the back of a truck with several other families in the middle of the night. Life was difficult in Pakistan, but at least the family was safe.

Saba’s aunt and uncle had moved to the United States in 1979, prior to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. They both became American citizens and in May 1994, filed applications for their family members to join them in the U.S. The applications were eventually granted, but it took 12 years to get that approval. By that time, Saba was in her mid-20s. Because she was over 21, she was no longer eligible to come to the United States with her parents and younger siblings.

Following a tearful goodbye with her family in November of 2006, Saba stayed with her grandmother and three uncles, but this situation did not last. Within five months, all three uncles and their families had emigrated to the U.S. and her grandmother had died.

As an unmarried woman, Saba could not live alone in Pakistan. With no other options, Saba moved in with her fiancé and his mother, only to learn that her fiancé was a violent man and a powerful member of a criminal gang that made money through kidnappings, prostitution and drug smuggling. Saba’s fiancé became her captor and repeatedly beat and raped her, offering her out to other men. Saba was forced to undergo several abortions and was stabbed multiple times.

After months of abuse, Saba escaped through a neighbor’s help and returned to Afghanistan to seek shelter from relatives, where she met a kind man, Amir, and was married. In their second year of marriage, Saba received word that her mother had suffered a stroke and was not expected to live. Saba’s relatives were able to obtain tourist visas for Saba and her baby, allowing Saba to reunite with her family for two months in the U.S.

Unfortunately, when Saba returned to Kabul she was followed whenever she left home on her own. Strangers shouted accusations at her, saying she was no longer a Muslim and claiming she was an American spy. Then the threats began. Phone calls when Amir was away, rocks wrapped in paper and thrown through her windows – all threatening to take her child, kill her husband and harm her. Given the abuse Saba had previously endured, her terror was all-consuming.

Saba did not feel safe at home, but she didn’t dare leave either. Two months after her return, Saba was home with her elderly mother-in-law and toddler when four men in black masks forced themselves in and began beating her with sticks and shotguns as the women screamed. The men left but promised to return. Seeking safety, Saba and Amir went to stay with a cousin but when masked men broke into the cousin’s residence in the middle of the night and attacked the young family, they were forced to return to their home so as not to put others in danger.

Life was untenable. Saba’s home was regularly vandalized, often at night, with windows broken, their door battered down, lights shattered and electric and phone cables torn out. During this period, Saba gave birth to another daughter, but her arrival was overshadowed by Saba’s depression and anxiety. More than once, Saba was accosted and beaten in her home by men breaking in, bragging that they could do anything they wanted with her, throwing stones at her young girls, and promising they would return at some point to finish the job. Saba and her girls required urgent medical attention due to their injuries and the police were called each time but treated her with suspicion and refused to do anything.

Saba’s family bounced between homes with anyone who would take them in. This was difficult with two young girls and an elderly mother-in-law who suffered from Alzheimer’s. When they were again forced to return to their home, Saba received a call in which the caller warned her that they would kill her girls the next time they came. Knowing these were not idle threats, Saba and Amir made plans to flee the country when they received word that, after multiple attempts, they had been approved for non-immigrant tourist visas to the U.S.

Within a week, Saba left for the U.S. with her daughters, but Amir stayed behind to get his elderly mother settled, knowing he would likely never see her again. Arriving in the U.S. a month after his family, the customs agents asked Amir if he intended to stay in the U.S. or return to Afghanistan. Frightened that they would turn him away if he admitted he hoped to stay, Amir said he intended to return. Another agent called Saba, who was waiting outside customs, and asked her the same question. Saba admitted she was too frightened to return to her country. Because their answers did not match, Amir was turned away and forced to return immediately to Afghanistan without ever seeing his family.

Just a week after his forced return, Amir was at work in his store when a group of masked men ran in, beat him with their shotguns, and left him for dead. When he was later found, wounded and bleeding on the floor, Amir was hospitalized for four days. Upon his release, Amir found that his home had been burned to the ground. After a year spent relying on the hospitality of friends and relatives, Amir fled to Turkey where he has been living for the last eight years, still waiting for an opportunity to be reunited with Saba and his girls.

Sadly, Saba and her girls are still not out of danger. Although their asylum case was filed in 2016, they haven’t had a hearing and are not likely to receive one anytime soon. With an estimated backlog of between 1.6 to 2.0 million asylum cases, USCIS now reviews the most recent applications first, meaning that those who have been waiting for years already likely have many more years to wait until their cases are adjudicated.

Living in limbo is difficult. Saba cannot travel outside of the country (meaning she will miss her brother’s wedding in Canada this summer) and her eligibility to work (which has to be granted by USCIS) has been interrupted multiple times by administrative hiccups. Meanwhile, Saba’s daughters, who were preschoolers when they fled Afghanistan, are now teenagers and know little of their prior life beyond what their mother has told them. They have been separated from their father for almost ten years and have a relationship built on hours of Facetime.

I have since taken several other asylum cases because the need is so great. I represent African teachers who were targeted by gangs and community leaders intent on subjecting them to female genital mutilation because they were powerful advocates for girls’ education. I represent an older woman who was gang-raped and mutilated on the front stoop of her home while her daughters were forced to watch.

The legal requirements of an asylum case require my clients to tell me the worst things that have happened to them, which is dehumanizing and retraumatizing. I typically meet with a client at least three times before we get to the hardest parts of their story, and when we do, I set aside my notes and we cry together.

None of these people are dangerous. None of them wanted to leave their homes and communities. On the contrary – they are individuals who are fleeing horrors few of us could imagine.

Asylum cases are extremely complex and nuanced. An individual must demonstrate that he or she has suffered persecution in the past or have a well-founded fear of future persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group by a government actor or a non-government actor that the government is unable or unwilling to control. Building a case that meets all the legal and procedural requirements is an intricate, time-consuming and complicated.

Legal representation, although critical, is hard to obtain. Individuals represented by counsel are five times more likely to win their case. And yet, even with my help, there is no telling when my clients’ cases will finally be heard and no guarantee when they receive a hearing that they will win their cases. What I do know is that no one should be forced to navigate this process alone.

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