I write today due to the current policy of separating families at the border, including those seeking asylum. Morally, this is grotesque, abhorrent. I originally set out to explain why this is also legally unnecessary, but Prof. Somin has already written an excellent piece, which I encourage you to read. Instead, after a brief introduction to the concept of asylum, I will share a personal asylum story.
The idea of a “right to asylum” is venerable. The word asylum comes from the ancient Greek, and the concept appears in the Bible. In modern times, the United States and many other nations recognize the right to asylum via the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a 1951 United Nations treaty (amended in 1967) that defined “refugee,” sets forth rights for those granted asylum, and defines responsibilities for asylum-granting nations. Constitutionally, treaties may be entered into by the President (with the consent of 2/3 of the Senators), and once entered into, have the force of law, per the Supremacy Clause. Beyond that, the asylum procedure has been codified into statutory law.
Per the Refugee Convention, a refugee is defined as “A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”
Law Talkin’ Guy’s legal practice has been compassionate and ethical, but unremarkable. I have helped hundreds of people with contract drafting or small legal disputes, doing a bit of good from time to time but nothing special. My career began at Big Law, which was not for me, but I will be forever thankful to one large firm for one experience. As a second year associate, I was given the opportunity to take on any pro bono case I wanted. Interested in stepping outside of corporate law and desiring to actually do some good, I accepted an asylum case.
One afternoon I met Maria, a refugee from an east African country. Maria was about fifty years old, slight, with kind, tired eyes. She was not fluent in English, but after many meetings I was able to draw out her story. For seven years, Maria was trapped in a horrific marriage with man who, like many of his countryman, believed that his wife was his property to be used has he saw fit, in addition to denying her right to practice her religion. Maria told a heartbreaking tale of rape, torture, child abuse, and constant fear that permeated her life and the lives of her children. She was eventually able to escape to relatives in America, who put her in touch with the great people at PAIR, who got my firm involved.
We ultimately submitted a three-inch thick asylum application, and at the first asylum hearing, Maria was granted asylum. This was the best moment of my legal career. After months of hard work, we saved this woman’s life. I have no doubt that if she was deported back to her home country, her husband would have killed her. I do not state this to flaunt my heroism. I am no hero; I was paid my law firm salary to do a pro bono project. I state this to emphasize the real-world impact that asylum has.
We had an up-hill battle securing asylum for Maria, because her situation does not fit the traditional understanding of “refugee.” Our brief emphasized the growing acceptance that wide-spread, culturally accepted domestic violence in some countries should qualify some for asylum. We included materials from as far back as 1995, which explain how cultural gender-discrimination practices can have the impact of diminishing the civil, political, social, and economic rights of women. Unfortunately, walking canker sore Jeff Sessions is doing everything he can to deny asylum for victims of domestic violence.The word “evil” should not be overused, but nor should we hide from speaking the truth.
In conclusion, asylum is a force of good in the world, a legal obligation, and a moral obligation. At its worst, America is built on the blood of the enslaved and the near annihilation of Native American nations. At its best, it is the people who defeated the Nazis, the people who put this statue out as a beacon to the oppressed of the world:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”