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Proposal makes asylum tougher

The Real ID bill would allow judges to deport asylum seekers for inconsistencies. It would also be harder to get drivers' licenses.

Published April 18, 2005

TAMPA - In a hushed room of a church hall, the asylum seekers told their stories.

One used to be a systems engineer; another, a financial adviser; a third, the maker of wedding finery. All in another life, in their home country of Colombia.

They had been threatened with death by guerrillas if they didn't pay money or give up confidential financial information. Terrified of going back, they hoped to find shelter in the United States.

"All I want is to establish a halfway normal life," said Diego Pizarro, the former systems engineer. "The only way I've been able to play the role of a father is through the telephone and Internet."

Their goal of obtaining political asylum could get a lot tougher, national activist groups say, if the Real ID bill pending in Congress gets approved.

Aimed at preventing terrorist attacks, the bill would enact national standards for drivers' licenses. But it would also allow federal immigration judges to deport asylum seekers if they find inconsistencies in claims, instead of letting them stay in the United States while exhausting appeals.

Supporters of the bill, including U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Crystal River, say asylum applicants can easily manipulate current policies by concocting a good story.

"More and more people are claiming political asylum, and we want to make sure those who deserve it get it, and those who are feigning it and who have no desire to be law-abiding citizens don't get it," Brown-Waite said.

Ramzi Yousef, the top organizer of the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, had a pending political asylum claim at the time of the attack.

Brown-Waite notes that the stricter driver's license regulations would have snared three illegal immigrants who recently gained access to the Crystal River nuclear plant with stolen Social Security numbers. The men used the numbers to get Texas drivers' licenses, she said. The bill would require driver's license offices to verify numbers with vital records offices.

Opponents of the bill say that loopholes have already been tightened. They call the Real ID bill unrealistic and unfair, noting that immigrants who may have fled persecution empty-handed will be expected to document hardships.

Asylum seekers say it's already a struggle to persuade people that they're telling the truth.

"In Miami, (immigration officials) asked why didn't I have my wife and kids with me," said Diego Franco, a former clothes factory owner who escaped Colombia after guerrillas tried to kidnap him. "The threats were for me. ... I didn't come because I wanted to come. I was forced to. It was very difficult for (officials) in Miami to understand that."

* * *

According to current federal law, immigrants can base their asylum claim on past persecution or fear of future persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

Provisions in the Real ID bill would allow immigration officials to require corroborating evidence. They could throw out a case based on the asylum seeker's demeanor or inconsistent statements unrelated to the abuse claim.

"The expectation that they should be able to recover all the documentation to understand what they went through is not realistic," said Pat Frederick, the director of Florida Center for Survivors of Torture in Clearwater.

Her center holds the asylum support group in Tampa with Lutheran Services Florida for Colombians and Venezuelans.

Frederick fears the changes would actually filter out real victims of persecution. For one, she said, rape and torture victims should not be judged on their demeanor because they have difficulty telling their stories. Sometimes they are still in shock.

* * *

Annie sat on the floor of her small apartment, her voice soft and barely audible.

She stared at her feet, the sofa, her hands. She spoke about her father's opposition to the government in Cameroon, where Annie hoped one day to be a lawyer.

Her father received numerous death threats in the 1990s, she said. He closed a book store that he ran, fearful his enemies would burn it down, she said. One of her cousins, politically active in the opposition on a college campus, was killed in his dorm room.

The family suspects the government was behind it, but Annie doesn't know for sure.

"There is no democracy and everyone knows that," she said of President Paul Biya, the strongman who has ruled the West African nation for more than 20 years.

She stopped talking and sobbed when her story approached the topic of what happened to her on a night in November 2002. She was walking to her sister's home, she said, when two men raped her.

When asked if the rapes were connected to her father's politics, Annie wouldn't answer. She continued to cry. Her 19-month-old daughter ran to her lap. Annie, 33, said she doesn't know if her daughter was the result of the rapes or her relationship with her fiance before she left Cameroon.

Her attorney, Mayra Calo, said she too is trying to determine from Annie whether the rapes were political. If not, Calo plans to use them as part of the larger asylum claim to illustrate the country's lawlessness.

"This is a normal tool used against women (in political conflicts)," Calo said. "It has so many psychological and social ramifications, and God forbid the woman comes up pregnant ... because of the stigma. She's tainted."

When Annie arrived in Tampa in late 2002 on a student visa at the University of Tampa, she discovered she was pregnant. She applied for political asylum, her attorney said, based on the persecution she and her family received in Cameroon, including a beating she suffered after a political rally.

For her initial immigration interview, Annie took a train from Tampa to Miami. She had no proof she was raped. She didn't trust Cameroon police so she never went to them.

As she tried to tell her story to the immigration official, her lower abdomen throbbed in pain, she said. She was nine months pregnant and very uncomfortable.

"He kept asking me questions," she said. "I was crying."

She awaits DNA tests to learn if her fiance is the child's father. Meanwhile her asylum case is pending. A hearing is scheduled for June.

* * *

Her attorney and other caseworkers say the changes proposed in the Real ID bill would hurt people like Annie because of the lack of documentation and the way such trauma affects their ability to speak about what has occurred.

But in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, lawmakers and advocates for tighter immigration restrictions fear criminals could manipulate the system to gain legal access to the country.

An asylum case "is sometimes not resolved for years," said Paul Egan. He's the director of government relations at FAIR, Federation for American Immigration Reform, which seeks to limit immigration. "If you're a terrorist, this is an ideal way to get in the country and carry out (crimes)."

Calo acknowledges that some people lie. But asylum applicants go through rigorous background checks, she said. And known terrorists don't qualify for political asylum.

"You can find a liar," she said. "It's not that hard. I can't tell you how many people I throw out of my office."

--Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

[Last modified April 19, 2005, 07:43:47]

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