Give Me Shelter

Refugees in Tucson face an uphill battle gaining asylum.

The Asylum Program of Southern Arizona occupies an obscure corner of a building at the corner of Broadway Boulevard and Plumer Avenue. Its clients--foreign-born victims of political persecution in their home countries--manage to find their way to the door in many ways.

The most likely way, though, is through the refugee grapevine: The program is the only nonprofit between San Diego and El Paso that guides asylum-seekers through the Byzantine process of getting asylum.

This guidance is absolutely necessary: APSA spends an average of 1,500 hours establishing the reasonableness of each client's "credible fear" of violence back home. Among the services provided are interpretation, legal counsel, background research into obscure political situations and subcultures, help in preparing and filing documents, and, most important, preparing badly traumatized people to answer questions about the most painful events of their lives.

An applicant's chance of being granted asylum without assistance is very small. And APSA Executive Director Georgia Vancza suspects that in the aftermath of Sept. 11, chances are getting smaller all the time.

Waits for interviews and hearings seem to be getting longer--some clients have been in immigration limbo for three years--and decisions seem to be more arbitrary. A factor in one program client being turned down recently was the hearing officer's sense that her body language during the interview undercut her credibility. She kept her arms crossed and her eyes on the floor--a posture of respect and deference in her African homeland.

The anecdotes are haunting, but it's hard to make out the big picture. The government's statistics are virtually opaque, and estimates of applicant's chance of being granted asylum by the federal Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services range from a high of one in four (BCIS) down to one in 25 (best guess at a recent national conference of asylum workers). Failed applicants are deported back to their own countries--a de facto death sentence for most of them.

Since its founding, the United States has been where you go when you cannot go home. Many asylum workers fear that is changing.

Emerita Garcia is one of APSA's success stories. (Therefore, she could give an interview. Unsuccessful applicants are gone; clients still in process are too vulnerable to appear in the media.) Garcia's asylum application was granted within a year after her arrival. Nobody at APSA knows why she, in particular, was processed so quickly: BCIS does not explain its scheduling procedures.

Garcia, 39, is a walking personification of the immigrant ambition and energy that have built America. Three years after coming to Tucson with a temporary visa and only a reading knowledge of English, she has a booming housecleaning business and was the featured speaker at this year's annual luncheon of the Women's Foundation of Southern Arizona. Her 12-year-old daughter, Melissa, is pulling down A grades at Magee Middle School.

What she and Melissa both say they want most, though, is to be able to go home. When asked whether she plans to return to Colombia, Garcia seems startled that this could even be a question.

"Yes," she says softly. "Oh yes."

Going back isn't going to be possible for a while. She and Melissa fled after a friend tipped her off that the local paramilitary "had set an appointment" for her--in other words, they were planning to kidnap Garcia, extort what they could out of her family, rape her, and probably kill her. Her offense was publicly questioning the practices of a local business association with close ties to their group.

"They have killed people for less. For nothing. They shot my cousin for smoking pot and being lazy. They killed a woman in my town because someone who was jealous denounced her. Everyone knew."

She and Melissa were out of the country within a couple weeks.

"I want everyone to understand my country. There is no law there. The government is in narcotraffic; the paramilitary is in it; the guerrillas are in it. They fight each other, but they do the same things. The United States gave $1.3 billion to the government of Colombia to fight the narcotraffickers. People here need to know they're criminals, too."

Not surprisingly, most of APSA's recent clients come from Africa. Patrice Njeutchou Njento of Cameroon is one of the lucky ones--if you can describe someone who's had to identify his murdered father's body as lucky. Njento's father, a businessman, was a leader of the opposition party in Cameroon--widely considered the most corrupt country in Africa, which, of course, is saying something. Patrice, now 24, had also been involved in opposition politics for years. Not long after his father's death, he was arrested and thrown in prison, where he was beaten and hosed down daily. After several months, friends helped him escape and arranged for a visa.

Njento finally landed in Tucson--intelligent, charming, well-educated, confident and totally alone--where he quickly found his way to APSA. Ten months later, he was supervising a landscaping crew when his cell phone rang with what he feared was bad news.

"She told me, 'Your asylum was granted.' Our English in Cameroon sounds like England, not America, and sometimes I don't understand. I thought she said that my asylum was 'grounded,' which sounded very bad. I said, 'Oh, no,' and she said, 'Your application was approved.' I kept saying, 'Are you sure? Are you sure?'"

Still, Njento is intent on returning home once things are less dangerous. He plans to rejoin the opposition as soon as it's remotely safe.

The stories of most other APSA clients have not reached happy endings. Right now, everyone in the office is worried for Mrs. Z., a woman from a small African nation whose hearing is pending. She is a member of a minority tribe who saw her husband slaughtered and her house burned down by thugs from the ruling tribe. After fleeing with her children across the border, she began to receive death-threats where she and her children were staying. Her benefactors, a religious group, became so anxious about her safety that they raised money to send her to the United States. They are still caring for her children.

Unlike Garcia and Njento, Mrs. Z. has only a third-grade education and she speaks a rare language for which no interpreter has been found. Without a Nyanja/Chechewa interpreter, many details of Mrs. Z.'s story remain murky, and Executive Director Vancza is concerned that Mrs. Z.'s case will be denied only because she cannot communicate clearly enough to establish credible fear.

A few weeks ago, Vancza spent the day in Phoenix at an event for African immigrants, hoping for a lead on a Nyanja/Chechewa speaker. She was delighted to meet a couple from Mrs. Z.s' country. They, however, were very noncommittal when she spoke with them about her situation, and someone later told her that they were members of the persecuting tribe.

Nobody wants to think about what will happen to Mrs. Z. if she's returned to her country.

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