Scared and alone in Detroit Metro Airport, 17-year-old Cynthia thought of lies to tell the American customs agents.Â An imaginary brotherâ€™s wedding in Canada was the excuse she came up with, and the agents saw right through it.Â They demanded the truth from her, and she had no option but to tell them.
She was from Burundi, she knew no one in America or Canada, and she was seeking asylum from the ethnic violence between Hutus and Tutsis that had claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Burundians.Â Lacking necessary papers, Cynthia was thrown in jail and held for three days, then put on a plane to Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta.
Catholic Social Services helped her prepare her case for asylum.Â Though safe, Cynthiaâ€™s legal journey was hardly over.Â She worried about what would happen if she did not qualify for asylum in America.Â The thought of going back to Burundi terrified her.
Cynthia’s story was captured by Paige Williams in the October 2007 issue of Atlanta Magazine. Read it here.
In situations similar to Cynthiaâ€™s, asylum seekers from all over the world flee home because of threats to their safety and freedom.Â After reaching a country with more stability and respect for rights, they have to fight for access to a safe haven and risk the unknown if denied.
The Department of Homeland Security explains the requirements of asylum. Â Applicants for asylum begin the process at arrival in the country or, in the United States, within a year of arrival.Â Alternatively, some applicants begin the process while fighting deportation by the Executive Office for Immigration Review.Â In 2009, a total of 22,119 people were granted asylum in the United States.
The Refugee Act of 1980, which established the asylum procedures for the United States, grants asylum on the basis of â€œpersecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.â€ If granted asylum, they are able to live in America with the proper papers, such as a green card and the ability to work.Â If not granted immediate asylum, they face a number of unsure fates.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services [CIS] defines the procedure for alternative decisions in asylum cases.Â Some applicants are given the answer of a recommended approval.Â In this case, asylum cannot be immediately granted based on an incomplete portion of the application process; security checks must ensure that the applicant does not pose a threat to the United States and health checks must prove the applicant does not have any contagious diseases such as tuberculosis, HIV, or AIDS
If the court or asylum officer finds that an applicant does not fulfill the before-mentioned asylum requirements, the application may be referred to an immigration court.Â In this situation, the applicant could be eligible for a stay in the United States for other reasons.
If found to not qualify for asylum or general immigration status, an applicant receives a notice of intent to deny.Â This decision is a last-chance ruling.Â The applicant then has 16 days to write the court with reasons why he or she feels deserving of asylum and presents new evidence that was not taken into account their last application process.Â These efforts may qualify the applicant for asylum.
If there is no new evidence, the applicant is given a final denial.Â This ruling, if the applicant is in the United States illegally, is followed by removal of the applicant from the United States.
However, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)Â urges countries to review the cases of asylum seekers before deportation.Â This is to protect those who are in legitimate danger, though they may not qualify for asylum.Â The United States follows this international law of non-refoulement to prevent persons from being sent back to areas where their safety or freedom is severely threatened by war or other disasters.Â The denied asylum-seeker does not qualify for non-refoulement if they have persecuted others, committed a serious crime inside or outside the United States, or pose a serious threat to national security.
Failed asylum seekers cannot appeal their rejection.Â They may, however, reapply if the asylum seeker has information or proof that was not used in the original determination.
Cynthia faced a dangerous outcome if she were denied asylum.Â As she turned eighteen, she could have been kept in jail until a decision on deportation was reached.Â With no money or connections, her options would be limited.
Many desperate people face this reality every year. The Department of Justice reports that of the 39,279 people who applied for asylum in 2009, 11,358 were denied.
The court found Cynthia to be at great risk of persecution in Burundi and she was granted asylum in 2002, over one year after she arrived in the United States.Â This new status allowed her to live in America and apply for a green card and workers permit.