Dina arrived in the U.S. as a young woman after protesting for a democratic government in her native country, which has been run by a totalitarian dictator for many years. She did things that protesters in the U.S. commonly do, like holding up signs asking that he be removed from power, and demanding that the people be able to choose a leader. For this, Dina, who was 19 and 20 years old at the time, was detained multiple times in a filthy, dark cell and repeatedly raped and beaten by officers of the national police who threatened to kill her. They told her that they would make her “disappear” if she did not stop demanding democracy. When they released her, they would dump her, semi-conscious, on the side of the road.
Dina finally realized that if she stayed in her homeland, she would be detained again and this time she would not be released. She fled her home and her family, and came to the United States. She was 22 years old.
Dina did not apply for asylum in the United States until over two years after she arrived in this country. If you were her, would you have immediately sought out government officials, to recount your story of rape and torture? Dina suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the persecution she suffered, and for a time she buried her memories and tried to move ahead with her life. Many women asylum seekers miss this deadline. In fact, a comprehensive statistical study has confirmed that women are 50 percent more likely than men to file three, four or more years after arriving in this country.
Because of Dina and other pro bono clients like her, I was happy to meet with Sen. Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) staff on June 10, along with Sara Ibrahim of Human Rights First which works with law firms to provide pro bono representation to asylum seekers. I wanted to explain my own experiences and frustrations representing refugees who clearly qualify for asylum, but sit in limbo while we represent them in interviews and hearings where technicalities relating to entry dates, filing dates, and exceptions take the time of U.S. adjudicators. To me, these cases are really about whether the client has suffered persecution and whether they have a fear of return, and not about whether they met an arbitrary deadline to file.
Other pro bono lawyers from across the country are also calling for reform. I am a board member and officer with the Association of Pro Bono Counsel, made up of pro bono leaders from the nation’s largest law firms, and we have urged Senators to eliminate the asylum deadline bar and enact other reforms as part of immigration reform that will improve access to pro bono lawyers.
The deadline stymies women like Dina, who faced a real possibility of deportation back to persecution or a life in limbo without the protection of asylum and eventual access to citizenship. And the U.S. faces a real possibility that it will miss out on having citizens like Dina, who care passionately about human rights and democracy and represent the values that our nation was founded on. All because of a made-up deadline.
Whatever form immigration reform legislation takes when it is finally passed, it needs to eliminate the filing deadline bar on asylum, and free U.S. asylum officers and immigration courts to grant real refuge to people fleeing persecution.
Colyer is special counsel in the litigation department, and resident pro bono counsel in the New York office of Fried Frank.