Broken Promises: Seeking Political Asylum in America

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Because her mother opposed the practice, Isatu had escaped FGM. "I truly believed my grandmother would observe my mother's wishes," she later said in a court affidavit. But at 5 o'clock one morning about a year after she arrived, Isatu was dragged by a group of women to a small hut. One sat on her chest while others restrained her arms and legs. They stuffed a cloth in her mouth and, without anesthesia, her grandmother began to cut.

Weeks later, when she had recovered, Isatu overheard women saying her FGM would have to be redone because her grandmother had not removed enough flesh. But Mariama's health declined and village leaders decided it was time for her to retire. Tradition dictated that the role of sowei should pass to a female relative. The leaders decided it would be Isatu.

"There was no way I could perform FGM on anyone," Isatu said. So she ran away, sleeping in the jungle for a week. After tribe members tracked her down and brought her back to the village, she was beaten. "I had shamed my grandmother deeply, she told me," Isatu said. "They broke my toe so I couldn't run again."

A short time after her capture, Isatu was told to perform FGM on an 8-year-old girl. If she didn't, the village leaders warned her, she'd be forced to drink poison. Isatu complied but realized she could never do it again. "I had to escape or kill myself."

Desperate to get out of Sierra Leone, Isatu scraped together enough money to telephone a friend who'd moved to England, fleeing FGM herself. The friend had a young aunt who held a U.K. passport and resembled Isatu -- if you didn't look too closely. The passport and money for a plane ticket was sent to a trusted intermediary in Sierra Leone, who then gave it to Isatu. There was only one stipulation: The friend requested that Isatu not go to Britain, because she didn't want to get her aunt in trouble. America seemed like the best choice. Everything went well on the trip, up until the moment she handed the passport to the U.S. official.

Few people realize what happens to many asylum seekers when they arrive in the United States. Isatu was arrested on the spot and was held at the airport for 10 hours. Then her hands and feet were shackled. In heavy chains, Isatu, who is slightly built and stands just 5 foot 2, struggled to walk to the sheriff's van, which took her to an immigration center. She spent the next day there before being transported to York County Prison, in southern Pennsylvania.

A sprawling group of buildings topped with razor wire, the York prison houses violent American felons, including convicted killers. It is also one of the country's largest holding facilities for immigration detainees. When Isatu arrived it was 9 P.M. and she hadn't eaten all day long. She was issued a thin blanket and told it was too late for dinner. As the steel doors clanged shut behind her, she pleaded, "Why am I here? I'm not a criminal."

Isatu was right. It is not a crime to enter the United States with false documents when the person requests asylum. It is a civil offense only, which technically should not be punishable by prison time. Additionally, in both U.S. law and international treaties, this country has pledged to offer asylum to those who have been victims of political, religious, and other forms of persecution. Isatu met these requirements.

Legal issues aside, the United States has a long history -- dating back to the Pilgrims -- of being a safe harbor for people who have been persecuted for religious or other reasons. Our national symbol embodies these ideals. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," says the famous poem posted inside the Statue of Liberty.

The sentiment is a huge source of patriotic pride, but our current policies don't reflect that kind of compassion. The first Bush Administration started a crackdown on immigration in 1990, which President Clinton later expanded, and since the September 11 attacks in 2001, treatment has become even harsher. Now asylum seekers are routinely arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is part of the Department of Homeland Security. According to Detention Watch Network, a human-rights organization, Isatu's treatment was typical: Torture survivors and rape victims are locked up alongside hardened criminals in U.S. prisons, where they often remain for months, even years. This happens despite the fact that incarcerating asylum seekers is against international law.

Continued on page 3:  Political Asylum


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