Local News Archive
Print Issue: January 6, 1994
CSS Lawyer: Reform Asylum Process With Care
By Paula Day
Mohammed, a university professor and scholar, was caught in the web of Somalian clan warfare.
With the help of smugglers, he escaped that African country by way of Turkey to Germany. From there, carrying false papers, he arrived at Hartsfield Airport where U.S. immigration officials immediately detained him.
Enter Sue Colussy, lawyer for the immigration program of Catholic Social Services. In her seven years with CSS, Mrs. Colussy has facilitated an average of 200 asylum cases a year with an 85 percent success rate.
A fellow Somalian in Atlanta told her of Mohammeds plight and she was able to get a hearing and obtain his release. With a bus ticket to California he was on his way to join a cousin there. He hopes to find the wife and child he left behind in Somalia and bring them to the United States.
Mrs. Colussy says this outcome would have been entirely different if the governments proposed summary exclusion becomes law.
He would have been returned to Germany. From there he would be sent to Turkey and then back to the country of origin, in this case, Somalia, with no hearing to determine the validity of his plea. There would not have been time to contact an attorney knowledgeable about U.S. asylum law.
Mohammeds story is not new. The time, place, country of origin may differ, but the fact is more and more people are seeking political refuge. From 1968 to 1975 the U.S. averaged 200 applicants a year. In 1993 an estimated 130,000 applications were made.
The idea of giving asylum gained impetus after World War II when the details of the Holocaust emerged.
In a 1967 Protocol, members of the United Nations agreed to protect anyone the document defined as a refugee: a person with a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of particular social group or political opinion. Those who make it to a safe country on their own could ask for asylum.
But recently the idea of asylum has received negative publicity. A nationally televised news program documented the ease with which people coming into New Yorks Kennedy Airport could claim asylum. News reports that those arraigned in the World Trade Center bombing were followers of asylum-seeker Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman added strength to the backlash.
The ordinary citizen tends to blur the distinction between immigrant and refugee, according to Ted Conover, author of Coyotes: A Journey Through the Secret World of Americas Illegal Aliens. In fact, asylum seekers make up only a small percentage of the total number of immigrants. Statistics from 1992 show 973,977 legal immigrants were admitted to the United States that fiscal year. Of these 132,173 were refugees and 103,000 sought asylum. Only 4,019 were granted asylum, but there is an estimated backlog of 300,000 applications.
According to Sue Colussy, this backlog is the cause of increasing frustration both inside and outside the system. An answer would be to increase the number of trained, intelligent asylum officers who could make informed decisions in each case. At present the United States has 150 specially trained officers in its asylum corps. Germany has 3,000.
Several proposals to streamline the asylum process will be considered when Congress reconvenes later this month. Two basic pieces of legislation, the Mazzoli Bill. H.R. 2602, introduced by Rep. Romano Mazzoli (D-Ky.), and the Presidents Bill, a combination of H.R. 2836, introduced by Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) and S. 1333, introduced by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), provide for summary exclusion and expedited processing for asylum applicants who present false documents or no documents at the port of entry.
Mrs. Colussy fears the proposed legislature may throw the baby out with the bath water. The Mazzoli Bill, in particular, is drawing attention from the American Immigration Lawyers Association, an asylum interest group of which Mrs. Colussy is a member.
As it stands the bill proposes an asylum seeker show credible fear in the initial airport screening process, but does not provide for a meaningful review if the airport asylum officer determines that the claimant lacks credible fear. It also provides for summary exclusion whenever the claimant comes to this country from some other safe country. It also eliminates any judicial review of the case.
Mrs. Colussy, and others who provide legal advice to immigrants, hope future legislation will provide for judicial review of each case. In her view, the legislation should also give employment authorization to the applicants, exhibit a commitment to a continuing refugee program, speed up the system, and expedite the release of detainees.
The system is workable, Mrs. Colussy maintains. When U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services personnel come to Atlanta four times a year they customarily meet in the CSS offices. Other immigration attorneys are familiar with the location and asylum seekers are comfortable in the neutral environment. On a national level, Mrs. Colussy serves as Southeastern representative on the U.S. Catholic Conference Migration and Refugee Services Board.