UNITED STATES: The Danger of Highly Politicized Country Conditions in an Asylum Case

Christian Ohanian, University of North Carolina (UNC) Chapel-Hill Law '11, is a certified legal student at the University of North Carolina's Immigration and Human Rights Policy Clinic. He writes about the difficulty confronting asylum applicants from politically controversial states...



Iraq has been embroiled in sectarian violence and general social upheaval since the United States' invasion in 2003. Often lost in the headlines are the stories of individuals whose lives are radically altered and endangered by the current conditions in Iraq. Many of these people seek asylum in various countries, including the United States. However, those who have been persecuted, with their lives severely threatened, have found themselves subsumed as unwitting victims in the politics and foreign policy that surround the current circumstances in Iraq. In my short time practicing immigration law as a certified law student in the University of North Carolina School of Law Immigration and Human Rights Policy Clinic, I have had to face difficult issues that often arise in asylum law when a client's story is inseparable from politicized foreign policy and news headlines.

While working in the clinic, I represented an Iraqi citizen who was seeking asylum in the United States. He built a life and raised a family in Iraq long before Saddam Hussein came into power. Shortly after Saddam assumed power, my client left his job in the Iraqi government and found work in the private sector. Years later, Hussein and his government became a focal point for American foreign policy and eventually their actions were considered to be the impetus for an invasion of Iraq. My client became the target of many violent sectarian groups, who found post-invasion Iraq fertile ground for their missions of persecution.

As I began my research, I quickly realized that the facts, stories, stigmas, and policies surrounding Iraq and the US invasion would be impossible to evade in my evaluation of the case. As an asylum applicant under legitimate threat as a targeted professional in Iraq, one would believe that my client's case should be permitted to stand on its own--distinct from every ill-conceived stigma, overarching policy generalization, or "muddied" fact scenario. In my work thus far, it has become a sobering reality that such is not the case.

The bigger picture of US involvement in Iraq was an unavoidable reality in the representation of my client. His time spent working in the pre-invasion Iraqi government presented the first difficulty. It is hard to imagine an immigration officer being able to divorce his thinking from pre-conceived and policy-tinged notions regarding the subject, no matter how mundane my client's position in the former government.

Furthermore, after the first set of deadly threats to his life my client fled to Syria, raising another complicated issue. Relations between the US and Syria are strained and mutually suspicious at best. My client is a simple man removed from any political involvement with either country. Yet, an immigration officer would probably look with skepticism at a significant amount of time spent in Syria after fleeing Iraq. Unfortunately, the time my client spent at a border town near Syria seems to ensnare his story in overarching US foreign policy and political issues. This border town was under the influence of insurgent groups, including Al Qaeda. These insurgent groups are not only vigorously targeted by the US military but are also featured in numerous news headlines and foreign policy articles that reported on circumstances in Iraq.

Does it matter? How un-deservedly "tainted" does the client's story become? How restricted does a client find himself due to the unfortunate reality that his story of persecution intersects with broader security matters of concern to the US government? Is it really possible, however necessary, for an immigration officer to impartially separate the individual client from such high profile stories implicating US foreign policy and security concerns?

The precarious nature of the "bigger picture" of politicized facts that can "muddy the waters" of a client's story necessarily lead to corresponding counseling decisions. When does an applicant's story intersect with too many potentially un-appealing politicized facts? When does that intersection indicate a necessity to re-appraise the strength of the client's case?

A reviewing asylum officer certainly has to take into account the larger context when evaluating an individual applicant's story. However, I fear that in some cases the larger context of well-known stories, facts, groups, leaders, and policy concerns could jeopardize the fair disposition of an individual applicant's case. It seems all too likely that in highly politicized circumstances, the individual's story of persecution could fall victim to the inescapable influence of overarching perceptions, supposed policy concerns, stories, fears, stigmas, and other distorting influences. How do we draw the line between appropriate country conditions pertaining to an asylum applicant and security concerns based on over-politicized and possibly distorting facts? Highly publicized stories and stigmas create a legitimate risk that an asylum officer could be unduly influenced in the evaluation of an individual asylum application.

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Student Commentary publishes accounts of law students' first-hand experience with law and law-related events. Student Commentary contributors come from all over the world, sharing personal stories on legal matters ranging from the G-20 summit protests in the US to the plight of migrant workers in Taiwan.

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