America's promise to protect asylum-seekers gets lost in the paperwork

Eleven years ago, Peter arrived in America, desperate for a place to hide.

In his native Uganda, he had been a rebel, a human-rights activist who fought for a multi-party system in a country ruled since 1986 by a one-party regime. Peter, who did not want his real name printed for fear of retribution, had worked to motivate young people to join the opposition Conservative Party. He'd driven people to rallies and tried to educate them about their political rights.

Peter spent much of the last decade in and out of immigration jails such as the Aurora Contract Detention Facility.
Peter spent much of the last decade in and out of immigration jails such as the Aurora Contract Detention Facility.
Immigration attorney Phil Alterman.
Immigration attorney Phil Alterman.

In September 1997, he was driving with his boss, the director of a Ugandan human-rights organization, when government soldiers arrested them at a roadblock. Peter was taken to a place the soldiers called a "safe house" — a military barracks not part of the regular justice system in Uganda. Here, people suspected of supporting political enemies of the regime were tortured in secret. Peter says he was detained without trial, beaten and tortured for a month.

While he was there, Peter says, his father, another longtime activist, was arrested and fatally stabbed with a bayonet. His mother, already suffering from heart and blood-pressure problems, couldn't bear the loss of her husband and son at the same time. She died within a week. Peter, who was thirty then, missed both of their funerals.

Eventually, he managed to escape from the prison and use his political connections to obtain a visa and a ticket to safety the United States.

But in Denver, where he ended up, he met a fate familiar to many refugees before him: failure. He found work as a janitor and applied for asylum. "If I return to Uganda, there is no doubt that I will be detained without trial, tortured, beaten once again by Ugandan government soldiers," he wrote in his application.

But he was rejected, and his appeal was unsuccessful.

"They didn't even believe my story," he said in a September interview with Westword at the Aurora Contract Detention Facility, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) jail. "They said, 'Well, Uganda is not that bad.' "

So Peter, who'd also had some run-ins with the law here, spent the next few years in and out of immigration jails, waiting to be deported.

Just before he was set to leave, in April 2004, he called the Ugandan embassy in Washington, D.C., to discuss his travel documents. Embassies officials must be informed when their countrymen are being deported, but in the case of asylum-seekers, the foreign government is not supposed to know why. Dictators and military regimes don't look kindly on political opponents who criticize their policies and are not likely to roll out the welcome mat when they return home.

But in Peter's case, something had gone very wrong; the Ugandan embassy officials were expecting him. The consul who answered the phone told Peter that he had seen his asylum file and knew that Peter was still a supporter of the opposition party — destroying any chance that he could return home unnoticed by the authorities.

Panic radiated over the phone line as Peter realized what this meant. "How will I be treated when I get to the airport, or in Uganda?" he asked.

You'll find out when you get there, the consul said, and hung up.


Secrecy is an essential part of America's promise to refugees.

When they apply for asylum, they are by definition seeking to escape persecution on the basis of their race, religion, nationality or political views. The law says that everything they write will be kept private. "No information indicating that you have applied for asylum will be provided to any government or country from which you claim a fear of persecution," the instructions for asylum applications state.

When refugees have face-to-face interviews with immigration officials, the promise is repeated, says one local expert on the process. "Everything you tell me will be kept confidential. It won't be shared with your home government," says Regina Germain, legal director of the Rocky Mountain Survivors Center in Denver. "It doesn't say 'unless you're rejected.'"

Sometimes, though, secrets leak out. Especially for those refugees the government decides to send back home. In Peter's case, it began with a mere paperwork error.

When ICE officials decide to deport someone who doesn't have a valid passport, they must first get a new passport from the person's home government. Often, the home embassies want to know why their citizen is being deported. Over the years, it has become common practice for ICE officials to send a copy of the immigration judge's order, showing that an applicant has been legally asked to leave.

The order form is a standard bureaucratic document, with a line at the top explaining, "Respondent was ordered removed from the United States to [name of country]." Then there is a list of reasons why the person is being deported — a green card denied, a crime committed, an invalid marriage, etc. — and boxes to check off which ones apply. Near the middle of the form is an option saying an application for asylum was denied.

ICE officials understand that they are supposed to keep this part secret, but they take a very simple approach to the problem: They white out, redact or cover up the asylum portion of the form, then send it off to the person's home embassy.

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