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In fact, this is common at immigration field offices all over the country, according to testimony by Tammy Cyr-Talbot, a supervisor at ICE headquarters in Washington, D.C., who took the stand in a similar case in Denver. "Sometimes I've seen where a piece of paper has been put over the reference, and then a photocopy is submitted," she testified in January 2008.
But in Peter's case, the government skipped a step. ICE officials neglected to white-out his form, instead sending the whole, unedited version to the Ugandan embassy. (Embassy officials didn't respond to an interview request).
From his home office in Lafayette, Jim Salvator has spent more than two decades helping immigrants find a legal haven in the United States. Peter tried for months to hire Salvator — known for both his success and his soft spot for pro bono cases — with his failed asylum case, but the attorney kept saying it was a lost cause. Until one day in 2004, when Peter mentioned his phone call to the embassy.
"Well, that's different," Salvator said.
The government's failure to edit Peter's paperwork was a blatant breach of confidentiality, Salvator reasoned. And because it put Peter in grave danger if he were returned to Uganda, it was grounds for him to be granted asylum.
By coincidence, a few days before Peter called the Ugandan embassy, the non-profit watchdog Human Rights Watch had released a new report on political conditions in Uganda — and the news wasn't good. "State of Pain: Torture in Uganda" described how, in the name of rooting out armed rebels, Uganda's military and security officers were torturing ordinary civilians who opposed the reigning political party. Suspects were being held in secret prisons, just like the one Peter had endured.
"Politicians challenging the de facto single-party state and the 18-year rule of Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, are often detained, severely beaten and threatened with death by the uncontrolled security apparatus," the report said.
Since 2001, the use of torture as an interrogation tool has become more common in the country, and victims were often suspended from the ceiling with their hands and feet tied behind their backs, beaten with hammers and sticks studded with nails, forced to endure genital mutilation, or made to lie face up while water from an open spigot poured into their mouths, the report continued.
Human Rights Watch investigators interviewed more than twenty current and former prisoners about their experiences. A man named James, who had worked on the campaign of the opposition presidential candidate Kizza Besigye, described being placed on the floor and blindfolded. Then "they poured water over him and beat him with wire cables. They beat him all over his body, stepped on him with their boots, and hit him in the head with a board with nails on it; he has three scars on his head," the report reads.
Even the U.S. State Department admitted that the situation in Uganda was deteriorating. In 2004, the department wrote that "there were widespread and credible reports that security forces tortured and beat suspects in unregistered detention facilities to force confessions." In fact, the Uganda Human Rights Commission had received more than 2,200 complaints of mistreatment by security forces; 179 of those incidents involved torture, according to the State Department. That year, 128 Ugandans applied for asylum in the United States.
For Peter, the stakes were especially high. "The Internal Security Organization here knows him as a rebel who wants to overthrow the government by the use of arms," John Ken-Lukyamuzi, president of the Conservative Party, wrote to the U.S. Justice Department in 1998, in support of Peter. (Ken-Lukyamuzi still leads the party.)
All of this helped convince the Board of Immigration Appeals in Virginia and U.S District Judge Marcia Krieger in Denver to reopen Peter's case. And when new hearings began, Salvator says he was amazed at how ICE officials explained their practices.
Denise Cordova, a local ICE deportation officer, testified that she had sent the Ugandan embassy Peter's paperwork, and although she didn't send his whole asylum file — as Peter originally claimed — she did admit to sending a judge's order of removal that "was not completely redacted."
"We did not take out everything that's pertained to...asylum," she testified. "His application for voluntary departure [that] was denied, his asylum denial, and then the application for withholding of removal that was denied."
"The truth began to seep out," Salvator says. "Since then, we've been winning."
As the months passed and Peter began to understand what had happened in his case, it also became clear that he was not alone.
Germain, who spent six years working for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, says that during that time, she heard of approximately ten cases where the confidentiality of an asylum applicant was breached. Typically, the mistake occurred during the U.S. government's request for travel documents.
But of greater concern, she says, is how many cases never get reported, because most people never see the paper trail that reveals the problem. By the time their clients are being deported, immigration lawyers have already lost their cases. They don't usually follow up to see what happens afterward.