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"I don't know how widespread the problem is," says Phil Alterman, another Denver immigration attorney. "My concern is that it might be going on nationally."
Alterman represents an asylum-seeker whose situation was similar to Peter's. Because his case is still ongoing and because his client fears deportation, Alterman would not give out his client's name or his home country. He would say only that the country is a totalitarian regime, one of a group that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called "outposts of tyranny."
In Alterman's case, ICE officials did redact the asylum information from the judge's order before sending it to his client's home embassy. But Alterman argues that even this attempt to protect his client's identity was flawed. Once you've seen the full judge's order, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out which portion has been whited out. Any embassy official familiar with the form could fill in the blanks.
So far, this argument has proved powerful in the courtroom. In 2005, the Board of Immigration Appeals agreed to reopen Alterman's client's case, reasoning that by sending the form to his home embassy, ICE "caused the [foreign] government to become aware of an opponent."
A former ambassador to the country wrote a letter bolstering the argument, noting that "the fact that the government of [the country] may have learned that [Alterman's client] has applied for asylum...exposes him to enormous risk of persecution upon his return."
A new hearing was held in a Denver immigration court, and three months ago, Alterman's client won asylum (The government has appealed its decision).
Meanwhile, other cases have emerged. At a recent hearing in Peter's case, attorney Sandra Saltrese testified about an unnamed Ugandan asylum-seeker she represented. In June 2006, his application for asylum was rejected, and his effort to prove that confidentiality rules were broken failed. He was about to be deported from Denver, but the man was so afraid to go home that ICE guards had to sedate him before taking him on the plane. When he arrived in Uganda, he was turned over to government authorities, and his American escorts left.
After that, Saltrese testified, he was "beaten up" by Ugandan police officers, who taunted him by saying things like "You applied for asylum; that's not gonna work here." Finally, one of the man's relatives bribed enough officials to get him out of prison, and the man fled to Canada, where he has since received asylum. But he was so scarred by the experience and so paranoid about retaliation that he refused to testify in Peter's case.
Then there is the case of Dorothy Anim, a native of Cameroon who applied for asylum in 2003. According to court documents, Anim said she was member of the South Cameroon National Council, an organization that advocates for the secession of English-speaking provinces, which face discrimination from the French-speaking government. In 2002 she was arrested three times because of her involvement with the group. The third time, she was beaten every day for two months, according to court records, until her uncle bribed a police commander to help her escape.
When she made it to the U.S., she presented her case to an immigration judge; it included affidavits and letters from her former bosses and family members, testimony from a former professor who had heard about her persecution, and copies of police convocations ordering her to return to the police station after she escaped. But the judge wasn't sure her story was credible, so he asked the State Department to verify her documentation.
An investigation was conducted by a Cameroon-born citizen who worked for the American embassy. That person interviewed a security official in the Northwest Province and concluded that Anim's police convocations were forged. This helped convince the immigration judge to deny Anim asylum.
But Anim wasn't ready to give up. She appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals, saying her confidentiality had been breached by the government's investigation. Her lawyer pointed out that the State Department never explained who the Cameroonian was who conducted the investigation, or what methods the person used to prevent the government security official from learning that Anim had applied for asylum in the U.S.
Anim lost that appeal. But this August, she won another. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia reasoned that showing unedited copies of the police convocations to the Cameroon security official "would allow the official to reasonably infer that Anim had applied for asylum, thus satisfying the test for a breach of confidentiality."
Anim won a new hearing, and immigration advocates saw her case as a victory against a flawed system.
The government's attorneys are less than thrilled about the recent spate of confidentiality rulings and they have fought to quash each case. When Peter won his second asylum hearing, ICE appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals, which ordered a third hearing in Denver.
ICE attorney Dani Page argued that Peter's claims about his political activities in Uganda weren't credible. She pointed out that in his original application for asylum, he only mentioned being a member of a group called Human Rights Africa, not the Conservative Party. (Peter says the translator helping him with his application, Lameck Mukeeze Muwanga, edited out the political information. The feds later investigated Muwanga for fraud involving the asylum applications of several Ugandan refugees, and he was barred from working as an interpreter for the Denver immigration court. Muwanga now lives in Tacoma, Washington, and the person who answered his phone said he is temporarily out of the country.)