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But even if Peter was in danger, Page said that ICE's error in allowing the Ugandan embassy to see his unedited judge's order was no big deal — and in fact, it probably wasn't an isolated mistake. "We always get travel documents with a redacted order or with an order," she said at a 2006 hearing in Peter's case. "Certainly there've been other mistakes. There's absolutely no evidence that somebody being returned under those circumstances has suffered any consequence."
To support her argument, Page submitted a letter from Lynn Sicade, acting director of the State Department's Office of Multilateral and Global Affairs. Sicade wrote that her office had contacted the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, about Peter's case, and an unnamed official there had "noted that in his two years at the embassy, he has not come across any record of the Ugandan government taking action against an individual because they had attempted to claim asylum in another country."
In the absence of a corpse or a victim with bruises, the feds reasoned, how can you be sure Peter will be punished?
Page followed a similar strategy in Alterman's case. Three months ago, Alterman's client had a new hearing in federal court, and he won asylum. But Page has already appealed the decision.
She and other ICE attorneys argue that sending the redacted judge's order to a deported asylum-seeker's home embassy does not violate that person's confidentiality — in fact, it meets the standard for protecting confidentiality. "The Department continues to believe that this minimum standard is sufficient," Ronald Lapid, an attorney for the Department of Homeland Security, wrote in a 2005 brief to the Board of Immigration Appeals in Alterman's case.
In Lapid's view, even corrupt or dictatorial governments aren't interested enough in the activities of their deported citizens to compare a regular judge's order with redacted ones, much less deduce anything from them.
"There is...no evidence in the record to show that the [totalitarian country's] government has ever made such comparisons, or that the [country's] government continually tries to find out whether its citizens have ever applied for political asylum in the United States," he wrote.
Page referred all questions to regional ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok, who insisted that his department was dedicated to protecting the secrets of refugees. "ICE exercises extreme caution to ensure that individual asylum seekers are not identified," he wrote in an e-mail. "As a matter of fact, I cannot discuss specific asylum cases with the media for that very reason; their confidentiality is paramount."
On a chilly September morning, Peter walks reluctantly into Judge David Cordova's courtroom, wearing the standard orange jumpsuit of the Aurora immigration jail. He's tall and lean, with a beard that needs trimming and sweat that betrays his nerves.
Usually, Salvator says, Peter is an excellent jailhouse lawyer — articulate and passionate in his arguments, with an impressive command of English. Today, though, he seems disoriented, barely able to look at the federal attorney cross-examining him.
It's his medicine, used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, Salvator explains. According to the jail's staff psychiatrist, Peter suffers from flashbacks and depression from the torture he experienced in Uganda. "By taking medication, he is better able to cope with his living," the doctor wrote in a note for the court.
Every time Peter is released from jail, he loses access to his medication. So he self-medicates with drugs and finds himself in some kind of trouble, Salvator says. He's pleaded guilty to possessing drug paraphernalia and trespassing, and at one point violated his parole (only aggravated felony charges affect asylum cases). If Salvator had his way, Peter would get a psychiatric evaluation so the courts could decide if he should be put in a mental-health facility. "I don't know if he can hold a job without his meds," Salvator says.
But today, none of that matters. All Peter wants is for his case to be resolved. And after a decade, he finally has a chance to win.
Judge Cordova decides that ICE did violate Peter's confidentiality, and he now "has a reasonable fear of going back to Uganda."
"I think he's credible; I think he has a fear of going back," Cordova says. He grants Peter asylum. (ICE attorneys have until October 15 to appeal the decision.) Grinning, Peter hugs his lawyer and shakes hands with everyone around. In a few hours, he'll be free. He'll spend his first night in a homeless shelter, without a phone or a job. But at least he doesn't have to worry about going home.
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"If I return to Uganda, there is no doubt that I will be detained without trial, tortured, beaten."