Longform

Law and Border

Page 4 of 6

Argentina didn't even export wine until a recent economic crisis. Someday, Ron hopes to sell his wine in this country. He has 73 acres of grapes that are between fifteen and thirty years old, and "the older the vine, the better the wine," he says.

Sitting in Ron's high-rise office overlooking Denver, Lilian remembered cashing that first check for her legal work. When a secretary asked if she'd like something to drink, Lilian thought about how far she has come. "People would look at me like, ŒUh-huh, bring me the coffee,'" she says. "Now they're bringing me the coffee."

The coffee's nice, but the real reward was the first time a judge called her "counsel."

It was at a bond hearing, and Lilian was trying to get her client -- who had snuck across the border and was in the country illegally -- out of jail. She succeeded, but doesn't know what happened to him after that.

The immigration issue is full of families split by communities and countries, visas and borders, deportations and waiting lists. And sometimes, a case is a matter of life and death.

Alimata is from the Ivory Coast, where the uprisings and revolutions of the past dozen years have split the country's ethnicities into classes. Although she is a published novelist and was a high school philosophy teacher, Alimata is of the lower class, the Dioulas. A coup d'etat in 2003 resulted in all of the country's Dioula teachers losing their jobs.

Alimata fought back. She spoke out in newspapers about the injustice and took to the streets in protest. When authorities gassed the scene, she couldn't breathe, couldn't see. She was cut by blades -- from soldiers or police, she doesn't know. She was arrested and interrogated, kicked in the stomach so hard that the pain rendered her unconscious. Although she wasn't raped, many of the women imprisoned with her were. The Dioulas were stuck in filthy cells with no toilets or showers.

Then one day, the Dioulas were crammed into a cargo truck and driven out into the woods, in the middle of nowhere. Alimata thought she'd be shot in the back of the head as she fled. But she wasn't.

Alimata walked from the Ivory Coast into neighboring Mali. She still worried that the rebels would kill her. Since authorities in the Ivory Coast had confiscated her ID, she bought a fake Mali passport. The same hustler who sold Alimata the passport arranged for her to travel to the United States, final destination Denver.

Pregnant when she left Africa, Alimata gave birth here in February. The child is a U.S. citizen. Alimata's husband and three daughters are still in Mali, where they cannot work or go to school. She's hoping to bring her family here someday. But first she must be granted asylum.

In 2003, the most recent year for which U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services statistics are available, 476 asylum applications were filed in this country on behalf of people from the Ivory Coast. That same year, 126 people from the Ivory Coast were granted asylum, and 23 people were denied.

Lilian got Alimata's case through the Rocky Mountain Survivors Center, a nonprofit that aids survivors of torture by providing mental-health and legal services. It's her first asylum case, and she's doing it pro bono with the help of RMSC legal director Regina Germain.

Alimata's sex organs were mutilated when she was a child -- a common practice in the Ivory Coast -- and Regina knows of a successful asylum application based strictly on the inhumane surgery. She reminded Lilian to mention the mutilation at Alimata's first hearing. "Don't say circumcision," Regina advised. "Use the term Œfemale genital mutilation.'"

Lilian's accent comes out thick as she says "female genital mutilation, female genital mutilation" over and over. "Genital" sounds like "shenital."

Alimata's case is time-consuming, and Lilian has had second thoughts. Initially she planned to just see Alimata through the hearing that is the first step in an asylum application. If the hearing officer thinks a case is valid, it will be brought in front of a judge.

Lilian was concerned because Alimata is so gentle. She smiles a lot, and it's hard to tell what's behind those big brown eyes -- but you get the feeling that she's holding something back. Lilian didn't sleep much the night before the hearing.

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Luke Turf