Monday, July 2, 2007

Political Asylum

Ladies and Gentlemen,

A number of readers have asked me advice on political asylum in the United States. I am not suggesting that any political opponent of the Lee regime should contemplate leaving Singapore. They should stay behind and continue the struggle. This is honorable. Leaving is not. But there is no harm in knowing. So here it is.

The law of Asylum in the US as it is in other western countries is governed by international agreements such as through the UN. The test whether a person is a refugee (same as asylee) is whether he has been persecuted by the state or an organ within the state which the state is unable or unwilling to control. And the persecution should be because of race, ethnicity, gender, political opinion or membership of political group. In the case of Singapore, the only body that persecutes is the Singapore government.

A refugee is a person who is outside of the United States and is granted refugee status by a United States post in the foreign country. In such cases, it is the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who usually first decides on the merits of that person's claim. Once eligibility is established, the US diplomatic post can grant the status. Once the applicant is successful, he or she enters the US as a refugee. After one year of stay in the US, the person is eligible to apply for permanent residence.

On an practical note, Singaporeans should not try to obtain refugee status through the US Embassy in Singapore. This is because the US posts abroad are invariably stricter than the US Immigration Service in the US.

An asylum applicant is a person who somehow manages to enter the US either lawfully or illegally and while within the USA applies to the US Immigration Service for asylum. The main rules are as follows. The asylum applicant should apply within one year of entry into the US. If one year passes, the applicant has to show changed country conditions justifying why the application was not made within a year. In the case of Singaporeans, the better method is for them to apply for asylum after entering the USA.

Since Singapore passport holders do not need a visa to enter for a visit, there should be no problem for them in entering the US. Whether or not they disclose their purpose of applying for asylum at the US port of entry is entirely up to them. As a practical measure, most asylum aspirants do not disclose this at the port of entry. Such non disclosure is not a reason for punishment or unfavorable treatment by the US government.

Many people from other countries where US Visas are difficult to obtain enter the US either by forged travel documents or by crossing the Mexican or Canadian border. In most cases people who arrive at ports of entry destroy their identities and travel documents before they reach the Immigration post e.g. in aircraft lavatories, claiming they have no documents, and that their lives would be in danger if returned to their countries. The law is that once such a fear is articulated by the passenger, US Immigration cannot put the passenger on the next flight out. He will be offered a hearing before an Immigration Judge first. Such difficulties do not apply to Singaporeans since they do not need visas for USA.

The good thing about asylum is that the US government is prevented from disclosing the fact that you had applied for asylum in the US to Singapore authorities. Therefore Singapore will never know whether you applied for it or what the result was. Therefore it is possible for you to try to obtain asylum. If you do not get it, you can return to Singapore. Of course morally, such action would not be correct, since it is dishonest for you, on the on hand to claim asylum from Singapore and on the other hand to return to it. But the morality or otherwise of such a decision is left to you. There is no impediment from a legal standpoint in your doing this.

The asylum process is as follows. The form for application is the Immigration Form I-589. It is possible for you to download the form from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website. You can see the questions being asked there. This form is used to file your case while you are physically in the US. The form is mailed to the USCIS Nebraska Service Center at Lincoln, Nebraska regardless of where you reside in the US.

In the application, you have to attach documentary evidence of your identity, any other information as to how,when and why you were persecuted and any documents corroborating this. You can also provide background materials about Singapore such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports on the human rights conditions in Singapore. Of particular importance is the Human Rights report on country conditions published by the US Department of State. You will see that the US Department of State year after year criticises Singapore on it's human rights record. This can be very useful. Although most attention is paid to what had actually happened to you personally.

Once your application has been received in Nebraska, within a week or so, you will be required to provide your fingerprints at a location where you reside. So if you live in Los Angeles, California, an appointment will be given to you there.

Once your fingerprints have been taken, within a month or so, you will be scheduled to appear before an Asylum officer at a nearby US Immigration office near where you live. The officer interviewing you will be well versed in the circumstances pertaining to your country, as these officers are specially trained about the country that they deal with. So if you are from Singapore, you can expect the US Asylum Officer to be fully aware of what goes on in Singapore.

At the hearing you have to establish the following. The Singapore government has persecuted you. The persecution was due to your political opinion or membership in an opposition party. As a result, you either fear for your life, your liberty or even the possibility of not being able to earn a livelihood. And the fear has to real.

A few examples. Singapore government denies its people the fundamental right of freedom of assembly. As you know, Dr. Chee Soon Juan, Yap Keng Ho and Mr. Gandhi Ambalam were all imprisoned for exercising this fundamental right. All of them expect to be going to jail again. In this case any of them will clearly succeed in political asylum in the USA. I have only used them as examples. Of course, none of these brave courageous patriots would ever contemplate applying for asylum in the US. I merely stated their cases as examples.

The United States takes such fundamental freedoms which are inalienable rights very seriously. Therefore violation of such rights almost always results is success in asylum as long as you can show that you fear incarceration, fear torture, or fear loss of livelihood. As you know, the Singapore government routinely terminates political opponents from their jobs leaving them without a livelihood. As you know, both Dr. Chee and Mr. Gandhi Ambalam were terminated from their well paying jobs because of their political opposition to the PAP regime. This is well known in Singapore and internationally.

Once the asylum application is filed and 150 days have lapsed, the applicant is entitled to a work permit. If the Asylum Officer denies the case, the applicant is given another chance to argue his case before an immigration judge. If the Judge denies the case, the applicant can appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals in Falls Church Virginia. If that appeal is denied, the applicant can appeal to Federal Court of Appeal. For the State of California the court is the 9th Circuit Federal Court of Appeal that sits in San Francisco.

Of course, there may be some who tailor their activities so as to qualify them for Asylum in the US. This is not honest, but there are some who do it and succeed. In Singapore take the following scenario. You are distributing opposition leaflets outside Centerpoint in Orchard Road. Police officers take you in for questioning and warn you not to do it again. You do it again. This time they arrest you. You are asked to pay a fine. You refuse and go to jail. You come out and do it again. The arrest and jail cycle is repeated. A few times like this, and you would have set up a solid case for asylum in the US.

One final note on my observation of the American thinking. America is a great country. At the same time, America rewards those who struggle for a better life. You only have to read the history of the early immigrants to the US to know that they were running from something or other in their own countries. The Italian mafia from Sicily, the bootleggers and crooks of all sorts. Of course there were others who were running from persecution of all sorts from their own countries. And those who simply come to America for a better life.

It is these disparate motley group of early adventurers who built America into what it is today, the greatest, most powerful and richest country in the world. The best way to describe America is that it is a country of people from all over the world held together by an idea, the American Constitution. It is this powerful document that keeps people from all over the world, including Gopalan Nair, living and working together as one people. America is an experiment with an idea that has succeeded.

So if you really want to come to America for a better life, then go for it. Use your imagination on how you go about it. You will not fail if you try hard. Good luck.

Gopalan Nair
39737 Paseo Padre Parkway, Suite A1
Fremont, CA 94538, USA
Tel: 510 657 6107
Fax: 510 657 6914

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