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Published on Thursday, April 27, 2000 in the Los Angeles Times
Stop Treating Refugees Like Criminals
by Sigourney Weaver
I've run from danger. I've been tortured. I've cried for help and not been heard. But for me, none of it was real.

Look into the eyes of Dr. X, however, and one thing is clear: For him, it has all been far too real. To protect his family, he has asked that I not use his real name.

When Dr. X graduated from medical school in Afghanistan in 1992 at the age of 25, he never imagined a day would come when saving a patient's life would mean risking his own. But when the general practitioner helped a pregnant woman and her child through life-threatening labor, he was tortured and thrown into solitary confinement for defying Taliban edicts that prohibit male doctors from touching women. When he later refused Taliban orders to amputate a thief's hand, Dr. X was told he would be executed for twice disobeying the Taliban.

He managed to escape from prison after heavy fighting between opposition forces broke out nearby and eventually make his way to safety in the United States. When he arrived here, Dr. X was not treated as a hero, not as a man who put his life on the line to save someone else's. Instead, he was shackled, just as he had been by the Taliban, and carted off to jail by Immigration and Naturalization Service officials because, like many refugees, he did not have valid travel documents.

Dr. X told the INS that he was seeking asylum and obviously could not secure a passport from the government seeking his death. But his pleas were ignored and his request for release was denied, even though the INS had determined that his fear was credible and that he had an American relative eager to take him in.

I have visited asylum seekers in detention and seen the damage that unjustified imprisonment does to their dignity. Refugees like Dr. X should no longer be treated like criminals. After all, America has traditionally prided itself in providing refuge to those who flee tyranny.

Even though he was greeted with shackles and detained, Dr. X was lucky. The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, along with lawyers who took his case without charge, brought it to the attention of members of Congress. This led to his freedom.

Many other refugees are not as fortunate. Under a 1996 immigration law, a process called "expedited removal" allows the immediate deportation of those who arrive without valid documents. INS inspectors at the airport or border now have the power to make deportation decisions that previously were entrusted to professional judges.

Fair procedures are critically important in making what can be life and death decisions regarding asylum. Many victims find it hard to speak of their experiences right after they arrive. A few years ago, I interviewed several women who had escaped from Chile and Argentina, where they had been raped and tortured. The shame, isolation and terror they felt were overwhelming. Even to save their lives, these women could not have told a strange man in a crowded room what they had endured. Yet failure to do so can result in an asylum seeker being wrongly turned away without a fair opportunity to fully present her claim.

Our asylum policies make me wonder whether the words etched on our cherished icon, the Statue of Liberty, still mean something. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . . " I think Americans would be shocked if they knew how these words were being applied today.

It has been three years since "expedited removal" took effect. People like Dr. X deserve better treatment, and that's why I believe it's time we change the rules. The Lawyers Committee and other organizations working on behalf of the persecuted are pressing to change the 1996 law that puts refugees at risk. The Refugee Protection Act, introduced in November, by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), Jim Jeffords (R-Vt.), Edward Kennedy, (D-Mass.), John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), would help restore fair treatment to refugees seeking asylum. It deserves our support.

- - -
Sigourney Weaver, the Actor, Serves on the Board of Directors of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times


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