What asylum stories teach us about the US response to racial justice protests

©The San Diego Union-Tribune

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SAN DIEGO — When immigration attorney Elizabeth Lopez saw videos of police across the United States shoving protesters, shooting them with less-lethal rounds and tear gassing them in recent weeks, she messaged her asylum clients, worried they might get retraumatized.

Many immigration attorneys — and the asylees they have represented — see the repressive and violent tactics that law enforcement officers have used across the country to shut down protests against police brutality that particularly affects the Black community as the kinds of human rights abuses that the United States criticizes in other countries. They recognize the same kinds of human rights abuses that many asylum-seekers who win protection in the United States were fleeing.

“It brings back a lot of memories,” one Cameroonian who already won asylum told Lopez over email when she checked in. “I did not know such could be happening over here too.”

The asylum system was created to protect people fleeing some of the world’s worst atrocities. Under both international and U.S. law, people who qualify for asylum must show that they meet the definition of a refugee — someone who has been or is likely to be persecuted because of the person’s race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group, such as the LGBTQ community.

Many Cameroonians who have sought refuge in the United States in recent years fled after violent government retaliation against protests. While the current U.S. protests are about discriminatory treatment of Black people, in Cameroon, English-speaking people, called anglophones, protested being marginalized by French speakers, or francophones, who hold power in the country.

In Cameroon, francophone authorities frequently use tear gas, spray what protesters call “itchy water” and blast water cannons, to try to silence the protests, said Lopez, who mainly represents asylum-seekers from African countries who are held in immigration detention centers in San Diego and Imperial counties.

Cameroonian police and military also shoot protesters with live rounds. When they arrest protesters, the anglophones are taken to jails and prisons notorious for torture.

Among those targeted by the Cameroonian government are the journalists who cover the protests, including a woman who was profiled by the San Diego Union-Tribune after winning asylum last year.

Lopez said she doesn’t have to tell immigration judges that these kinds of actions taken against protesters demanding to be treated fairly by their government are human rights violations. That part is already understood.

In the U.S., the government response is not as intense as it is in Cameroon, but there are similarities.

Police have launched tear gas and shot less-lethal ammunition — such as rubber bullets — at protesters. In some parts of the country, National Guard or other military and federal forces have been called in. Some people have been arrested in connection with incidents of vandalism or looting, but many protesters appear to have been arrested just for being there.

Journalists in several U.S. cities have also reported being targeted.

For many attorneys and asylees, the day that federal forces cleared out a Washington, D.C., plaza so that President Donald Trump could take a picture in front of a church holding a Bible was particularly troubling.

A San Diego woman who won asylum from Libya and who studies political science said she worries about similarities she sees between President Donald Trump’s response and then-leader Muammar Gaddafi’s reaction to protests in her home country in 2011.

The woman, who asked not to be identified out of concern for loved ones back home, said Trump is using divisive language and sending mixed messages, calling for the protesters to not be violent while threatening violence. In Libya, Gaddafi also used violent language and mixed messaging as the country descended into civil war, she said.

She knows other asylees who have been afraid to leave their homes in recent weeks because of the memories the situation brings back.

“It’s really similar here which is depressing for me to see it,” said the woman.

She said the United States government’s actions against protesters will reverberate not only in its relations with foreign leaders but also in the shrinking hopes of people living under oppressive regimes.

China has already used the situation in the United States to push back on criticism of its own handling of protests. Chinese state media tweeted about the United States’ “double standard” on the day before the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Meanwhile, a bipartisan movement in the United States is trying to offer refuge to protesters in Hong Kong.

For San Diego immigration attorney Ginger Jacobs, seeing police in New York use a tactic called “kettling” to surround and arrest masses of demonstrators reminded her of clients who fled Syria after protesting against the Assad regime.

“These are the kinds of what we would consider here First Amendment violations that happen in authoritarian countries where the regime doesn’t want the optic of people protesting in the streets,” Jacobs said. “That’s definitely what it reminds me of.”

She pointed to U.S. State Department human rights reports that criticize countries for denying citizens the right to assemble and forcibly quieting those who criticize the government. Immigration attorneys often use those reports to bolster claims about country conditions that would merit asylum.

The 2019 report for Nicaragua, a nation that has seen a mass exodus since the Ortega regime violently squashed pro-democracy protests in 2018, says that the government did not respect the right to public assembly.

While hundreds of Nicaraguans died at the hands of their government in 2018, the following year was quieter because people were too afraid to protest — and many had left the country. Still, there are echoes of similarity in some of the details.

The 2019 report describes an instance of tear gas being used to break up a protest as well as police arresting protesters outside a church who were supporting a hunger strike there.

The Union-Tribune profiled a Nicaraguan asylum-seeker earlier this year who had to flee after sheltering protesters in her Managua shop. She was brutally attacked by members of paramilitary and left for dead. In Washington, D.C., a man named Rahul Dubey sheltered dozens of protesters in his home. His Instagram account includes videos of police cars that he says have since followed him.

Parastoo Zahedi, an immigration attorney based just outside of Washington D.C., said what she’s seen happening to protesters in the United States reminds her of tactics used against protesters in Iran. She pointed out that some Iranian protesters had also vandalized or burned buildings in response to the government’s violent attempts at repression.

She called Trump’s condemnation of the way that Iran treats its protesters, “ironic.”

“To the leaders of Iran — DO NOT KILL YOUR PROTESTERS,” Trump tweeted in January. “Thousands have already been killed or imprisoned by you, and the World is watching. More importantly, the USA is watching. Turn your internet back on and let reporters roam free! Stop the killing of your great Iranian people!”

The difference Zahedi sees between the two governments’ responses is that the Iranian regime uses harsher force, namely live rounds.

Christina Brown, an immigration attorney in Denver, has volunteered at recent protests as a legal observer. Police shot her twice with less-lethal ammunition, she said. She saw others around her shot in the face from close range. Police also used tear gas numerous times.

What she has witnessed police do to protesters in Denver, as well as in video clips in other cities, reminds her of clients from Venezuela and Honduras who fled after government officials and their allies brutally attacked protesters.

Reports of police standing by while White vigilantes carrying baseball bats assaulted several people in Philadelphia was similar, she said, to the way those governments use the help of armed groups to keep dissenters quiet.

“The attack from the state is really disturbing for someone who is constantly on the lookout for state violence in these asylum cases,” Brown said. “It’s been really traumatic actually.”

For many immigration attorneys, the conditions of systemic racism and discrimination that people are protesting against also share similarities with what their clients fled.

San Diego attorney Jacobs said the persecution that Black people face in the United States reminds her of an asylum case that she won for a woman who was part of an ethnic minority in Russia.

“The U.S. lacks a lot of credibility on its human rights record, and it’s something that needs to be taken extremely seriously,” Jacobs said. “It’s not one-off. It’s not a couple of bad apples. We see it happening in every state.”

Sarah Pitney, a D.C.-based immigration attorney, said that fellow immigration attorneys have been having conversations about whether Black Americans and the protesters who support them would be eligible to apply for asylum in a country like Canada that has similar laws to the United States. Pitney says they would.

“That’s how bad this is,” Pitney said.

Through Pitney’s own experiences at the protests, the lawyer found a new level of understanding of why asylum-seekers leave their countries.

“We’re seeing conditions starting to happen in this country that are the same kinds of conditions that my clients are fleeing,” Pitney said.

Wister Gaetan, of La Mesa, knows well the need to flee.

The United States is Gaetan’s second attempt at finding safety. He already fled two countries — Haiti and Mexico.

When he asked the U.S. for protection in 2011, he had to prove that he faced danger if he returned to either country. He won.

He is safer here than in Haiti, where he was targeted as a police officer for standing up to corruption, and in Mexico, where he faced racism and xenophobia and was again targeted for speaking out, he said. But living in the United States as someone who is perceived as Black, regardless of his country of origin, comes with its own fears.

Once in the United States, he began to experience discrimination from police, he said.

“When I am on the street, given my training, if the officer has to stop me, I will do everything that I know that me as an officer would want an individual to do,” Gaetan said. “But even me behaving that way doesn’t save me from being mistreated, from being profiled.”

He said he has also felt systemic racism in the difficulties that he has faced getting grants or raising funds for Haitian Bridge Alliance, a community nonprofit that he co-founded in San Diego.

He worries about what guidance he needs to give his 10-year-old son to protect him from harms caused by systemic racism.

“It’s an everyday struggle,” Gaetan said. “Me as an adult, I’ve experienced worse back home, but my son who has never been anywhere else other than United States is likely to be killed not because he did anything wrong but because of the color of his skin, and I’ve got to tell you it’s a real fear.”

Gaetan said the image of police in Buffalo, New York, shoving 75-year-old Martin Gugino to the ground and walking by him as he bled from his head during a protest has stuck with him.

“This behavior from police officers is not admissible,” Gaetan said.

Tammy Lin, a San Diego-based immigration attorney, said that she usually has a talk with clients to tell them that the police here are not like the police back home — she tells them that they can trust the police here.

At the same time, she tells them that the country isn’t perfect. She gives examples of racism that she’s experienced as an Asian American woman.

Thinking about those conversations in the context of recent weeks has been difficult, she said.

“It’s very disheartening,” Lin said. “I’ve spent much of my career working with this population who are fearful of the police or believe that the government will use everything in its power to go after them.”

One of Lopez’s Cameroonian clients, who has only been free in the United States for a few months after winning his case, hasn’t lost his faith in the United States.

The man, who asked not to be identified because of concerns for family members who are still in danger, said he’s been watching TV news of the protests.

Hearing some elected officials criticize the officers’ actions and call for change gives him hope, he said. Those kinds of statements would not happen back in Cameroon.

“The American system is sufficient and fully equipped to make reforms within the shortest possible time and make officers who take their laws into their own hands accountable for their actions,” he said.

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©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune