New Novel Explores the Lives of Asylum Seekers

by Jason Dzubow on January 14, 2013

They say that truth is stranger than fiction because fiction has to be believable. That is basically the premise that got Scott Rempell thinking about the lives and stories of asylum seekers, and which led to his new novel, Five Grounds:

The idea to write an immigration novel that delves into the asylum process first hit me when I was working at the Office of Immigration Litigation in the Department of Justice. I was sitting in my office reviewing a Department of State report on a humanitarian crisis engulfing a particular country. I remember sitting back and thinking to myself that some of what I’m reading is stranger than fiction. It’s the type of information that people might read about in a novel and say, “no way that would happen!” But it does. It happens all the time in countries around the world and very few people know about it. I wanted to write a story that would educate readers about these countries, explain how the asylum process works, and highlight the tensions in the immigration debate.

Five Grounds is great reading material while waiting for your asylum interview.

Five Grounds is great reading material while waiting for your asylum interview.

The title refers to the five protected grounds that can form the basis for an asylum claim–race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. The novel follows three asylum seekers as they flee their home countries and make their way to the United States:

In Ethiopia, Tesfaye abandons his post at the Ministry of Defense and attempts to escape the country while a crazed rebel commander hunts him down for reasons he will spend years trying to fully understand. Lin’s mother forces her to leave China to protect her from the same fate that led to her father’s disappearance. In Mexico, Sofia’s health rapidly deteriorates, so she leaves behind her two young children and the memory of a murdered husband.

The three arrive in the United States where they must confront the American asylum system. A brief excerpt captures the flavor of the book:

Tesfaye placed a hand on each of his daughters’ cheeks. “I have some business to take care of, but I will come soon. I promise.”

Unconvinced, Yenee opened the door and grabbed hold of Tesfaye’s leg. “No, you need to come with us now, please come with us.” 

Tesfaye picked up Yenee and tried to comfort her. He could feel the tears on his shoulder, seeping through his shirt. “Look at me, Yenee.” Tesfaye gently pushed up on Yenee’s chin so that her eyes met his. “Look at me,” he repeated. “I have always tried to teach you the importance of responsibility. Our country has put its trust in me and I have a responsibility to help protect it.”

“But . . .”

“You remember the importance of honoring one’s obligations?”

“Yes, it’s just . . .”

“Now I need you to be strong.” Yenee loosened her arms, which had been clenched around Tesfaye. Her body slowly slid down until her feet touched the cobblestone walkway below. After she reluctantly got back into the car, Tesfaye stuck his head inside the open window and kissed Yenee on her forehead. He walked over to the front passenger seat, reached in the car, and gently rubbed his wife’s neck, massaging her earlobe with his thumb.

“We will see you soon,” Ayana sighed, forcing herself to smile.

Tesfaye smacked the roof of the car twice with his hand and Negasi shifted into gear. The Mercedes sped down the long dirt driveway toward the front gates, dust spewing into the air. Tesfaye stood at the edge of the driveway until the dust had again settled into the bone-dry ground.

I will see them soon. I just need some time to think.

Tesfaye could not have foreseen the consequences of his decision that morning, but the circumstances of his past were already conspiring. A chain of events set in motion nearly two decades ago was about to catch up to him. Soon, the conspiracy would reveal itself, and he would spend years desperately trying to unravel it.

The author was an attorney for OIL–the Office of Immigration Litigation, which defends BIA decisions in the U.S. federal courts. Now Mr. Rempell is a professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston.

What has drawn me (and other attorneys) to the practice of asylum law is the stories of our clients: What they did in their home countries, how they survived, their journeys to the U.S., and their experience in the U.S. immigration system. Prof. Rempell writes, “my goal in writing Five Grounds is to educate and inform against the backdrop of a gripping, fast-paced story.” If you would like to learn more about Five Grounds–or buy the book, visit Prof. Rempell’s website, here.

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