Since the Boston bombing, we’ve heard much talk about restricting access to asylum (and immigration) for Muslims. Opponents of reform have wondered aloud how the Tsarnaev brothers entered the U.S. and why their father received asylum in the first place (the brothers obtained derivative asylum based on their father’s application). One commentator called for a halt to student visas for Muslims; another for an end to all Muslim immigration.
The common belief among such people is that Muslims coming to America pose a threat. And even if only a small percentage of Muslims actually present a threat, we’re better off excluding all Muslims, just to be on the safe side.
Of course I disagree with this viewpoint. In my practice, I have represented many Muslim asylum seekers–from countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Somalia, and Syria. These are people who have devoted their lives–and often risked their lives–to promote democracy, women’s rights, and human rights. Many have served shoulder-to-shoulder with soldiers from the U.S. military in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s not uncommon for my clients to have letters of recommendation from members of the military, including high-ranking officers like Generals McChrystal and Petraeus. Indeed, I suspect that my Muslim clients have risked and sacrificed far more in the defense of liberty and in support of the U.S. than the commentators who routinely disparage them.
To illustrate the point, here is a sampling of a few of my recent cases involving Muslim asylum seekers (I have changed the names to protect my clients’ confidentiality):
Daoud is an Afghan man who worked as an interpreter for a private contractor. He served directly with soldiers from the United States military in Afghanistan and was several times in combat situations. His main job was to provide interpretation between the U.S. military and local people. He also provided cultural training to the soldiers. In a counterinsurgency operation, gaining the trust of local people is crucial for identifying and eliminating insurgents. Daoud’s role in his unit’s missions was indispensable. Along with Daoud’s application for asylum, we included letters attesting to his service from many members of the United States military. The letters came from soldiers who served with Daoud and from a two star general familiar with his work. We are currently waiting for a decision in his asylum case.
Fatima is a woman’s rights activist who founded an NGO to educate girls in Afghanistan. The NGO received support from USAID and other international donors, and expanded its work into many Afghan provinces. The Taliban learned of Fatima’s activities and repeatedly threatened her. At some point, the threats became too much, and she decided it was unsafe for her to return to Afghanistan. Her asylum application is pending.
Brahim is an Egyptian activist for gay rights and women’s rights. After the Egyptian revolution, he faced increasing harassment from government officials. He was attacked on several occasions and the police refused to help (once, they actually detained him, even though he was the victim of an assault). With the ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood, he felt unable to remain safely in Egypt. His application for asylum has received preliminary approval.
Abdul is a journalist and peace activist from Iran. He is also related to an important Iranian opposition leader who lives in exile. Abdul assisted that leader by providing on-the-scene reporting from Tehran during the Green Revolution. After he went to study abroad, the Iranian authorities arrested Abdul’s girlfriend and threatened to arrest him. Rather than return to Iran, Abdul filed for political asylum. His application was granted earlier this year.
These cases are typical of the Muslim asylum seekers that I have represented. They—and thousands like them—have fought and sacrificed and bled in the war against Islamic extremism.
In the aftermath of the Boston attack, perpetrated by two brothers who received asylum in the United States, I understand the desire to examine security procedures for asylum seekers. When you extend a helping hand and then get bit, it’s only natural to hesitate before helping again. But as we think about changing the asylum system in response to the terrorist attack, we should keep in mind people like my clients and the many Muslims who have demonstrated their fealty to us in our fight against extremism.
We should not allow the evil deed of the Tsarnaev brothers to cause us to retreat from our humanitarian obligations, which would compromise our principles, or to weaken our commitment to our Muslim allies, who are crucial in our battle against Islamic terrorists. When making changes to our asylum system, we should be guided by our highest ideals, not by the dark vision of the Tsarnaev brothers.