Ethiopian Refugees Help Catch Their Persecutors

by Jason Dzubow on October 23, 2013

In the Ethiopian-American community, at long last, the hunters have become the hunted. 

Members of the community have created a new website to share information and help bring to justice Ethiopian human rights abusers living in the United States. The founders of the website, called YaTewlid (meaning “The Generation”), are themselves torture survivors. They have been inspired by a few recent prosecutions of Ethiopian human rights abusers in the United States.

The most recent case involved a high-ranking prison guard during the time of the Red Terror in Ethiopia (1977-78). Earlier this month, Kefelgn Alemu Worku was convicted of immigration fraud after he entered the U.S. using a false name and lied about his background. According to the Denver Post, those who witnessed against him testified that Mr. Kefelgn tortured and murdered hundreds of prisoners, including one witnesses’ best friend. Mr. Kefelgn faces up to 22 years in prison (for the fraud) and then deportation to Ethiopia where, presumably, he would not receive a friendly reception.

Kefelgn Alemu Worku proves that time wounds all heels.

Kefelgn Alemu Worku proves that time wounds all heels.

As an aside, Mr. Kefelgn’s case demonstrates why the various immigration forms ask questions like, Are you a persecutor? or Have you ever committed a crime? On their face, the questions seems silly–what self-respecting persecutor would admit that he was a persecutor? The U.S. government does not necessarily expect persecutors and criminals to admit their misdeeds (though that would be nice). Rather, if the government discovers evidence that the alien is a persecutor, it is a lot easier to prosecute him for immigration fraud than for the actual crimes he committed in his country. And that is exactly what happened to Mr. Kefelgn. He was prosecuted not for his war crimes, but instead for his immigration fraud (this reminds me of how the government prosecuted Al Capone for tax evasion rather than murder). 

As of this writing, the YaTewlid website is only in Amharic, but its founders hope to have an English version in the future. I had an Amharic-speaking friend check it out. She reports that the website needs some work, but it will potentially be a useful tool for uncovering human rights abusers living in the U.S.

It seems to me that DHS/ICE would do well to talk to groups such as YaTewlid, since the people best able to ferret out criminals (and fraudsters) are members of the various immigrant communities. 

Indeed, ICE does have a special unit, called the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Unit (HRVWCU – though I think they need a more sexy acronym), which is part of the National Security Investigations Division. According to its website, HRVWCU–

conducts investigations focused on human rights violations in an effort to prevent the United States from becoming a safe haven to those individuals who engage in the commission of war crimes, genocide, torture, and other forms of serious human rights abuses from conflicts around the globe.

The unit has had its fair share of successes. Again, from the website:

Since fiscal year 2004, ICE has arrested more than 250 individuals for human rights-related violations under various criminal and/or immigration statutes. During that same period, ICE has denied more than 117 individuals from obtaining entry visas to the United States and created more than 20,000 subject records, which prevented identified human-rights violators from attempting to enter the United States. In addition, ICE successfully obtained deportation orders to physically remove more than 590 known or suspected human rights violators from the United States. Currently, ICE is pursuing more than 1,900 leads and removal cases that involve suspected human rights violators from nearly 96 different countries.

The efforts of HRVWCU are crucial to preventing human rights abusers from taking advantage of our immigration and asylum systems, and to protecting the integrity of those systems. The cooperation of community groups such as YaTewlid is also crucial to this effort.

It is in the interest of everyone–government, immigrant groups, and “the system”– to find, punish, and deport human rights abusers. Only in this way can we provide some justice for the victims and keep the door open to legitimate refugees who need our protection.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Kim Myers April 25, 2014 at 3:57 pm

I know this is a bit out of date however I just stumbled on this article. I believe that is why our Country has so many problems. We worry about everyone from other countries when our kids are going over there to fight for their freedom and nothing ever changes. So my point is we bring large amounts of them here? We have our own ppl sleeping on the streets and with no jobs possibilities in the near future. Our schools are going bankrupt and they refuse to turn on ECU benefits but bring large amounts of refugees here that will never get off the welfare system.


Jason Dzubow April 26, 2014 at 9:53 pm

Looked at out of context, I understand your point. But when you examine the overall benefit of immigration and foreign visitors for our economy, most economists will tell you that the benefits outweigh the costs (at least as concerns purely economic factors). Also, to quote from Spiderman – great power requires great responsibility. Part of being a world leader is leading in the humanitarian realm. It is one of the characteristics that makes our country great.


Noah Clements October 27, 2013 at 2:00 am

Mr. Kefelgn faces up to 22 years in prison (for the fraud) and then deportation to Ethiopia where, presumably, he would not receive a friendly reception.

I don’t think glee at someone being deported to be presumably tortured, even a presumed (but not proven) torturer, is what we should be aiming for. This is the type of situation that CAT protection was created for.


Jason Dzubow October 27, 2013 at 9:30 pm

Hi Noah – I do not think my statement was gleeful, and that was not my intention. On the other hand, someone who has murdered scores of people deserves severe punishment. I agree that he should not be tortured upon return, and if he faces torture, he should receive CAT. However, I do not think he should ever leave prison again for the rest of his life.


Jondi October 26, 2013 at 6:27 pm

Hi Jason,

In previous articles in ”The End of Asylum as We Know It” series you have mentioned that there has been a serious spike in number asylum applications thought the year and as a result DHS had to shift and reallocate its resources to focus more attention on credible fear interviews.

I have also heard rumors that Arlington asylum office had its officers on training in Texas and there were few employees left to address affirmative cases.

Could you please share with us your knowledge on what is currently going on in Arlington? Are the officers back to their permanent workplaces and is the office running in a”business as usual” mode?

From my previous communication with the USCIS few months ago, they told me that scheduling of interviews was done by software that prioritized new applicants to older ones. Is this kind of treatment
still applicable to asylum applicants waiting for their interviews for an eternity? I am just trying to ask if there is a deadline for adjudicating very old cases? 190 days have elapsed since I applied, when should I
expect to have that damned interview? :((((((


Jason Dzubow October 27, 2013 at 9:23 pm

Ugh, I currently have over 30 cases waiting for interviews in Arlington. A few cases are going quickly, but most are waiting for a long time. I think your statement about the order of processing cases is the same news I have heard. The asylum offices hiring about 100 new officers, and they should be hearing cases by January (hopefully), so this may start to get things moving. It is a very tough situation though, especially for people who are separated from family members. If that is your situation, you can write a letter to the asylum office and ask them to expedite. If they do not respond, you can then try the USCIS Ombudsman’s Office. Good Luck.


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