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Fisher: Playing "Musical Chairs" With a Life

Playing "Musical Chairs" With a Life

By William Fisher
t r u t h o u t | Columnist

Wednesday 28 February 2007

While Congress quibbles over "comprehensive" immigration (providing illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, a guest worker program, etc.) versus "border security" (building fences), the unasked question is: Regardless of which path the legislation takes, just who is capable of enforcing it?

The job will fall to the Department of Homeland Security, those wonderful folks who brought us the Katrina debacle and "Heckuva job, Brownie." Our currently highly politicized Department of Justice will also play a role. But for anyone who needs yet another example of the gross incompetence of these agencies to implement anything efficiently, you need to pay attention to this story.

The story is about a young woman named Rodi Alvarado who, at age 28, fled to the US from her home in Guatemala to escape ten years of brutal beatings by her husband, a former soldier in the Guatemalan military. The Guatemalan police and courts ignored her repeated attempts to get help. Mrs. Alvarado requested asylum in the US as a victim of domestic violence who could not be returned to her country for fear of her life.

There was only one problem. The US has no asylum provisions that cover domestic violence. Mrs. Alvarado was about to be deported. Under US law, asylum applicants have to show they can't go home because they face persecution because of religion, race, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

Enter a sympathetic immigration judge, who granted Mrs. Alvarado a temporary stay of deportation. That was in 1996 - eleven years ago. And for eleven years, Mrs. Alvarado has been in this legal limbo. She hasn't been deported - she works as a housekeeper in a California convent. But she can't achieve any legal status and can't be reunited with her daughter, now 20, and her son, now 15, who remain in Guatemala. She hasn't seen them in a dozen years.

The reason: For more than a decade, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice have been playing "musical chairs" with a new asylum regulation that would cover domestic violence. Without such a regulation, Mrs. Alvarado's case cannot come before a Board of Immigration Appeals, which is supposed to re-decide her fate.

The musical chairs have bounced Mrs. Alvarado's case from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration. Indeed, Clinton's attorney general, Janet Reno, proposed a change in the regulations in her final hours in office in 2001. But with the change in administrations and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the proposal languished.

Opponents said new asylum rules would lead to a surge in claims - an assertion disputed by a large and bipartisan group of immigration, legal and religious advocates.

The next stop in this cruel bureaucratic game was the desk of John Ashcroft, then attorney general for the Bush administration. Ashcroft certified the case to himself, making him effectively the judge. He said he would decide Mrs. Alvarado's fate. Instead, Ashcroft decided neither to grant nor deny asylum to Alvarado, but said a decision should await new regulations from the Department of Homeland Security.

Wonder of wonders, the DHS actually drafted a regulation to make domestic abuse a valid legal basis for asylum-seekers. But the Department of Justice disagreed with the draft. It still does, and that's where the case stands today, a dozen years after Rodi Alvarado fled to the country that has always said, "give us your huddled masses."

But the situation was complicated by Ashcroft's inaction. Just before he stepped down, Bush's first attorney general punted. He passed responsibility for the Alvarado case to his successor, Alberto Gonzales. And the current attorney general has faithfully followed in the quicksand footsteps of his predecessors - he's done nothing. That's where things still stand. Nowhere!

The DHS says it will not press for Mrs. Alvarado's deportation, regardless of how much longer it may take the agency to finalize the new regulations. But that's cold comfort to Mrs. Alvarado, who is now 40. At the current pace, she could be a very old lady by the time the DHS and the DOJ decide to actually do something.

And these are the agencies that are expected to administer programs affecting millions of immigrants? Solving just one person's problem would be a big encouragement.


William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and in many other parts of the world for the US State Department and USAID for the past thirty years. He began his work life as a journalist for newspapers and for the Associated Press in Florida. Go to The World According to Bill Fisher for more.

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