Training gatekeepers of asylum-seekers INS hires advisers to teach how to weed out claims


NEW YORK -- In a sunny fourth-floor conference room at

Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, 10 of the government's most seasoned arbiters of which refugees shall stay and which shall be turned away met last week over bagels and coffee to talk about torture.

Aided by color slides, they discussed in gory detail electrocutions, beatings, burnings and other afflictions that leave visible scars. They also delved into suffocation, sleep deprivation, mock executions and other forms of psychological torment that leave no telltale marks.

Then came the hard part: figuring out how to listen to horror story after horror story from refugees, to decide who is lying and who is telling the truth and still remain sensitive to the plight of vulnerable immigrants.

In an unusual pilot program, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has hired specially trained doctors, psychologists and even Broadway actors to teach its asylum officers how to judge better whether refugees are truly victims of torture and deserve protection.

Officers also honed their interview skills to divine the information they need without touching off an onslaught of traumatic memories for the refugee.

"This training will enable asylum officers to more easily identify people who are the victims of torture, or trauma sufferers," said Wally Bird, a supervisory asylum officer in Lyndhurst, N.J., who completed the two-week course given by the Bellevue/New York University Program for Survivors of Torture, in Manhattan, and the Center for Victims of Torture, in Minneapolis.

The new training comes at a pivotal time for the 300-member asylum corps, which is often the first contact that refugees have with the U.S. government. More than 130,000 people applied to the immigration service for asylum last year, and experts say that 5 percent to 35 percent of them are survivors of torture. The immigration service grants only about 20 percent of the asylum requests.

Increasing the pressure on asylum officers to make the right call is a new law intended to swiftly weed out groundless asylum claims from refugees who arrive here with false papers or no documents at all.

Human rights advocates say that additional training cannot make up for a law that rushes some of the most vulnerable immigrants through a complex process without adequate legal safeguards. The result, these advocates say, is that some legitimate refugees might be sent back to the countries they fled.

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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