Trying to find the right words

TV: `P.O.V.' shows the imperfect process of refugees struggling to persuade the INS to grant them political asylum.

June 12, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Huang Xiang talks of being tortured by authorities in his native China for writing subversive poetry. Ana Maria says her husband was beaten in their native Romania because she belongs to the Anglican church. Boris describes being attacked by thugs in his native Russia because he's Jewish.

These three are typical of the thousands of men and women annually who seek political asylum in the United States, claiming their lives are in danger in their native countries simply because of who they are or what they believe. All have escaped their homelands and made it to these shores.

To stay here, they have to convince a caseworker for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service that their fears are genuine, that they have a "well-founded fear" of persecution. It's a maddeningly subjective and haphazard process, and it's at the core of an insightful, even-handed, emotionally charged documentary airing tonight on MPT.

With the Elian Gonzalez case keeping the question of political asylum on the front pages, "Well-Founded Fear" provides a topical kick-off for the 13th season of "P.O.V.," PBS'documentary showcase. Filmmakers Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini were given extraordinary access to the INS' New York offices: all employees could be filmed, as well as any asylum applicant who agreed. The result is a portrait of a disturbingly imprecise process, especially because it could well decide if a person lives or dies. Decisions are made based on a stack of paperwork and a single interview.

"How can you express a life experience in a few minutes?" asks Cristian, who is applying for asylum seven years after leaving Romania.

And it's a process that may be equally hard on the judges as on the people being judged.

Roughly 16 million people worldwide are political refugees, and about one in 200 ends up in the United States. To stay here legally, all must convince the INS. And that's not easy to do; these bureaucrats have heard hundreds of stories over the years, and they're trained to look for holes. Statistics suggest they do that pretty well; the majority of asylum applications are denied at this level and referred to an immigration judge for review. Only one in five are ultimately reversed.

Many applicants have legitimate fears; others overstate their cases, either out of paranoia or desperation. Others aren't in danger, but want to live in this country to improve their lot in life. And that, as the INS workers point out, is not grounds for asylum.

Of course, "well-founded fear" is one of those frustratingly vague phrases lawmakers love to throw out. So it's up to the INS to decide what constitutes a well-founded fear, and which people genuinely possess one.

Among the people filmed seeking asylum is a man from Sudan who, before detailing his case, pleads with his INS worker not to send him back. If you must deport me, he says, "deport me to any other country but Sudan."

Another man from Nigeria, speaks of being beaten by police, and of escaping through a bathroom window. A man from China says he was sterilized, and seems to want to live in the United States as much from shame as fear. Perhaps most heart-rending is a pregnant woman from Algeria, who says her family has often been targeted by authorities there.

All their stories sound horrific, and most of us would probably believe them. But that's why most of us couldn't be INS workers.

The film listens as workers discuss their cases. Usually, they do so dispassionately, sometimes even cynically - which is perhaps understandable, given the hundreds of grisly tales they've had to judge over the years. It seems that certain stories are never believed, and almost always result in a deportation. For instance, one smiling worker wonders why bathrooms in foreign jails never seem to have bars on their windows.

But some people let the stories get to them, and you know they're soon going to be looking for work elsewhere. For instance, one worker insists on giving people the benefit of the doubt, much to the consternation of her supervisor. Another acknowledges that there are hellholes located throughout the world where probably no one is safe, but says in the same breath that's not reason enough to grant asylum.

Easily the most frustrating aspect of the process is the inherent unfairness that "Well-Founded Fear" so clearly documents. Some INS workers are more predisposed to grant asylum than others. Interviewers openly admit that their own prejudices sometimes come into play. Even such a seemingly simple thing as a translator can make a huge difference. The film uses its own subtitles to tell us what the people are saying, and it's clear that some translators do a lousy job of relating a person's story to the INS, often mis-translating or leaving out key elements.

Although the sheer numbers involved would seem to work against devising a fairer system, the picture that emerges is of a process that adequately serves neither side.

'P.O.V.: Well-Founded Fear

Where: MPT, Channels 22 and 67

When: 10 p.m. - midnight tonight

In brief: A look at who is granted political asylum in the United States -- and how.

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