Advocates for immigrants seeking asylum in the United States fear that new federal legislation will make it more difficult for people trying to escape foreign torture because of their ethnicity, race or religion.
The measure -- known as the Real ID Act and tacked onto a recent Iraq spending bill -- would require immigration judges to base their asylum decisions, in part, on a person's "demeanor."
Therapist Joachim Nthawie -- who works with clients from such countries as Cameroon, Ethiopia and Indonesia -- said emotion can be hard to see in people traumatized by torture, electric shock or rape.
"It's very difficult to differentiate between post-traumatic stress syndrome and cultural expressions," said Nthawie, a therapist at Baltimore's Advocates for Survivors of Torture and Trauma. "I don't think the judges have the comprehensive training on people who have been tortured."
The change to the asylum rules -- little noticed amid the attention on the Real ID Act's driver's license restrictions -- has sparked an outcry among advocates for asylum-seekers.
"We are very concerned that the number of people granted asylum will only decrease," said Lynette Engelhardt Stott, director of government relations for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. "It's sad. We're sending a message out to the world that says we don't stand for liberty."
By any standard, gaining asylum is one of the toughest ways to become a legal U.S. resident. In 2003, of the 46,272 asylum cases filed, just a quarter were approved, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Office of Statistics.
People seeking asylum already must prove a well-founded fear of persecution because of their religion, race, ethnicity, political opinions, nationality or membership in a certain group. The new requirement that one of those characteristics be "at least one central reason for persecuting the applicant" has attorneys scratching their heads and fearing the worst.
"Some judges are going to do this very stringently," said Marshall Fitz, associate director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "There are judges out there who basically never grant asylum. This will give them further justification."
Fitz said the law was intended not only to reduce perceived fraud in the asylum process but also to rein in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, which hears the bulk of immigration cases and has been criticized as being too lenient.
Meanwhile, proponents of more stringent enforcement of immigration laws say an even larger problem is the removal process.
Although most asylum requests are denied, few of the denied applicants end up leaving the country, said Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center of Immigration Studies, which favors strict enforcement of immigration laws.
"Fraud is rampant and false claims are the norm, but it still doesn't matter because people aren't leaving," he said. "In all honesty, I didn't see it as important one way or the other. When you are running an extremely lax immigration system in every way, tightening up asylum restrictions isn't going to have much of an impact."
But advocates say the system is working ever since its last overhaul in 1996, when asylum rules were toughened.
In addition, the recent changes allow an immigration judge to ask the applicant to produce evidence supporting the persecution claims. Advocates say that, for people who fled their homes with just the clothes on their backs, such a request is nearly impossible to fulfill. Some don't even have documents verifying their own identification.
"It's protecting women from forced abortion and protecting victims of religious persecution," Stott said.
"It stands for every ideal we stand for in this country. People see it as the Cuban baseball player, the political dissident from the former Soviet Union. But it is also about people fleeing horrible torture, fighting for democracy and our ideas, then being persecuted for it."