During the 1991 Gulf War, Iraqi soldier Hussein Alrikabi decided to surrender because he felt that there was no way the Iraqi armed forces could resist the might of the United States army. But "George Bush stopped the Gulf war and left us in the middle," Alrikabi told Newhouse News Service. "We had to leave the country or Saddam would kill us."
After a US representative visited Alrikabi in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia and heard his story, the man who had once fought for Saddam Hussein was granted political asylum in the United States.
Each years hundreds of Iraqis like Alrikabi are able to settle in America because they are granted political asylum. In New York City, there are 1272 Iraqi immigrants, according to the 2000 census, and a sizeable number of them have been granted political asylum.
To be eligible for political asylum, foreigners, regardless of immigration status, only need to show up at a port-of entry, such as an airports or border crossing, and ask for asylum. Then they must prove that they cannot return to their home country because of fear of persecution. Fleeing the Saddam Hussien regime, some say, is enough of a reason to grant any immigrant admission to the country.
But it may not be that simple anymore. As part of the "Liberty Shield" operation, the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, one of the three agencies that have replaced the Immigration and Naturalization Services, announced that it will detain political asylum seekers from Iraq and 32 other countries (officials refused to name which ones) for the entire time that their application is being processed. This process can last from several months to more than a year.
Within days of the announcement, two Iraqis were detained at the US-Mexican border for further investigation. They were reportedly using false documentation in an attempt to enter the United States and apply for political asylum.
Asylum seekers from other countries, though not to be detained, will be closely scrutinized. "We want to make absolutely certain, during this period of time, that you are who you say you are," said Tom Ridge, Secretary of Homeland Security.
This policy should affect fewer than 600 political asylum seekers out of more than 58,000 per year, officials said.
The new policy drew criticism from civil liberties groups. "The irony is that we are going to war with Iraq because of the persecution of the Iraqi citizens," said Gideon Aranoff of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a New York-based refugee resettlement organization, in The Legal Times. "Yet asylum seekers from Iraq, just such people who are feeling persecution, will be jailed if they come here"
During wartime, proponents argue, the detention makes sense because spies and terrorists might use the claim of political asylum to enter the country.
In the past some terrorists have exploited the political asylum process. One of the most famous cases is that of Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman. The blind cleric from Egypt came in and out of the country several times until he was ordered to be deported in 1993. He then filed for political asylum, enabling him to stay in the country.
While he was waiting for his asylum, Abdul Rahman plotted several plans to blow up New York City landmarks, one of which was the first attack of the World Trade Center in 1993. He is now serving a life-sentence for that crime.
Since then, more laws have been passed to beef up the political asylum system. Even before the terrorist attacks of 9/11, asylum seekers have had to go through an onerous series of interviews and background checks, which, some point out, made up one of the most extensive screening processes for any incoming immigrants.
So while the road to asylum in the United States seems bumpier lately, some are quick to say that it was not exactly easy street before. Many were arrested at airports and sent to county jails before they could be released on parole.
As Alex Gourevitch wrote in the American Prospect, "It's not as if asylum seekers just strolled into the United States before 9-11."