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No Longer Adrift: UH Immigration Clinic Helps Answer Asylum-Seekers’ Prayers

By Erica Lehrer Goldman

Texas Lawyer

Monday, January 16, 2006

A 26-year-old man from Eritrea , a small country in Africa, sits in an immigration courtroom at the Houston Service Processing Center . He is so deep in prayer that he doesn’t hear Immigration Judge Jimmie L. Benton announce that he has granted the man’s request for asylum in the United States . It is only when the man’s attorneys and translator congratulate him that he realizes his prayers have been answered.

Anne Chandler, staff attorney at the University of Houston Law Center’s Immigration Clinic, remembers that day — Nov. 30, 2005 — vividly. She also remembers the day she met the man, Dawit, and the day she heard his horrific account of persecution.

To Chandler , Dawit’s story is not new. Although the clinic annually handles as many as 150 immigration law-related cases, of which approximately 20 involve asylum claims, Chandler says that she has encountered only three or four asylum cases like Dawit’s with such egregious accounts of imprisonment and torture.

Dawit is not the man’s real name. Texas Lawyer has agreed to use a pseudonym because of his fear for the safety of his family still in Eritrea , a small country on the Horn of Africa that declared its independence from Ethiopia in 1993. Before making his way to America, Dawit — who was born in Ethiopia of Eritrean and Ethiopian heritage — says he was tortured in Eritrea and Ethiopia because of his national origin, and later tortured in Eritrea for supporting a political movement that was critical of the government.

“I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know about asylum, I just told my story” to anyone who would listen, says Dawit, who learned English during his 16 months of detention in Houston . He says that he still has nightmares of being pursued and tortured. The deep gashes on his ankles and wrists and a scar on his face speak volumes about the torture Dawit endured — and why he fears returning to Eritrea .

But Dawit says that he was not welcome in Eritrea . Because his father was Ethiopian, Dawit was suspected of supporting the Ethiopian cause in its war against Eritrea . Consequently, while in Eritrea , Dawit says he once again was tortured and imprisoned. He served time in Dahlak Prison — known for its inhumane treatment of prisoners — in part because of his mixed heritage and in part because, while forced to serve in the Eritrean military, he supported and participated in distributing political pamphlets put out by a group known as the G-15 movement that advocated restructuring and bringing democracy to Eritrea.

Dawit says he will never forget July 20, 2004, the night he fled Eritrea , fearing more torture, imprisonment and possible death. After swimming for hours in the Port of Massawa in total darkness, he says, he climbed the anchor of a cargo ship and hid on board.

Discovered while searching for drinking water on his first day at sea, Dawit spent the remainder of the voyage in a room under lock and key, along with several other Eritrean stowaways. When the boat landed in the Port of Houston on Aug. 10, 2004, immigration authorities took Dawit into custody. He spent the next 16 months at the Houston Service Processing Center , a detention center run by Corrections Corporation of America , a private prison company with which the government subcontracts.

“The stories from Eritrea are incredibly chilling,” says Chandler . The degree and frequency with which Eritreans who return to their country are imprisoned, tortured and oftentimes never heard from again is well documented by Amnesty International, she adds. “Why we keep them locked up when they happen to float to our shores is beyond me, given that reality.”

According to its Web site, the U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices notes that Eritrea ‘s record of human rights violations “worsened through 2002.” The United States designated Eritrea as a “Country of Particular Concern” in September 2004 and November 2005 for its violations of human rights, particularly with regard to religious freedom. In May 2005, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Donald Yamamoto, according to a U.S. State Department press release, informed the U.S. House of Representatives Africa Subcommittee that the United States has an ongoing “frank dialogue” with Eritrea’s leadership about “U.S. expectations” in the areas of human rights, democracy, religious freedom and economic liberalization, particularly regarding Eritreans held without charge for political reasons.

Conditions in Eritrea are abominable, agrees Houston lawyer Robert Etnyre, who, although he is not involved in Dawit’s asylum case, has worked on similar cases and regularly compares notes with Chandler about the challenges they confront when representing detainees. Etnyre regularly works on pro bono cases assigned to him by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston and the YMCA.

Etnyre handled the asylum cases of two stowaways who fled Eritrea on the same ship as Dawit, both of whom were granted asylum. One young man fled Eritrea because he refused to serve in the military due to his political beliefs; the other man was serving in the Eritrean military, but he found that he was unable to carry out some of his superiors’ orders, because they went against his political and humanitarian beliefs, Etnyre says.

“These are not economic migrants; they are not coming here to get a job,” he says. They are coming here, he says, because they know they are going to continue to be persecuted in their own country, imprisoned or killed for political or sometimes religious reasons. “These are essentially death penalty cases for someone who hasn’t really done anything wrong,” says Etnyre. “So you are very, very relieved when the process works.”

Dawit now lives in Houston with an Eritrean roommate who also received asylum. Araya, the interpreter, has served as a mentor and father figure to Dawit, and has introduced Dawit to other Eritreans and Ethiopians in Houston , including his own two sons who are in their 20s.

Chandler says that the most rewarding moment in representing Dawit came when she visited him two days after the judge granted him asylum. Looking at her with rested eyes, Dawit said that for the first time in ages, he had slept through the night “like a child sleeps,” and that it was a joy to remember what it is like to simply sleep.

A 26-year-old man from Eritrea , Africa, begins work at an air conditioning company in Houston on Jan. 3, just one week after receiving his Texas identification documents and employment authorization. He earns $9.20 an hour and plans to work six days a week. He has joined a church. He hopes to move to a new apartment and to return to school. He dreams the American dream.