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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

Hirsi Ali Calls for a New Way to Evaluate Asylum Seekers

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Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a prominent critic of fundamentalist (and not so fundamentalist) Islam and the author of Infidel and Nomad, recently told The Australian that it was futile for countries to attempt to establish the bona fides of would-be refugees, not least because many asylum-seekers will say anything in order to qualify for asylum.  "Everybody lies," she said.  Indeed, she herself admitted to lying on her own application in order to gain asylum in The Netherlands.

Instead of simply assessing whether an asylum seeker has a well-founded fear of persecution, Ms. Hirsi Ali proposes a sort-of cultural test:

[We] have to change the paradigm. You have to say, "You're welcome, we need immigrants but there are many conditions. Here is the law, the culture, the customs. Here is what you agree to, and in exchange you get to live in a peaceful, prosperous society where you have all this opportunity. If you don't agree we will just return you."

First, the problem of fraudulent asylum claims is widely acknowledged (I wrote about it here).  However, Ms. Hirsi Ali's statement that "everybody lies" on their asylum applications is simply wrong.  That would mean that no one who has been persecuted in their country has ever escaped and sought asylum abroad.  Maybe it's a small point-as she was likely speaking in general terms-but when we're talking about people who have been tortured and lost loved ones, it seems a bit insensitive and ungenerous.

Second, while there may be reason for a cultural test in Australia (Ms. Hirsi Ali was speaking about asylum seekers in Australia), it seems less needed in the U.S.  Ms. Hirsi Ali is concerned about importing destructive cultural practices, such as female circumcision, forced marriage, and honor killings.  She associates these practices with Islam and would basically exclude asylum seekers who refuse to adopt a more Western lifestyle.  Most people seeking asylum in the U.S. are not from countries where these practices are common.  According to the Department of Justice, almost 35% of successful asylum seekers come from China.  The next largest groups-about 4% each-come from Ethiopia and Haiti.  While these countries certainly have problems (hence people from these countries seek asylum), the asylees from these places generally embrace Western values and do not bring with them the kinds of cultural baggage that concerns Ms. Hirsi Ali.  

In addition, any type of "cultural test" for asylum seekers seems doomed to fail.  If, as Ms. Hirsi Ali says, people will "say anything," then certainly they will falsely claim to adopt Western values in order to win asylum.   

Finally, under U.S. law, people who practice FGM or commit honor killings are not eligible for asylum (whether the adjudicator learns about these acts is another matter).  Asylum seekers who are found to have persecuted others (FGM is a form of persecution) or who have committed serious non-political crimes (like murder) may not receive asylum.  If asylees commit such crimes in the United States, they will be deported.  Asylees should be educated about these laws, and such laws need to be enforced.

It seems that a cultural test as proposed by Ms. Hirsi Ali is not needed for asylum seekers in the United States.  We can better balance our human rights obligations with our desire to avoid negative cultural influences by educating new Americans, making it safe for people to report abusive cultural practices, and enforcing the law.

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