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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

Raoul Wallenberg Lives! Maybe.

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Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat assigned to his country's mission in Nazi-occupied Hungary. He arrived at his station in 1944, when tens of thousands of Jews were being deported to death camps.

Sometimes, to do the right thing, you have to break the rules. And follow the Raouls.

Using his cover as a diplomat, Mr. Wallenberg saved thousands of Jews from deportation. He gave them Swedish identity documents (of questionable legality), which protected them from deportation. He also rented various properties that became part of the Swedish mission, and which were thus protected by diplomatic immunity. The buildings ultimately housed (and protected) almost 10,000 people. Mr. Wallenberg used all the means at his disposal--legal and illegal--to save lives. All told, he is credited with saving over 100,000 men, women, and children.

I was reminded of Raoul Wallenberg when I heard the story of how my newest client came to the United States.

The client is a young man from Syria. A pro-government militia arrested him and his friends. They were accused of involvement in anti-regime activities and taken to prison. My client was lucky enough to recognize one of the guards, who intervened and had him released. My client's friends were not so lucky. They were ultimately released, but not before suffering severe torture.

My client made his way to another country and applied for a U.S. visitor visa. As my client related the story, it was clear that the consular officer thought the client might seek asylum in the United States, and he questioned the client about whether he faced any threats in Syria. Although he obviously had suspicions, the officer issued the visa, and now the client is seeking asylum.

Consular officers are supposed to deny visitor visas to applicants that they think have an immigration intent (an intent to seek asylum is considered an immigration intent). My suspicion here is that the consular officer correctly surmised that the client had immigration intent, but he issued the visa anyway. Was this, perhaps, a Wallenberg-esque move? Did the officer issue the visa precisely because he knew the endangered client could (and would likely) seek asylum in the U.S. and thus escape the danger in Syria?

Obviously, I have no idea what was in the consular officer's mind, but it is interesting to consider his situation. When a Syrian or an Iraqi or an Afghan applies for a visitor visa, there is a decent chance that the visa applicant will travel to the U.S. and seek asylum. The consular officer's job is to prevent that from happening; to anticipate who is an immigration risk and to deny a visa to that person. But what if denying the visa might result in the person's death?

It is easy to say that the consular officer should just do his job and deny the visa, but at the end of the day, the officer has to live with himself and his decision. For me at least, it would be difficult to meet a person who is likely fleeing for his life, and to then deny him a path to safety. Also, if it were me, I would feel that I could accomplish something positive and life-affirming by issuing the visa and helping the person come to the United States.

But of course, the visa system is designed to do more than just block intending immigrants from gaining entry into the U.S. It is also designed to block terrorists and criminals. This is not an issue that Raoul Wallenberg had to deal with. In Mr. Wallenberg's case, he was not giving out valid travel documents. He was just giving out passes that the German and Hungarian authorities generally respected. This prevented the Nazis from murdering the people who held the passes, but no one was traveling to Sweden (or anywhere else) on Mr. Wallenberg's passes. There was no danger that Nazi agents would use the passes to infiltrate other countries or cause other harm.

In the case of a (hypothetically) modern-day Raoul Wallenberg who gives out visas to people fleeing persecution, the danger of helping a terrorist or criminal would have to be balanced with the desire to save lives. I don't envy the consular officers who--whether they like it or not--have to make life or death decisions where their desire to help must be tempered by their duty to protect the United States and follow the law.

Originally posted on the Asylumist:

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