Lecture explores current refugee and asylum law in the U.S.
Selena Ponio | Friday, February 17, 2017
When Majd Alshoufi spoke in the Eck Hall of Law on Monday afternoon, he made it clear that he was coming from a personal, rather than a legal, perspective.
Alshoufi, a Syrian Master’s candidate in international peacebuilding and an asylum seeker, was one of the speakers at a lecture titled “Asylum in the U.S.: Law and the Lives It Touches” — an event hosted by the International Human Rights Society and the Center for Civil and Human Rights. The event’s intent was to shed light on current refugee and asylum laws in the United States.
Alshoufi was an activist in the Syrian nonviolent resistance movement of 2011. On Aug. 22, 2011, he was arrested after taking part in a demonstration with 40 other men and women. After being arrested, he was tortured and exiled. Today he continues his peacebuilding work in the U.S.
“If you are deprived of the ability to speak your mind, you can’t really feel it until you lose it,” he said. “Even worse than being shot was being arrested. You were said to be sent behind the sun because no one knew what happened to you, and your life was over.”
Alshoufi said the main arguments people have against letting refugees into the U.S. are rooted not in logical reasoning, but in fear. He said there are two extremes on the spectrum: on one end, that all Muslims are terrorists, and on the other end, that Islam has nothing to do with terrorism.
“We have to be brave enough … to go outside our comfort zone to see the truth,” he said. “Hatred and discrimination against all Muslims empowers terrorists. ISIS has been extremely happy with the new executive order. It gives them the opportunity to say, ‘Do you see how the entire world hates you?’ and recruit with this. They are empowered by this hatred.”
Alshoufi said President Donald Trump’s recent executive orders have put his status in this country in a state of uncertainty.
“I’m expecting an interview two years from now for asylum, but now I’m not sure, because of the recent executive orders,” he said. “If I’m denied, I’m unsure where I will go. Will they send me to Turkey, where ISIS will be very happy to receive me? I feel like I’m in limbo.”
When talking about terrorism, Alshoufi used the phrase “do not be more royal than the king” as a caution to Western society, meaning that it should not claim to know more or know better about what to do when it comes to terrorism than those experiencing its effects firsthand. He talked about change happening from within, led by the people affected.
“Terrorism is not just an American or Western problem,” Alshoufi said. “We Middle Easterners have a responsibility to fight terrorism.”
In 2014, Alshoufi founded New Syrian Human, an international NGO that provides community-based trauma therapy and peacebuilding services to Syrians around the world.
Lisa Koop, associate director of legal services at the National Immigrant Justice Center and adjunct professor at Notre Dame Law School, explained the legal framework for how asylum law works in the U.S.
Koop said the definition of a refugee is someone who has “a well-founded fear of persecution” due to religion, nationality or other factors. She said refugees meet this definition outside the U.S. and enter the U.S. with legal status and access to benefits, whereas an asylum seeker is someone already in the U.S. trying to meet this definition of a refugee. They typically do not have legal status or benefits.
Koop described the 32-step process that refugees have to go through before being allowed to settle in the U.S. as “incredibly exhaustive.” She said the executive order acts as an extra hurdle on top of that process.
“They were forced to leave because of circumstances out of their control,” she said. “It’s really miserable for people to have to leave and not be able to exercise their rights and be allowed to meaningfully resettle.”
Koop said courts suffer from backlogs, with many cases scheduled into 2020. She said the trio of executive orders relating to interior enforcement, border security and refugee travel “conflate migration with criminality.”
Koop, who is also an immigration attorney, said the need for pro-bono support is now greater than ever. Koop specializes in litigation, policy and direct services advocacy on behalf of immigration survivors of gender-based violence.
The National Immigrant Justice Center educates immigrants on their rights, provides low-cost or free representation to immigrants and challenges laws and policies that violate the Constitution. It serves around 10,000 clients a year.
“It’s important for people to understand what their rights are and how they can protect themselves,” Koop said.