Saturday, October 1, 2011

In Riverside, Calif., deaf immigrants apply for asylum

From The Press-Enterprise in Riverside, Calif. Hector and Amalia Figueroa of Riverside, with their children, from left, Karina, 11, David, 6, Jonathon, 13, Mary, 4, and Brandon, 12. The parents are among 102 deaf immigrants who have petitioned for asylum or are expected to do so, alleging persecution in their home countries.

Sixty deaf immigrants, most from the Inland area, are applying for asylum because of alleged persecution in their homelands.

The cases could be groundbreaking, because experts say no one has been granted asylum in the United States for persecution based upon deafness.

But they carry risks for the applicants. All are in the country illegally or were before asylum applications gave some the temporary right to stay in the United States. By filing asylum claims, they are put on the government's radar screen as illegal immigrants.

Their Moreno Valley attorney, Hadley Bajramovic, said she is convinced that by filing dozens of cases at once, the government will recognize the repression that many deaf people face abroad.

"These people have come to the United States to avoid persecution and torture," she said. "The stories corroborate each other. When you have (everyone) saying the same thing, and they're from different countries and regions, it adds strength."

The applicants tell harrowing stories of sexual abuse, of being hit for not being able to talk, of remaining illiterate because their schools did not have sign-language interpreters and of being locked in their homes when their parents were gone.

Hector Figueroa, one of the applicants and a Riverside resident who has lived in the United States for 20 years, said he realizes no one has received asylum because of deafness-based persecution. But Figueroa, 37, said the risk is worth the chance for certainty that he and his family will not be forced to live in Mexico, which he said is an unbearable place for the deaf.

"I don't want my children to suffer like I did in Mexico," he said through a sign-language interpreter.

Figueroa is one of 18 applicants who have been interviewed by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services asylum office in Anaheim over the past few weeks, Bajramovic said. Others will be interviewed soon, she said. In addition to the 60 people who have filed for asylum, a few dozen others are planning to do so, she said.

All but a few are from Mexico. Several are from Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, Lebanon and the Philippines . Most live in the Inland area, many so their children can attend California School for the Deaf, Riverside, Bajramovic said. Applicants found out about the filings primarily through Facebook and word-of-mouth, she said.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors greater restrictions on immigration, said even though life is difficult in many countries for the deaf and other people with disabilities, deafness shouldn't be grounds for asylum. If it were, a large chunk of the world's population would qualify for asylum, he said.

"This really is a slippery-slope argument," Krikorian said. "If you make this argument for deaf people, it wouldn't be too much to argue that every woman in the Middle East , China and India would qualify for asylum, or all handicapped people, or all gay people."

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services does not keep track of asylum cases based upon factors such as deafness, said Chris Rhatigan, a spokeswoman for the agency.

The National Association of the Deaf is unaware of any successful deafness-based asylum case, said Howard Rosenblum, the organization's CEO.

But Rosenblum said deaf people face persecution in many countries, through lack of access to education, government services, jobs, the right to vote and the media. Many deaf people have never learned sign language and have no access to interpreters. They frequently face ingrained cultural attitudes that deaf people cannot live independently.

"In many countries and cultures, families often keep deaf family members at home, sometimes because of society being inaccessible and sometimes because of shame," Rosenblum said in an email.

Mexico lacks laws that ensure equal access to services for the deaf, Rosenblum said. Jobs for the deaf are practically nonexistent in much of Mexico.

A 2009 World Federation for the Deaf report found there are only about 20 trained sign-language interpreters in Mexico.

Ricardo Alday, a spokesman for the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C., said Mexico is working on improving life for the deaf, and it proposed and lobbied for the United Nations International Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which includes deafness.

But Alday said circumstances for the deaf and social awareness about deafness and other disabilities vary widely across Mexico.

"It goes to show there's still a long way to go," he said of the asylum applications.

Kathleen Kim, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and an expert on immigration law, said the large-scale filing of asylum claims could raise awareness among asylum officers of the alleged persecution deaf people face abroad. She emphasized she could not comment on the merits of the deaf immigrants' cases and the chance of success.

Asylum law sometimes shifts. For example, in 2009 the government for the first time accepted that certain immigrant women who suffered severe domestic violence could be eligible for asylum.

But Judy London, directing attorney of the immigrants' rights project of Los Angeles-based Public Counsel Law Center, said she was concerned by the huge number of cases being handled by one attorney.

Asylum law is complex, each case is evaluated separately and mass filings are risky, she said.

"It gives one pauses when a vulnerable group moves en masse to seek asylum," London said. "It makes one think whether they are adequately represented" by their attorney.

Bajramovic said she has been working a year and a half on the asylum cases, accepting fees far below her norm because almost all applicants are low income.

In most cases, applicants must file for asylum within a year of entering the United States. Bajramovic said many clients had been ripped off by other attorneys or by people posing as lawyers when previously seeking legalization. In some cases, employees at immigration field offices told them no deaf interpreters were available and they needed to seek their own, she said.

Immigration services spokeswoman Mariana Gitomer said the government provides sign-language interpreters at the government's expense.

Kathy Rock Veylit, the clients' interpreter, said most of the applicants were -- and in many cases still are -- functionally illiterate and had no idea they were entering a different country when they crossed the border. They had no concept of immigration laws.

As asylum applicant Jose Luis Bautista of Riverside spent more than 10 minutes trying to describe to a reporter how many siblings he has and what gender they are, Rock Veylit interrupted to say such lengthy explanations are common.

"The lack of education makes things that would be simple much more complicated," she said. "Some of this is like pulling teeth. They live in the here and now in their language ability."

Bautista attended school in Mexico for seven years but said he learned virtually nothing. Figueroa recalled how teachers at his school hit him out of frustration that he couldn't understand them. Children taunted him, mimicking the improvised hand signals he used to communicate.

Unlike Figueroa, his wife, Amalia, 39, attended a school for the deaf in Mexico. But even that school didn't have sign-language interpreters. Teachers wrote on the board.

"But I couldn't understand what was written," Amalia Figueroa said.

One teacher fondled girls in her fifth-grade class, laughing as he did so, she said. People outside school regularly harassed her.

Amalia Figueroa worries about the couple's U.S.-born children -- four of the five are deaf -- being raised in Mexico.

"In Mexico, deaf people suffer so much," she said through an interpreter. "Here, people respect deaf people and you can work. I want my children to get a good education, not like what I had in Mexico."