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Djuma Miradji fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo after being beaten, detained, and, on one occasion, shot for his work as an immigration officer in the eastern border city of Goma. In January he entered the United States at Dulles International Airport, but he’s been in jail ever since, one of thousands of asylum seekers trapped by the increasing complexities of the U.S. immigration system. The already circuitous path that asylum seekers travel has become even more twisted in recent years. Requirements of the USA Patriot Act have added extra impediments for people who have been tortured, imprisoned, or persecuted in their home countries. Language and cultural barriers add to the difficulties of imprisoned asylum seekers, who often struggle to find an attorney because U.S. law does not require that counsel be provided. After fleeing last year to Burundi with his wife and children, Miradji traveled to the United States on a visitor’s visa to attend his cousin’s graduation party in Kansas. He was detained at Dulles after immigration agents discovered he was traveling with his own diplomas. The agents suspected he might be searching for a job and planning to overstay his visa, says Jeff Ruzal from Arent Fox, Miradji’s pro bono lawyer. When immigration agents insisted on sending him back to Congo, Miradji said he could not return for fear of persecution. Miradji said he had fled Congo after a group of Rwandans severely beat him. Because of his position for many years as a border official in Goma, Miradji said, he was stuck in a hornet’s nest of shifting political groups and militias. “The Congo is a messy place,” says Tony Gambino, who was the U.S. Agency for International Development‘s mission director to Congo from 2001 to 2004. “Border points have long been known as breeding grounds for corruption and difficulties.” The first step in Miradji’s asylum case was a credible-fear interview, which establishes whether an asylum seeker has a viable case. In a unique partnership designed to provide legal assistance for detainees, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services‘ asylum office in Arlington, Va., alerts the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, known as CAIR, if asylum-seeking detainees don’t have counsel for credible-fear interviews. After obtaining counsel through the coalition, Miradji was deemed to have a credible fear of returning to Congo by an asylum officer and was sent back to the Piedmont Regional Jail in Farmville, Va., located three hours southwest of the District. More than 20,000 asylum seekers sought refuge in the United States during the first half of 2006, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Legal counsel is not required for asylum seekers in the United States because immigration is considered a civil matter. They either find representation or are left to languish pro se, a dismal prospect for asylum seekers who often don’t speak English and don’t understand immigration law. “It’s incredibly difficult to find an attorney if you’re an asylum seeker in a rural jail in Virginia,” says Brittney Nystrom, director of CAIR’s asylum project. A 2005 study by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom found that the outcome of an asylum seeker’s case “depends largely on whether he or she is able to find pro bono counsel.” According to the study, one in four asylum seekers who are represented win their cases, while only one in 40 who go it alone prevail. Though immigration judges in Arlington try to provide asylum seekers with counsel through legal-aid groups and by granting continuances, the system is so difficult to navigate that many people with valid reasons for fleeing never know their options. Last month the bipartisan commission issued a follow-up report card for U.S. immigration agencies and handed out enough D’s and F’s to make a high-school student swoon. The report criticized the agencies for not providing pertinent information to asylum seekers, not following basic protocol, and for putting noncriminal asylum seekers in prison. Many asylum seekers come from countries where they were routinely jailed as part of their persecution. Now it’s becoming more likely they will be imprisoned in the United States as well, pending disposition of their cases. “A couple of years back in the Washington Field Office they regularly released asylum seekers on parole. Over the past couple of months, they’ve stopped,” Nystrom says. She adds that immigration officials have become stricter in regards to parole, citing flight risks even when the person has local family ties. Asylum seekers held in remote detention facilities are unable to speak regularly with lawyers, family, or friends, so gathering crucial evidence for their cases becomes nearly impossible. “They are unable to participate in their defense,” says Ruth Spivak, outreach coordinator for immigrant and refugee rights at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. And the detention facilities “are very demoralizing,” she adds. Ruzal says Miradji is not taking detention well. He cannot communicate with jail officials or other detainees because he only speaks French and Swahili, and he “appears to be despondent,” Ruzal says. For Miradji, life wasn’t easy in Congo, but then, it rarely is. The average life span is 43 years. War has swept through the country several times, and more than 3 million people died due to strife, famine, and disease during a five-year war with neighboring countries that ended in 2003. The political situation has improved recently, with democratic elections last year. But Goma, located on the eastern border with Rwanda, still feels “like a frontier town,” Gambino says. The area surrounding Goma is striking, flanked by Lake Kivu and two active volcanoes. The last major eruption was in 2002, when ribbons of lava flowed through the city, effectively repaving the streets. Though catastrophic for Goma’s infrastructure, few lives were lost due to a mass evacuation. That natural beauty, however, stands in stark contrast to extreme poverty, smuggling, and raiding by rebel groups. Miradji’s cousin, Ngulwe Alfani, who attended Wichita State University and now works for the Kansas Housing Resource Corp., says Miradji faced a balancing act in Congo. Miradji made a lot of enemies on all sides because he worked as a border official in an area where corruption and graft are the norm and political and militia groups kept shifting. “He told me the situation was too bad,” says Alfani. “It was very hard for him to keep up.” Ruzal, who is handling his first asylum case, represented Miradji last week at his first master-calendar hearing, a routine hearing that lays out the allegations against the asylum seeker. From there, he will have two more hearings before an immigration judge, including submission of the asylum application and a merits hearing, where evidence and witnesses will be presented. In the end, Miradji will either be granted asylum or deported, but until then, he will remain in jail in rural Virginia. Once, while visiting his client, Ruzal brought Miradji, who is Muslim, a copy of the Koran in French. “I gave him the Koran and he beamed,” says Ruzal. “It just seemed like this is not someone who should be detained.”
The Common Good is a monthly column devoted to the pro bono community. Attila Berry can be contacted at [email protected].

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