ACLU, local service providers debunk allegations in KPBS series on East African asylum-seekers
A coalition of community groups and service providers–including the ACLU, Horn of Africa, Somali Family Service, and the San Diego Refugee Forum–sent a letter to Rep. Brian Bilbray today debunking allegations in a recent KPBS series that East African asylum seekers may be connected to Al-Shabab, a Somalia-based Islamic terrorist group. After the series came out last week, Bilbray called for congressional hearings on the issue.
“We write with concerns that your call for congressional hearings on the purported national security threat posed by East African asylum seekers is based on inaccurate reporting and misconceptions about the asylum process,” the letter says (download the pdf here).
Amita Sharma’s three-part series (which you can listen to and read here, here and here), which was broadcast last week on KPBS, quoted anonymous federal sources who had suspicions that East African asylum seekers may have terrorist links because they take a circuitous route to the United States and supposedly told immigration agents suspiciously similar stories after they arrived here via Tijuana through the San Diego port of entry.
But Sharma apparently made no effort to independently verify the federal sources’ allegations. Her reports don’t include any interviews with asylum seekers or their lawyers. She also fails to explain why the U.S. government’s asylum program for East Africa has been shut down, which probably has something to do with why Somalis opt to make a grueling trek instead of seeking asylum through proper channels.
Making the report even more problematic, federal agents themselves couldn’t say for sure whether the asylum seekers actually have links to Al-Shabab. “We are responsible for the security and safety of the people of the United States and we really don’t know who is coming,” one source told KPBS. (Our emphasis added.)
The letter calls the KPBS reports “factually inaccurate.” Among its findings:
- The report notes that Somalis obtain illegal identification documents in order to get into the United States, but fails to note that the State Department “recognizes” that Somalis can’t be expected to have state-issued ID cards because Somalia has been in a perpetual state of collapse since the early ’90s. Immigrations agents refuse to accept false identification from asylum seekers, requiring them to provide evidence to prove their identity.
- Federal sources told KPBS that asylum seekers pay upwards of $60,000 to get to the United States, but the letter says that “would appear to be a gross exaggeration.” Local immigration attorneys who work with Somali asylum seekers say that the trip normally costs between $4,000 and $10,000, and never more than $12,000. They usually raise the money by selling their property and possessions and getting remittances from family members in the diaspora.
- The report discussed a Pennsylvania man who’s been indicted on charges of smuggling Somalis, but it didn’t mention the man’s questionable credibility–DHS has been reluctant to use him as a witness, even though he’s a former federal agent, because he’s apparently failed polygraph tests and there are “implausible aspects” to his story. Also, there’s no indication that he’s actually helped Al-Shabab.
- Considering the U.S. government’s “exceptional intelligence capabilities” regarding the Somali-based terrorist group–for example, U.S. forces once assassinated an Al-Shabab commander while he was hiding out in a remote area of Somalia–it seems unlikely that Al-Shabab could pull off a secret infiltration program of this magnitude. Plus, San Diego’s Somali community works closely with the FBI and DHS to keep Al-Shabab from infiltrating.
The letter also challenges the federal agents’ claims that the U.S. government is doing a poor job of keeping track of asylum seekers and weeding out suspicious ones. The letter notes:
- The asylum process includes an extensive array of security procedures, including a one-on-one screening and a “credible fear” interview with Department of Homeland Security officials, extensive background checks, and hearings before an immigration judge in which DHS prosecutors dissect the asylum seeker’s back story. In the hearings, asylum seekers must “meet an exacting burden of proving their eligibility for asylum.”
- Due to increasingly strict federal regulations, applicants who have “associated with terrorists, supported terrorists or engaged in terrorism” cannot receive asylum. They’re ineligible for asylum even if they were involuntarily forced into helping terrorists, for instance, by feeding them at gunpoint or having their money stolen. “The result is that innocent victims of terrorism and oppression have been found ineligible for asylum or legal permanent resident status,” the letter says.
- Asylum seekers are detained once they reach the United States, often for months or even years. DHS does not release anyone who doesn’t have identity documents.
We here at CityBeat agree with the letter’s assessment that the KPBS series is misleading and factually inaccurate. We would’ve liked in-depth insight from service providers who work with Somali refugees–not to mention asylum seekers themselves–rather than the few perfunctory sound-bites included in the reports.
We also can’t help but be skeptical when a news report relies mostly on anonymous federal sources. After all, in the run up to the Iraq war, it was nameless, faceless agents of the federal government who used the mainstream media as a tool to justify the invasion of Iraq because Saddam Hussein supposedly possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction.
Needless to say, we all know how badly that turned out.