Two college students fight for Obi's freedom

Ryan and Vinny fidgeted nervously in front of the plexiglass that separated them from the prisoners wearing bright orange jumpsuits.

They were waiting for Obi (not his real name), a 21-year-old asylum-seeker from Sierra Leone who was detained in York County Prison because he had been a stowaway on a Senegalese ship that docked in Philadelphia.

Because Obi did not have a visitor's visa or any other documentation on him, he was taken to York County Prison to await a hearing in front of an immigration judge.

Ryan and Vinny, enrolled in my senior seminar class, Human Rights/Human Wrongs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., were at the prison to help Obi with his asylum application.

In 1999, Obi witnessed his parent's brutal execution at the hands of the rebel group Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Obi feared that the RUF would find him and torture and kill him as they had done his parents. He fled to Senegal, and then boarded on a Senegalese ship that sailed to Chile, Panama, and then Philadelphia.

It seemed like a cut-and-dry case. Sierra Leone went through almost a decade of savage civil war, and anyone living there was sure to be a victim of persecution. But as Ryan and Vinny found, living in a country in the throes of civil war is not enough to win asylum. The asylum seeker has to prove that he or she was specifically targeted for persecution.

The 16 students enrolled in my seminar were taking a class in what is becoming a growing movement in higher education: service learning.

Working in teams of two with our community partner, the Coalition for Immigrant's Rights at the Community Level (CIRCLE), each team was assigned a detained asylum seeker from countries including Cameroon, Uganda, Haiti, and Nigeria.

Once the team members had completed the applicant's asylum affidavit, they would search for supportive documentation in human rights reports from the US State Department, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch.

Asylum seekers, unlike US citizens, do not have free legal representation through a public defender. Most unfamiliar with the language or US immigration law, are on their own in front of an immigration judge and a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) attorney.

Because of a huge backlog of cases, and detention costs that average around $7,000 per asylum seeker, judges don't have much time to spend on each case.

Often, the DHS attorney will try to dispute the credibility of the asylum seeker, rather than focus on the story of persecution. Fewer than 20 percent of all asylum applicants win asylum and only one in five cases is reversed in front of an immigration judge.

Although my student teams couldn't represent their asylum seeker in court because they were not law students, they helped to win three out of eight cases (five cases are still in process or under appeal).

What kind of impact did this have on my students?

Both Ryan and Vinny went on to law school. Vinny reflected, "When I communicated with my 'asylee' through the plexiglass of the jail, I found out how human life can be so drastically different, but essentially the same."

And, by the way, if you think that a bunch of privileged college kids can't make a difference, just ask Obi who won asylum last year.

Susan Dicklitch is an associate professor in the department of government at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

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