Well Founded Fear
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Originally shown as part of the "POV" series on PBS, Well-Founded Fear examines the United States' system for granting political asylum and the refugees caught within it. Following several pending cases at the U.S. Immigration Office, Camarinie and Robertson give a behind-the-scenes view of how immigration lawyers determine who will receive political asylum. What the documentary reveals is a system fraught with contradictions and impossibilities. Faced with the unenviable task of separating truth from fiction in their applicant's stories, the officials fall back on guesswork and suspicion. On the other side, viewers see the debilitating fear of the applicants, afraid that a simple slip of the tongue will condemn them to deportation. Slowly the immigrants realize that their asylum is based less on proving a "well-founded fear of persecution" and more on blind luck. One asylum seeker justly calls it "asylum-officer roulette." There are no easy answers here but there is an unflinching look at democratic principles at work, for better or worse.
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A significant portion of this program focuses on duties of asylum officers and for good reason. They are saddled with the tremendous responsibility of deciding what might be the fate of many people's lives. Interviews with them reveal many challenges they face such as determining honesty and credibility in applicants stories, dissecting the elements that may or may not meet the criteria for refugee status, balancing compassion with unflinching directness, and trusting the translators to deliver accurate and truthful accounts from those seeking asylum. It is not uncommon for officers to hear fabricated and rehearsed stories, inconsistencies in facts, and outright deception in testimonies by those trying to stay in America.
Several cases were examined in this program with individuals originally coming from China, Albania, Russia, El Salvador, Algeria, Romania, and Nigeria. Final analysis showed that while some of these cases were deemed genuine, others ended up as undecided or were proven false. As far as the truthful accounts went, hearing about the abuses and persecutions they endured in their home countries is both heartbreaking and distressing and clearly illustrates why they would want to stay in the United States permanently.
Closing out this documentary are some intriguing and controversial revelations that will undoubtedly cause a stir among many people. Since the filming of this program in 2000, Congress has passed legislation to reduce the number of people who can apply for asylum, to jail people who arrive at our borders requesting asylum, and to limit the right to appeal some decisions. What prompted these new measures from Congress and when they actually took hold is not mentioned in the program but one could surmise that the 9-11 terrorist attacks in New York may have been a catalyst for these actions.
I found this PBS production of `Well-Founded Fear' to be thought provoking and important on many levels. In a current climate of sensitive immigration issues in America, the subject matter here is probably just as relevant now as it was seven years ago when this program was made.
But the film does far more than tug at our heartstrings. For a nation of immigrants (some of my own ancestors showed up nearly 400 years ago, others only 75 years ago -- it's all a matter of definition), it performs the valuable service by taking us behind the scenes of one of our most crucial institutions. Both those officials and the applicants waive confidentiality in the public interest; the result is a film that follows a wide array of cases of in which INS officers must decide whether Chinese, Algerian, Romanian, El Savadoran, Nigerian, Albanain (etc etc etc) applicants experience such a "well-founded fear" of persecution in their home countries that they qualify for admission to the United States as refugees and ultimately claim citizenship. It's a process that is core to the U.S. sense of identity -- we like to view our country as a land of freedom and a beacon to all who seek freedom. And yet, this film serves as a sharp reminder that in practice, freedom can be elusive and depend greatly on sheer luck. Historically, the degree to which we roll out the welcome mat has varied widely, from the liberal immigration policies that met Western Europeans in the 19th century to the hostility toward Chinese immigration and the outright anti-Semitism of the 1930s and 40s; when would-be Jewish immigrants -- surely refugees by any standard -- were denied entry to the country because they couldn't obtain good-conduct papers from the Nazi police authorities, for instance.
The INS process that the film depicts is where the rubber meets the road; this ideal of a nation of immigrants that serves as a haven for persecuted individuals seeking freedom crashes headlong into the reality of jaded INS officials, fraudulent claims by those trying to improve their economic lot in life, and grinding bureaucracy. To me, perhaps the most chilling moment was the way these life-and-death decisions about asylum are delivered, not by the officers who have heard the refugee lay out their case and not with a reason for the denial, but in a perfunctory way by the clerks at a public window in a large waiting room, with no reason provided.
There are no heroes or villains, and no easy answers, as the documentary portrays. The film-makers wisely stay behind the camera for the vast majority of the time, leaving the asylum seekers and the INS officials to speak for themselves. I tend to be more skeptical than emotional, but the documentary was so finely-balanced and carefully crafted that I ended it feeling immense empathy for the asylum seekers and admiration for even the most cynical INS officials; even the latter never lost sight of what their decisions mean.
The only area in which the film could have been bettered was if filmmakers could somehow have informed the viewer of what happens to those ultimately denied asylum. Are officers ever aware of the ultimate fates of those who are returned to their country of origin? Do they become aware of mistakes they have made? We learn of one or two mistakes of the other kind -- someone granting asylum only to revoke it later after the person is discovered to be faking or to have made multiple applicants using different identities -- but not about the potentially more serious kinds of mistakes, the ones that the officers are conscious of even as they deliberate.
One cautionary note: the film was originally released around 2000, and filmed earlier than that, so the context in which refugee decisions are made today is likely to be different. In the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security -- and the general tougher attitude toward both legal and illegal immigration of non-refugees -- the availability of asylum has been greatly restricted. It would be very interesting if the filmmakers were able to follow up this achievement -- although presumably, access to the process is now significantly more difficult to obtain.