The United States Immigration and Nationality Act states that foreign nationals physically inside the United States are entitled to receive political asylum if they can establish that they have suffered “past persecution,” or have a “well-founded fear of future persecution, on account of … race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.” This language mirrors the language found in the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.
There is something deeply Jewish about the political asylum experience, perhaps explaining why such a large number of Jewish lawyers feel an ethical duty to accept political asylum applicants as pro bono clients. It is the common story of people persecuted — killed, raped, jailed, or denied employment or education — because their way of life is different from others who have power; it is a familiar tale of people needing a friend to lend a hand to pull them to safety. The political asylum epic engenders an ethical obligation that people who have access to justice should do what they can to help the persecuted find sanctuary.
The genesis of this ethical obligation to help refugees is the word of God, who told us to welcome the strangers who live among us — “and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34) We learn that helping a sojourner, a foreigner, is a holy deed. In the first book of Torah, Abraham welcomed strangers into his tent and gave them refuge, a deed that pleased God. In Ezekiel 22, we hear God’s wrath because the Israelites in Jerusalem committed sins against God when they oppressed and mistreated “the alien,” denying him justice. God is looking for someone in the Israelite community to intercede, to stand in “the gap” that separates Israel from that space where human dignity is being denied. We have an ethical duty to offer respect and safety to the oppressed; as Jews, we seek to fill the gap.
My work with refugees and asylum seekers has been the most profound Jewish experience I’ve had — professionally or personally. I have represented political asylum applicants who fled torture in Africa, genocide in Cambodia, and terror in Colombia. Some of my asylum work has been for Jews, or persons perceived to be helping Jews: the 92 year-old Jewish bubbie from Lithuania who was raped as her tormentor called her “zhid”; a Moslem family from Albania who was targeted with hate and death threats because their father and grandfather had rescued Jews during World War II; the Jewish mother from Russia who begged her teenage son not to tell anyone he was soon to emigrate to Israel, only to find her son murdered with a swastika painted on his chest. All of these people fled their countries to seek safety, and by the grace of God they landed in the United States and found strangers here who felt an ethical duty to offer a helping hand.
For the thousands of lawyers who volunteer each year to work with political asylum seekers, there is no greater feeling than to be in front of an immigration judge, holding the hand of a shaking, desperate client, and hearing the words “I am going to grant this asylum application.” This is the moment when ethical obligation meets the thrill of victory, epitomizing the essence of why we became lawyers in the first place. It is truly the height of a professional career.
Sometimes I think that for thousands of years the Jewish people have longed for — and sometimes found — a really good political asylum lawyer. I wonder whether one of my colleagues or I could have won a political asylum claim for Hannah and her seven sons as they stood before Antiochus, the Greek monarch who commanded that the Jews bow down to an idol or be tortured and murdered. That family surely had a well-founded fear of persecution on account of their religion. I hope we would have felt an ethical obligation to try. I know I would have loved the opportunity.email print