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    An applicant in a political-asylum interview at the New York Immigration office. in Well-Founded Fear
    An applicant in a political-asylum interview at the New York Immigration office.

    Return to sender

    The documentary "Well-Founded Fear" provides an amazing glimpse behind the scenes at the federal bureaucracy that decides which political refugees get to stay in America and which ones get sent back — perhaps to prison or death.


    A man arrested by Shanghai police gets out of his handcuffs, flees while the cops are sleeping and slips out of China. A woman's family is attacked by Islamic extremists in violence-plagued Algeria and she skips the country. A man flees Romania after being arrested for his involvement in the pro-democracy press. A man escapes from Albania after being abducted by secret police and beaten and interrogated in a van on the streets of Tirana.


    Related links: Official site | P.O.V.
    June 5, 2000 at 9 p.m.; June 11/12 at 1 a.m.

    These are just a few of the people not granted freedom in America.

    The documentary "Well-Founded Fear" listens to the stories of opression that brought political refugees to America — but even more interestingly, it looks at the people and the system that decide who gets to stay here and who gets sent back, perhaps to prison or death.

    The New York INS officers shown in "Well-Founded Fear" admittedly have a hard job. There's no question that people will lie to get out of, say, Albania or Nigeria. You might too. And these officials are convinced not only that most of the people they see are lying, but that they can tell the truly persecuted from the phonies. You have to watch carefully to pick up the nuances of how the officials think, but the behind-the-scenes discussions with the immigration officials proves fascinating.

    Well-Founded Fear  
    The more they explain how they do their job, the more you realize that they are operating mostly on hunches. Frequently lacking any solid proof of the refugees' stories, they probe for contradictions in the applicants' stories — although, one officer admits, "sometimes the cases that are real, that aren't fabricated, often have more inconsistencies." This same officer emphatically rejects the Romanian's request purely because of a single minor mixup in the man's story — which in fact appears to be the officer's own mistake.

      Well-Founded Fear
    Another officer disbelieves a Nigerian's story of being arrested because he was later released. "That's inconsistent with the government of Nigeria," he says. These INS officers seem to start out sympathetic early in their careers but to quickly grow jaded and suspicious. Some of them sit impatiently through their interviews and don't believe anyone. "Don't you think they privately laugh at us?" worries one. Another calls the process "asylum-officer roulette."

    Through international law, the United States has promised that anyone with a "well-founded fear of persecution" will get political asylum. But the Western countries have specialized in rejecting asylum applicants — we should remember, for example, how the U.S. refused even to take applications from Haitians fleeing state-sanctioned murder in the streets in the 1990s. This amazing look at the mechanisms behind the asylum process shows just how capricious our promise of freedom can be.

    MAY 31, 2000

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