Living with AIDS, Fearing Deportation

Ethiopian woman falls afoul of stringent immigration law

A federal court of appeals has ruled that a Minnesota woman, who is an Ethiopian refugee living with AIDS, does not qualify for political asylum.

The ruling, issued August 2, upheld the decision issued by an immigration board that refused the asylum request.

According to the court’s summary of the facts, Kefay Gebremaria applied for asylum shortly after her legal arrival in the U.S. in 1995. An immigration judge denied her application after a series of hearings in 1996 and 1997. In her initial request for asylum, she cited political issues, claiming that she and her husband were dissidents in Ethiopia and had both served prison time for their beliefs. Gebremaria said that her husband subsequently disappeared and, she believed, been executed by the Ethiopian government.

During the immigration procedures, Gebremaria tested HIV-positive, but did not initially disclose her diagnosis to officials.

Immigration authorities denied Gebremaria’s asylum claim and she appealed. Her attorney attempted to apply for asylum on the basis of her HIV status, as provided by law, especially in cases where applicants are from nations were HIV-positive people face persecution or where there are poor treatment options. Immigration officials ruled that the HIV information could not be considered since it had not been raised during the hearing process.

Meanwhile, Gebremaria’s family discovered that her husband had escaped from prison and was in hiding from the authorities, a fact that her attorney also tried to raise during her appeal.

The Board of Immigration Appeals rejected these attempts to supplement the record, and was upheld on appeal by federal court.

Immigration law underwent substantial change in the 1990s, making it much more difficult for applicants to receive political asylum. The new statute allows courts to refuse to let asylum applicants raise new issues during the appeals process, which is intended only to provide oversight on the issues an immigration judge initially considered.

Consequently, it is irrelevant, in the eyes of the Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit and immigration officials, that Gebremaria has limited treatment options in Ethiopia, or that she might be the subject of political recrimination. The court took the position that the allegation that her husband is in hiding due to his political views and status as a prison escapee does not necessarily prove that Ms. Gebremaria would be persecuted if she returned to Ethiopia. The court also found that the fact that all the medical clinics providing AIDS treatment are run by the government does not necessarily mean that she would be denied treatment as a political dissident.

In the wake of the restrictions imposed in the 1990s, coupled with the legislation passed in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, immigration law has become a sea of technicalities and legal fictions. This has proved particularly burdensome for lesbian, gay or transgendered asylum applicants, especially those who are HIV-positive. Many such immigrants arrive in the U.S. unaware of the degree to which their health or sexual status may provide a better basis to seek asylum than their political status. All too frequently, fearing to be candid with officials at the outset, asylum seekers fail to meet the tight deadlines of contemporary U.S. asylum law.

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