A tale of two asylum seekers
I am the lawyer for a gay man from Nigeria seeking asylum in America -- let’s call him Paul. When Paul requested asylum at JFK airport last June, he was arrested and placed in a private jail in New Jersey to await a decision in his case. Most asylum seekers don’t have lawyers. An organization called the The Immigrant Justice Campaign recruits lawyers to help them, and I was assigned to Paul’s case.
In jail, Paul is denied internet access. He can’t even send an email. I try to visit him once a month or so to keep his spirits up, but it’s an uphill battle.
Paul is 27. He was raised by his parents in a small village in Nigeria. He is an only child. When Paul was 10 he was diagnosed with sickle-cell disease. The disease causes excruciating joint pain and discolors the skin.
Paul had difficulties making friends growing up because other students thought that his condition was contagious and avoided him. From an early age he realized he was gay. His sexuality caused anguish to his parents, particularly to his mother with whom he is very close. In high school was caught having sex with a fellow student. After school Paul went home and was questioned by his parents. His mother showed him a letter from the school and asked if it was true. He couldn’t answer, enraging his father. His parents then brought Paul to a mountain approximately 30 minutes from his home. On the mountain Paul met with pastors and prayer warriors. They made Paul fast for seven days, beat him with a broom, and forced him to drink a jar of oil. He was also forced to hold lit candles and told he could not put them down.
In college Paul met a man named Bob and the two formed a relationship. In 2014 Bob was murdered. When Paul tried to investigate the murder, a mob chased and attacked Paul, accusing him of being gay just like his murdered partner. Paul’s father died the same year and Paul was pressured to get married. He refused. His uncle and a couple of thugs kidnaped him and beat him. Paul escaped and went into hiding at a friend’s house. He hid there until June 2017 when he traveled to the United States.
Nigeria has an anti-gay law that punishes gay relationships with prison terms of 14 years. Paul came to the U.S. because he is gay and fears being killed if he returns.
In December 2017 Paul’s asylum hearing was held in the New Jersey jail. He testified for about three hours. We also presented a letter from his mother in which she voiced disappointment that her son is gay but also her continued love. The immigration judge found Paul’s testimony believable, but denied the asylum petition because Paul failed to present adequate corroborating evidence that he is gay. We are appealing the ruling.
Meanwhile, a few miles east of Paul’s jail, a Chinese tycoon is also seeking asylum. Guo Wengui, 51, left China in 2013 and is wanted by Beijing for various crimes. He says he is a political opponent of the regime and has hired a Washington D.C. firm to handle his asylum application. Because Guo was already in the U.S. when he decided to seek asylum, he was not arrested and put in jail as Paul was. While his application is under review Guo can remain free. He lives in a $67 million, 9,000 sq ft flat overlooking Central Park. His 6000 Twitter posts have attracted 497,000 followers. He has hired a second and third law firm to sue people in New Jersey and Florida who have questioned the truthfulness of Guo’s claim that he is a political dissident.
In our most recent phone conversation I asked Paul if he needed anything and he asked me to send him some books -- romance novels. I can’t deliver the books to him -- the jail will only accept books that are mailed from Amazon so I hope to send them off tomorrow. I expect to argue the appeal in Virginia sometime in June.
Photo of Guo Wengui by Wall Street Journal