Amos Yee detained while seeking political asylum in the U.S.
Amos Yee spent his 18th birthday behind bars in Singapore this October, serving time after being convicted of wounding religious feelings. It was his second time doing so; the first time he was convicted of wounding religious feelings, he’d spent over 50 days in remand before he was given a backdated sentence.
As Christmas nears, Yee is back in detention again, this time in the United States.
Yee was detained on 16 December after landing at the Chicago O’Hare International Airport and being selected for secondary questioning. Authorities from Customs and Border Protection seized his electronic devices and checked his mobile phone, where they found text messages between him and Melissa Chen, a US-based Singaporean activist, discussing his plans to apply for political asylum. According to Chen, Yee confirmed this when questioned.
Yee is currently being held in custody at the McHenry County Adult Correctional Facility near Chicago. Chen says he will not be released until a “credible fear interview” – where U.S. authorities determine if his fear of persecution in Singapore is reasonable – can be scheduled.
“His attorneys are in the process of expediting USCIS to grant him the ‘credible fear interview’,” said Chen. “Once this interview has been conducted, the lawyers intend to ask for immediate parole which would allow him to be released from detention centre.”
After this, Yee will then have to appear before an immigration judge to make his case. He is currently being represented by Sandra A. Grossman, an experienced immigration litigator and managing partner of Grossman Law, LLC.
The asylum process is not a short one, and it’s not clear how long Yee might have to stay in detention. “Given the uncertainty, Amos might very well be in US jail longer than he was in Singapore jail for his sentences,” Chen said.
Back home in Singapore, Yee’s mother, who prefers to be known only as Mary, can only wait and hope. “Of course I wish he can be waiting outside jail,” she said. “He didn’t expect to be locked up while waiting… but knowing that he is safe is good enough for me. It takes time for the process.”
Her son had first mentioned the possibility of applying for political asylum in the U.S. last year, after his first arrest and conviction, but hadn’t had a specific plan at the time. Chen said that Yee had filled out asylum papers in November this year, but could not begin proceedings until he was physically on U.S. soil.
Speaking to Mary on Friday night, she told me of her concerns that her son’s desire to continue expressing himself would land him repeatedly in trouble.
“That is my fear, that he will be in and out of jail forever,” she said. “I felt like many more bad things will happen if he continues to stay [in Singapore].”
In a recent interview with The News Lens International, Yee spoke candidly about changing his mind on issues like feminism, and said he had “transitioned from an entertainer to a full-fledged activist.” He also indicated an intention to change his approach, but had reaffirmed his intention to keep speaking up on political issues in the city-state.
Mary has not been able to speak to her son herself since he left Singapore last week. She’s also well aware of the talk that news of her son’s detention will trigger.
“I think many people will disagree with me,” she said of her decision to support her son in his application for asylum. “But I think, if they had a son like Amos, in this situation… they would probably do the same that I’ve done.”
Chen, who left Singapore in 2004 and now works for Movements – an organisation which crowdsources support for activists in closed societies – said she chose to help Yee due to her own strong feelings on the issue of free speech, and also out of concern for the teenager.
“It is clear to me, and to his mum, that if Amos were to live in Singapore, he would be in and out of prison for the rest of his life. He's also been assaulted by members of the public, and by fellow inmates when he was in prison, so the ‘persecution’ is not just from the government – it's from society at large too,” she wrote in an email.
“If Amos cannot successfully seek asylum in the one country, for which the very First Amendment in its Bill of Rights is the freedom of speech, where else can he go?” she added. “This is a watershed case for America, too. All this talk about free speech and accepting the ‘right’ immigrants under a Trump presidency - will they stand up to the test?”
Human rights organisations have been made aware of Yee’s detention. Along with Movements, Yee is also aided by the Human Rights Foundation, while activists say that Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations have been alerted to his case.
“U.S. authorities should recognise that Singapore has engaged in a sustained pattern of harassment and abuse of Amos because of his political views, especially his regular denunciations of the country’s leader and violations of the ruling [People’s Action Party’s] restrictions on public expression,” Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch, told the South China Morning Post.
As an 18-year-old, Yee is also due to serve his National Service – a mandatory two-year conscription into the military for all Singaporean males.
“All male Singaporeans are required to serve National Service upon reaching 18 years old. Amos will be scheduled for pre-enlistment procedures and medical screening after his release from jail,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence told Channel News Asia.
In the meantime, Chen says that the U.S. “has acted totally according to procedure here.” She has since put out a call on Facebook asking supporters to send Yee books to help him pass the time in jail. She last spoke to him on 22 December.
“He told me that US jail is heaven compared to what he went through in Singapore, and if that gives him asylum and freedom, then it is totally worth it,” she said.