Amos Yee could face longer detention period for asylum bid
Singaporean teenage blogger Amos Yee, who was detained by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at the Chicago O'Hare International Airport earlier this month, is likely to have to sit tight in the McHenry County Adult Correctional Facility for a little longer, as American bureaucracy slows down for the holiday period.
"I think what’s happening now is that because of the holidays, it’s probably not a priority for [the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE] to interview him," said immigration litigator Sandra Grossman, who is representing Yee pro bono. "So unfortunately the timing of this is difficult."
Grossman suspects that this holiday slowdown is also the reason she hasn't been able to speak to her client so far: "I've called the detention centre, I called ICE in Chicago, I’ve called CBP at O’Hare Airport, I’ve left multiple message, sent faxes and got no response."
Yee is currently waiting for a 'credible fear interview' – an initial screening during which the authorities decide whether there are grounds for his fears of persecution. Passing such an interview will only be the first stage of Yee's asylum bid.
"The process can take years because we have a tremendous backlog in the immigration courts in this country," Grossman said.
According to the American Immigration Council, 33,988 individuals were found to have credible fear in 2015 alone. "In 2016, the U.S. immigration court and asylum systems were backlogged with more than 620,000 pending removal and asylum cases, resulting in combined wait times of up to six years for asylum-seekers," they added on their website.
Passing that first interview might not even end Yee's time in detention; under U.S. immigration law, immigrants who have previously been convicted of certain crimes could be put on "mandatory hold", which means they will not be eligible to be released on bond. These crimes usually fall under the categories of aggravated felonies or "crimes involving moral turpitude", which refers to offences considered to involve immoral behaviour. Immigrants who have been convicted of more than one "crime involving moral turpitude" might be placed on mandatory hold.
Speaking over the phone from Maryland, Grossman said that it was possible for ICE to decide not to release Yee from detention. He had first been convicted of wounding religious feelings in 2015, then convicted of the same offence again in 2016 after the court found that he had insulted Islam and Christianity in various blog and Facebook posts.
If found ineligible for release, Yee's asylum case would likely move along much more quickly, but he'd remain behind bars throughout the process. While it's possible for habeas corpus proceedings to be initiated after about six months of detention, Grossman noted that many immigration detainees have been held for longer.
"The asylum laws establish that any country has the right to impose its laws on its own citizens and a legitimate prosecution is not persecution for purposes of establishing an asylum claim," she said. "So it would be incumbent upon Amos to prove the convictions are illegitimate and are in fact politically motivated."
In the event of Yee being placed on mandatory hold, Grossman indicated that she would be prepared to argue that the convictions were illegitimate, and to point out that he had still been a minor at the time of both convictions.
"I think there is going to be pressure on ICE to release him, because this case has so much attention. It involves issues like freedom of thought, freedom of expression," she said.
Although she does not know what led to Yee being flagged for secondary inspection at the airport, Grossman says that the detention of asylum seekers is not unusual.
"I would say most asylum seekers who show up at a U.S. border are initially detained for some time. They're considered to be presenting themselves in the U.S. without valid documentation and without a right to be here," she said.
Immigration and asylum applications have become a major issue in U.S. politics, particularly during the recent presidential elections and Donald Trump's subsequent victory. Trump had campaigned strongly on an anti-immigration platform, from his pledge to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border to threats to create a "deportation force". It might seem to many as if Yee could not have picked a worse time to become an asylum seeker in the U.S.
But Grossman doesn't think the impending change in administration will affect Yee's application. "We have established asylum laws and procedures that are based on our acceptance of international norms of human rights, and unless the new administration were to come in and change these laws through acts of Congress we have to follow them, and the immigration officials have to follow them," she said. "And [Amos] has a kind of emblematic case to violation of freedom of thought. I think he has a very strong case and it would be very difficult for anyone from the administration to negatively impact that."