Amos Yee awaits appearance before immigration judge
There will be no 'credible fear interview' for Amos Yee after all, and it's still up in the air whether the Singaporean teenage blogger will be paroled into the United States while applying for political asylum.
The 18-year-old first became a household name in Singapore when he was arrested in March 2015 for an expletive-laden video entitled 'Lee Kuan Yew is finally dead!', released shortly after the death of the elder statesman. In the midst of a week-long period of national mourning, Yee lambasted the late Lee, comparing him to Jesus and describing them both as "power hungry and malicious". He was held in remand for over 50 days before a judge found him guilty of wounding religious feelings and handed him a backdated sentence of four weeks' imprisonment.
In 2016, Yee was once again found guilty of wounding religious feelings for blog and social media posts on Islam and Christianity, and sentenced to six weeks' imprisonment. He was also given a S$2,000 fine (US$1,379) for failing to present himself to the police for questioning despite being issued a notice.
Like all Singaporeans, Yee travelled to the United States under their Visa Waiver Program after applying under the country's Electronic System for Travel Authorisation (ESTA). He was detained at the border after landing at the Chicago O'Hare International Airport on 16 December after the authorities discovered his intention to apply for asylum.
According to his lawyer, Sandra Grossman – who is representing him pro bono – Yee's visa waiver status means he's not eligible for a 'credible fear interview' to examine an asylum seeker's basis for claiming persecution or torture in his or her home country. Such interviews are for individuals who do not enter the United States with a visa waiver, and who are therefore eligible for expedited removal.
Yee's case will now be referred to an immigration judge for asylum proceedings. "According to current processing times, Amos should have an initial master calendar hearing within two weeks," wrote Grossman in an email. "This is essentially a scheduling hearing where the judge will hear the government's allegations against Amos, and Amos will file his asylum application and any initial supporting documentation with the Court."
Following this hearing, the judge will then schedule a merits hearing, where the entirety of Yee's claim will be heard.
In the meantime, it isn't clear if Yee will have to remain in detention. "There is no right to a bond hearing before the immigration judge under these circumstances," said Grossman. "Only [the Immigration and Customs Enforcement] can decide whether they will exercise their discretion to parole Amos into the US during the pendency of his proceedings."
Although she had initially not been able to speak to her client due to a slowdown over the Christmas holiday period, Grossman has since spoken with Yee, and says that he is in "high spirits". "He is, of course, eager to be released and to present his claim," she added.
Being paroled or detained has an impact on the speed at which an asylum seeker's case moves. Those in detention tend to have their cases heard more quickly – even though "more quickly" can still mean months of waiting. For those released on parole, it could be years before their cases are heard by a judge.
Back in Singapore, news of Yee's detention has generated a lot of talk, but not very much sympathy. His two convictions drew international attention to the city-state's free speech issues, drawing comment from the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye.
"The criminalisation of a broad range of legitimate, even if offensive forms of expression is not the right tool for any State to pursue legitimate aims such as tolerance and the rights of others," said Kaye in a statement describing Yee's 2016 conviction as "exactly the wrong kind of message that any government should be sending to anybody, but especially to young people."
But Yee's brash manner was not well-received by many in a country that has long restricted discussion on race and religion in favour of maintaining a semblance of "racial harmony". He himself acknowledged this in an interview published on The News Lens International earlier this month, where he admitted that his work “was bringing activism a few steps back.”
Many have speculated that Yee's decision to seek asylum in the United States is a bid to escape the mandatory conscription that every 18-year-old Singaporean male has to undergo. A spokesperson from the Ministry of Defence had earlier told Singaporean press that Yee would be scheduled for pre-enlistment procedures after his release from prison this year.
His mother, Mary, said that avoiding conscription had never been the main issue. "If he stays here, he'll be in and out of jail. So that's my main concern. But because he's now at the age for [National Service], so people are linking the two together," she said.
According to Grossman, if Yee's asylum claim succeeds, he is likely to be able to obtain residency in the United States within a year. If the judge denies asylum, he is entitled to appeal the decision, which could take months or even more than a year.