Insane asylum 

Thanks to some of the strictest judges in the nation, Atlanta is the toughest city in America for undocumented aliens to win asylum

Editor's Note, 01.30.2006: Khaled, Anya, and Mona Darzi are false names used to protect the identity of the real family interviewed for this story. For more information, please see the explanation at the bottom of this story.

In immigration court in Atlanta, where every year thousands of undocumented aliens learn whether they will be deported, there is no bailiff to announce the arrival of a judge. And so for the last 15 minutes on this Wednesday in January, all eyes have been focused on the door that leads to the judge's chambers. The only sound in this windowless room with the drop ceiling and dingy blue walls is the ventilation whirring quietly above.

On today's docket is just one case -- the matter of 41-year-old Khaled Darzi and his family, who have lived in the United States for almost seven years. In 1997, they fled their native Iran, where Khaled had become a marked man. The Darzis are Kurds, and for years, as Khaled tells it, he had helped Kurdish rebels in their struggles against Iran's Islamic authorities. He had seen friends killed and his family pharmacy confiscated. He had been blackmailed, shot at and imprisoned.

Since coming to the United States, Khaled's family has grown. When they arrived, he and his wife, Anya, had two children; they now have four. Today, Khaled works as an electrician and Anya sells perfume at a department store. They make monthly mortgage and car payments, but they can't afford health insurance. Their oldest daughter just started college. They live on a quiet street outside of Marietta with leafy trees and shiny Hondas in the driveways. They are, in essence, Americans in everything but name.

For seven years, the Darzis and the U.S. government have been engaged in an odd dance, with the Darzis trying to convince the government that they should be allowed to forever enjoy the protections and privileges of life here, and the government putting up steady resistance. Over time, that resistance has stiffened. In March 1999, an immigration judge denied their asylum claim, ruling they had failed to establish a "well-founded fear of persecution" if they returned to Iran. An appeal followed. Last February, after an attorney failed to notify them that their appeal had been denied, immigration officers swooped down on the Darzi house.

It was a weekday morning. Mona, who at 18 is the oldest child and last February was just a few months from graduating high school, heard a commotion outside. Car doors slammed shut. A half-dozen men and women stomped up the wooden steps to the front door. They were immigration officers, come to deport the Darzis back to Iran.

In the Darzis' living room, the agents told the family to pack their bags. But there was a complication. What was to be done with the Darzis' youngest children, Connie and Tina, who, because they were born in the United States, were Americans? What's more, Anya, who was breast-feeding her youngest child, refused to leave without her children.

The officers made a phone call. They would leave Anya and her children. But they would take Khaled to Etowah Detention Center, in Gadsden, Ala. At home, Anya gathered the relatives who lived in the Atlanta area. They called attorney after attorney. Finally they reached Glenn Fogle, an immigration lawyer to whom stories such as this are nothing new. Fogle got Khaled released from jail, where he ended up spending 100 days, and filed a motion to re-open the family's asylum case based on new grounds -- Anya and her oldest daughter's conversion from Islam to Christianity within the last year. In Iran, the punishment for apostasy is death.

Today in court are not just the Darzis, but members of Eastside Baptist Church, where Anya worships. They are here to testify, if called upon, that Anya's conversion was genuine, and not a last-ditch ploy to secure asylum.

The Darzis' fate will be determined by William Cassidy, one of the toughest immigration judges in the country. To win an asylum case before Cassidy is something of a minor miracle. In a stretch of almost four years leading up to last October, Cassidy considered 593 asylum requests and granted only 34. Many of those applications were from people fleeing some of the most repressive and violent regimes in the world. For example, Cassidy received 29 asylum applications from Liberia; he granted none. He received 16 from Congo; he granted none. He received 56 from Colombia; he granted none. He received 112 from China; he granted one.

The nation's 220 immigration judges deny roughly two asylum cases for every one they grant; Cassidy, on the other hand, rejects more than 10 asylum applications for every approval. His two colleagues in Atlanta, Paul Johnston and Mackenzie Rast, are barely any kinder. Their approval rates are a few tenths of a percentage point higher than Cassidy's.



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