The Golden Ticket

Will Our Refugee Program Survive 9-11 and the Breakup of the INS?

When it comes to qualifying for the U.S. resettlement program, it's not enough to show that one has fled famine, drought, war, or general violence. Applicants must demonstrate that the persecution they've suffered is individual, that is, specifically directed at them, as the law has it, "on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion."

So Erin Corcoran would listen carefully to the horror stories people recounted to her in Zambia and translate them into legalistic narratives that would pass muster with the INS. "More often than not, I could write the stories in a way that emphasized the individual persecution claims," she explains. Indeed, the UNHCR recruited her precisely because, as an attorney typically battling the INS stateside on behalf of would-be immigrants in deportation proceedings, she knew just what agency officials were looking for.

Day after day, Corcoran drew out the stories and filled out the forms. "You choose the relevant facts that work and put the right things in the right boxes," she says. "That's what lawyers do: manipulate the facts around the legally constructed definitions." It was a complicated role, she says. "I went very idealistic and ended up pretty cynical. There was no cognizable reason that some people got to see me and others didn't. It seemed arbitrary and I hated playing God. I looked at camps full of 30,000 people and knew that I wasn't even making a dent."

On reflection, though, Corcoran has concluded that her time in Zambia was well spent. "It's true that not everyone gets a fair shake, and I can't fix that," she says. "But it is better to save one than none." She is planning to do another stint this summer—in Senegal, Ghana, or Cyprus.

This is the fourth of an ongoing series investigating the INS.

Related Story:
"Haiti's Unauthorized Refugees Held in Miami" by Alisa Solomon


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