Access to Justice for Asylum Seekers: Developing an Effective Model of Holistic Asylum Representation

Abducted, beaten, and tortured by government forces that accused him of supporting an opposition group, Matthew fled to the United States with the help of his church pastor.1 The pastor lent Matthew money and helped him obtain a passport and a visa. The pastor also put Matthew in touch with an acquaintance in Boston, who gave him a place to stay for a short time and encouraged him to apply for asylum. The acquaintance sat down with Matthew and helped him fill out the asylum application form. He told Matthew to be as specific and detailed as possible since that was the advice from other asylum applicants. He instructed Matthew to write down the exact dates and times he was abducted, the number of guards who tortured him, what they were wearing, and the exact length of each prison detention. Highly traumatized and still reeling from the effects of brutal blows to his head, Matthew could not remember the details asked of him. The acquaintance insisted, however, that Matthew write specifics down, regardless of how certain he was of the exact times, dates, and other information. When Matthew went to his Asylum Office interview, the officer questioned him about his abduction, detention, and torture.2 Matthew tried to explain what had happened, but he became distraught as the officer forced him to relive his horrific experiences in detention. Since his arrival in the United States, Matthew had tried to block out the memories of his past in an effort to move forward with his life. As Matthew attempted to answer the officer’s questions, the circumstances of each abduction, detention, and torture session blurred together. Terrified he would be forced to return to a country where he would likely be killed, Matthew’s fears overwhelmed him. He could not recall the details the asylum officer asked him about, such as the circumstances leading up to each detention and the length of time detained. Citing material inconsistencies between Matthew’s asylum application and his testimony at the interview, the asylum officer rejected Matthew’s claim.