At the end of the hearing, Vivian’s almond-colored cheeks became flushed. She quietly sniffled. She used her palm to wipe a tear and then briefly held her attorney’s hand.
The outcome of her case was good: The judge announced that he would grant her asylum. She would never have to go back to the west African country of Cameroon . She would never have to go back home.
But Vivian looked more washed out than happy. The hearing had lasted more than three hours. Vivian came alone and was the only witness, sitting by herself at the end of a table. Her lawyer, Alexandra D. Baranyk, had prepared a list of open-ended questions that would allow Vivian to tell her story, but Judge O. John Brahos kept interrupting, asking about seemingly unrelated subjects and chiding Baranyk for not having particular affidavits.
The hearing was representative of what goes on daily at Chicago immigration court, where the judges wield a lot of power in controlling what goes on, and the way they carry out hearings can often depend on their personality and point of view.
The hearing also showed how acutely these judges are aware of the fact that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit could scrutinize their opinions.
It has been well-documented that some judges are more likely to grant asylum than others. In 2000, the San Jose Mercury News analyzed the opinions of the country’s 219 immigration judges from 1995 through 1999 and found that some judges granted asylum in more than half the cases they heard. At the other end, there were some judges who granted in less than 5 percent of the cases, with at least one granting less than 2 percent.
The grant rates of Chicago immigration judges range from 21.2 percent to 42 percent, according to the Political Asylum Research and Documentation Service, a Princeton , N.J.-based agency that provides immigration attorneys with forensic evidence. According to the agency, which obtained raw data from the Mercury News, Brahos grants asylum about 24 percent of the time.
Immigration attorneys say that, for the most part, Chicago immigration judges are as fair as other judges elsewhere. Still, they say judges unevenly apply the standard for getting asylum.
Lawyers are uneasy about publicly complaining for fear that judges will seek revenge on their clients, but one lawyer privately noted, “some are good, some are kooky.” Another said, “they can have their bad days.”
But the federal appellate courts have recently begun to scrutinize the immigration judges’ decisions. This is what is happening at the 7th Circuit, which has a jurisdiction over three Midwestern states, including Illinois .
Baranyk and other immigration attorneys say that these 7th Circuit opinions have had influence. The judges often mention the 7th Circuit appeals during hearings and court calls, and they are a little more careful in their rulings, attorneys say.
In Vivian’s hearing, Brahos shrugged off a line of questioning from the government attorney about the authenticity of Vivian’s birth certificate. “The 7th Circuit,” he said, sounding irritated, “says we don’t need any corroborating evidence. So it really doesn’t matter.”
At another juncture, the government attorney implied that Vivian might have been permanently resettled in Nigeria , where she studied nursing. If asylum seekers have established roots in a safe country, they can’t then come to the United States and ask to stay here. But Brahos interrupted, noting that, in view of a recent 7th Circuit case, he didn’t think that the government could prove that Vivian was resettled.
The 7th Circuit played another role. Vivian’s father was a supreme court judge in Cameroon , and Vivian had a photograph of him visiting the 7th Circuit, as well as a letter from another judge saying how much he enjoyed his visit. Brahos looked impressed.
Vivian’s case also illustrates how dramatic and trying these hearings can get.
At about 2 p.m. on Feb. 15, Brahos began Vivian’s hearing by cueing his tape recorder. In immigration courts, an old-fashioned tape recorder plays the role of a court reporter. During the hearing, it beeped every 30 minutes or so, alerting Brahos that he had to turn over or change the tape.
With no witness stand, Brahos told Vivian, a petite 34-year-old woman with small charcoal-colored eyes and a high forehead, to move to the end of the table so that the government attorney could see her face as she testified.
Negotiating the frequent interruptions by Brahos, Vivian haphazardly made her case. She said she had a normal childhood, going to school and attending a Roman Catholic church once or twice a month. She lived in the southern town of Mamfe , which in the 1970s had a population of less than 10,000. As a judge, her father could not be part of any political party.
But, as she came of age, unrest was brewing. Vivian’s father retired from the bench in 1989, and soon became a founding member of a political party called the Social Democratic Front. Vivian and her younger brother John joined their father in the Social Democratic Front. “The Social Democratic Front is a political party, and in Cameroon the ruling party doesn’t want any other parties,” Vivian testified.
At a 1990 rally for the front, the government cracked down. “It was a peaceful rally. We were walking with placards saying, –˜Please join the SDF,’ and we were singing a song that in English means: –˜All the suffering is gone. All the suffering is finished.'”
Vivian said she and the other marchers wanted to go through the market, but the police and security forces, called Gendarmerie, beat them with sticks and fired guns into the crowd. One bullet hit Vivian’s brother, killing him.
The group dispersed, running everywhere, but Vivian didn’t move. In that moment of distress, the police arrested her. She said she was put in a small, dark jail cell in Mamfe. There, her feet were bound together with cable, and she was beaten three times a day. “The guards would call it morning tea, afternoon tea and evening tea,” she said.
Then Brahos abruptly changed the subject and asked Vivian how she got into the United States . She said a smuggler flew her into Atlanta and then took her to a Cameroonian friend who lives in Mission , Texas .
“Do you have any proof that you came here on Feb. 27, 2000 ?” Brahos said, pointing out that Mission is close to the U.S.-Mexico border, and that she could be lying about coming through Atlanta .
Because the law requires asylum seekers to apply within a year of entering the country, establishing when she came to the country was important. “All we know is what you claim?” Brahos said. “Do you have any documents?”
Vivian looked lost. The man she came with didn’t even let her touch the passport he used to usher her through security, she said. When the man went back to Cameroon , he took the passport.
Eventually, Baranyk pointed out that a medical report proved that Vivian was in Cameroon in 2000, and that she had applied for asylum in 2001, meeting the year requirement. Brahos seemed to accept this, but not without asking her how she got the report.
Once this was settled, Vivian went back to her story. She said she was arrested once more after protesting the government’s failure to provide clean water. Then, she went to school in Nigeria , earning her nursing certificate.
By 1999, she was back in Cameroon . On Dec. 29, she went to an old movie theater in the small city of Buea for a meeting of the Southern Cameroon National Council, which was planning to secede from the country.
“Don’t you think that the government has the right to prevent people from revolting?” Brahos asked.
“Sir,” Vivian said. “We are demoralized. Our roads are not good. We don’t get enough education to get the jobs that we need. We can’t get jobs because all the jobs go to the French-speaking people.”
Vivian said the meeting was supposed to be held in secret, but, as the leaders were trying to get it started, the police overran the place. Everyone inside fled. But Vivian, eight months pregnant with twins at the time, could not move very fast. “About three police caught me and they beat me,” she said. “They were pulling me on the floor. I was crying and shouting. I tried to hold onto a piece of glass and I injured myself.”
“How do I know it is not an injury from working on the farm?” Brahos asked. “How do I know it is not a childhood injury?”
Baranyk answered that she has a medical report showing that the wound is consistent with the injury described by Vivian.
“They threw me into a tanker with about 25 other people,” Vivian continued. “When we arrived at the prison, they put me into a cell room. They beat us and kicked us and said, –˜Don’t you know you are the inferior group?'”
“On Jan. 2, in the night, four Gendarmerie came into the room –¦ they told me to undress. I refused, but they were beating me so much that I had to do it. They raped me. I started bleeding. In the morning, I was laying on the floor in blood.”
Vivian said a female prison guard, who knew Vivian’s father, took pity on her. She took her to a hospital called the Goodwill Foundation Clinic.
Just at this moment, Brahos’ cell phone rang. He took the call. Vivian sat quietly, as did the lawyers. When Brahos came back, he said the call was from his cardiologist.
Looking down on Vivian from the bench, Brahos told her to continue. She said that, at the hospital, it was discovered that her unborn babies had died, and she had an operation to remove them. She said she was still bleeding and in pain and hungry because the hospital didn’t give her enough to eat.
After nine days, the prison guard who took her to the hospital helped her to escape. Vivian took a cab to a friend’s house and, on Feb. 26, she got on a plane to Atlanta .
Since coming to the United States , Vivian has become a licensed nurse. She says she is trying to get on with her life, and is seeing a therapist to help her deal with the nightmares about her past that still haunt her.
Cassandra Gaddo helped research this article.