Marathoner Calls for Asylum

Running Away:

Ethiopian Marathoner Makes Defiant Gesture for Asylum at Race’s Finish

If you were watching the Men’s Marathon yesterday at the Olympics, you may have been caught off guard by the actions of the Silver Medalist, Feyisa Lilesa, as he approached the finish line. Comfortably ahead of American and Bronze Medalist, Galen Rupp, and behind Gold Medalist, Eliud Kipchoge, he held his hands up in a seemingly X pattern above his head. In running, making an X signal above your head is a sign of distress and that you cannot articulate it, but you need assistance immediately.

Mr. Lilesa did not need medical assistance. Instead, his X was symbolic, and he was signaling that his life and the lives of his family members and tribe (Oromo) in Ethiopia are in danger. Post race comments that he gave clarified why he made the distress signal. They also elucidated the levels of danger that his family members and tribe suffer in Ethiopia as the ruling government has cracked down severely in certain areas of the country. The state broadcaster in Ethiopia did not air a replay of the finish because the X signal has been a symbol of solidarity among the Oromo tribe.

The comments that made indicate that he will be seeking asylum. Asylum is an internationally recognized basis for migration and countries in the Western Hemisphere often end up providing safehaven for those escaping persecution in other areas of the world. Countries have different laws for obtaining asylum. The United States’ standard for asylum is developed upon establishing past persecution or a well-founded fear of future persecution. It also requires that persecution to emanate from one of five protected grounds: race, religion, particular social group, political opinion, or nationality. These categories are developed through case law in immigration courts and through the federal courts. The government in the home country is either the persecutor or it is unable or unwilling to stop the persecution from occurring. Asylum can be a difficult proposition because the asylum seeker cannot just claim that his or her country is in chaos, civil war, rebellion, or unrest. The seeker needs to demonstrate past persecution has happened or that there is a well-founded fear he or she will be targeted for harm in the future.

Seeking Asylum in the U.S.

To seek asylum, a seeker must be in the United States. It can be a slog of a process, especially since adjudication times for affirmative asylum have skyrocketed into 2.5-3 years. For those unable to obtain asylum, there may still be an option through withholding of removal. Asylum cases require a lot of preparation and documentation to establish the veracity of the seeker’s claims. Filing for asylum affirmatively (with USCIS and not with the immigration court) requires an interview with an Asylum Officer at a designated Asylum Office.

Refugee into Olympian – MEB

Meb Keflghizi is perhaps the greatest American distance runner. He is preparing to compete in the Men’s Marathon on Sunday August 21, one of the final events of the 31st Olympiad. The marathon is a grueling event, requiring 26.2 miles of endurance, speed, tactics, and mental fortitude. The winning time is expected to be around the 2:10 mark, which means an average mile of below 5 minutes. But Meb, as he is known, is remarkable for another reason. He is a naturalized US citizen, competing under the US flag, as a native born Eritrean. His reason for immigrating to the United States – we accepted him and his family as refugees. From child refugee, Meb has become one of the most decorated runners in American history, and will be looking to add an Olympic Gold Medal in the marathon to his formidable litany of accomplishments.

Meb’s Journey to the U.S.

Eritrea is a small east African nation that suffered a 30 year civil war with Ethiopia, with which it was a part of when Ethiopia became a sovereign nation. Eritrea finally gained its independence, but in the years of civil war, life was dangerous for many Eritreans. Meb’s father was a liberation supporter. With civil war raging, Meb’s family had to escape. They temporarily escaped to refugee camps in Italy. Italy was a colonial conqueror of Ethiopia and Eritrea.

In Italy, Meb’s family was accepted as refugees to the United States. They settled in San Diego when Meb was 12 years old. In high school, Meb realized that he had world class speed, and he attended UCLA on a scholarship for track and field. He became a naturalized US citizen in 1998 in Los Angeles. Fittingly, it was at the Los Angeles Marathon on February 13, 2016 that Meb qualified for the Olympics Marathon.

One of Meb’s great American moments was winning the Boston Marathon in 2014. The Boston Marathon is the most prestigious long distance event, drawing the best distance runners in the world to compete against each other. His victory was momentous for many reasons, chief among them being that American men do not often win the event and because it was the year after the terrorist bombing at the finish line. Meb ran the race in American flag colors and soared to his personal best time of 2:08:37.

A Small Part of the American Immigration System

The United States accepts thousands of refugees and asylum seekers each year. It is a pathway to permanent residence and citizenship, as well. Meb is a great example of American Olympic spirit, but also of the American immigration system. The immigration system has 4 basic pathways to entry: family, employment, humanitarian, and lottery. The humanitarian aspect can often be lost in the shuffle. On Sunday, it will be on full display when Meb runs 26.2 miles for the United States and aims to capture an Olympic Gold Medal. Both for his athletic prowess and his incredible story of perseverance, Meb is an inspiration for Americans.

Immigration Court Cases

Half a Million Cases and Counting

It is being reported that there are over half a million pending cases in the federal immigration courts. The number has grown by over 200,000 over the past five years, which is attributed to the increase in unaccompanied minors crossing the border. CBS DFW writes:

Cases of newly arrived immigrants facing deportation have been made a priority, but the backlog still means that many immigrants are likely to face years long delays before a judge makes a final decision on their cases. And while people are waiting to go before a judge, their case could dramatically change, for good or bad.

A spokesperson for the courts reported that there have been 34 immigration judges hired since the beginning of the year and that there are plans to hire an additional 100 judges. A pending budget proposal would allow for a total of 399 immigration court judges.

World Refugee Day


Today, June 20, is World Refugee Day. UNHCR is the UN’s refugee arm and responsible for refugee placement around the world. The past few years have been especially tumultuous for refugees. Refugee re-settlement in Europe and the United States has invoked resistance from Europeans and Americans. Syrian and Middle-Eastern refugee resettlement seemed promising in Germany, but Germany has since soured on allowing refugees and neighboring countries have been vociferously defiant in permitting resettlement. A multitude of problems in European countries have been blamed on refugees. Political parties that tout refugee restrictions have gained in popularity to unheralded heights. They have developed from fringe parties to moving the national dialogue and receiving substantial portions of votes. States in the United States have sued the federal government, demanding that refugees not be re-settled in their states. Migrants escaping from North Africa and the Middle East have been stranded at sea and drowned in the Mediterranean.

In the midst of worldwide controversy on refugee resettlement, the UN is celebrating World Refugee Day. Cities through the US are celebrating their local communities. For example, Columbus has a large Somali refugee population. Central New York is home to many refugees from the Yugoslav civil war. The UN is promoting stories of refugees who have seized their opportunities in their new countries and have excelled. The UN is also collecting signatures for a petition it will deliver to the UN General Assembly when it meets in New York City on September 19. The petition is requesting that governments around the world:

  • Ensure every refugee child gets an education


  • Ensure every refugee family has somewhere safe to live.


  • Ensure every refugee can work or learn new skills to make a positive contribution to their community.

Asylum Interview Dates Update

Asylum Interview Dates FINALLY Move Up

The Asylum office is badly behind on scheduling interviews for prospective asylees. It usually took 3 months to hold an interview after applying for asylum affirmatively with USCIS. The process has exceeded 2 years and has encroached beyond 2.5 years at times.

One little victory: the interview dates have moved from October 2013 to January 2014 in the Arlington office’s jurisdiction (Pittsburgh is in the Arlington jurisdiction). If you filed an application in January 2014, they are finally scheduling your asylum interview.

This could be Pyrrhic. Future releases of the interview schedule may stall at January 2014, much like the past few months of scheduling have remained on pause. Perhaps this could augur the beginning of the normalization of the scheduling process.