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.

Refugee and Asylum Statistics

Refugee and Asylum Report for 2014

The Office of Immigration Statistics for the Department of Homeland Security released information on the Refugee and Asylum programs for 2014. Here are some highlights:

  • 69,975 people were admitted as refugees. Iraq, Burma, Somalia, and Bhutan were the leading countries of nationality. 74% of all refugees came from those four countries. The refugee cap was 70,000 for the year.
  • 23,533 people were granted asylum. DHS granted asylum to 14,758 of them. The Executive Office for Immigration Review granted asylum to the remaining 8,775 people.
  • 55% of admitted refugees live in ten states. Texas, California, New York, Michigan, Florida, Arizona, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Illinois are the states in order of highest number of arriving refugees.
  • China, Egypt, Syria, and Ethiopia had the most granted asylum cases. China accounted for over a third of all asylum grants. Mexico was number 7, Haiti was number 9, Guatemala was number 10.
  • 47% of those individuals granted asylum in 2014 reside in California.

Asylum Interview Times

Asylum Interviews Times


An important aspect of the immigration apparatus in the United States is asylum. Although the number of people granted asylum each year is lower than the number entering through family-based or employment-based immigration (statistics), it is a pathway to Permanent Residence, Citizenship, and sponsoring family members. It is the humanitarian branch of immigration. Recognizing that conditions in many countries are impossible and that people face persecution from their governments or other people in their countries, the United States offers a chance at safety and a new life. There are many legal hurdles and statutory requirements for an applicant requesting asylum. Asylum is not granted just because someone’s country is experiencing turmoil or there are difficult circumstances. There must be past persecution or a well-founded fear of future persecution, on the basis of at least one of five statutorily enumerated grounds.


Political leaders are debating raising the asylum and refugee ceiling from its current 70,000 limit to a higher number to accommodate Syrians escaping war-torn Syria. Information released by the asylum offices across the United States indicates that they are backlogged on their interviews. Asylum applicants receive an interview at an asylum office. Current times are discouraging. Someone who lives in the jurisdiction for Arlington will not have an interview scheduled currently unless she filed her application in August 2013. That is a wait time of over two years. Hopefully the processing times speed up and more applicants have a quicker chance to present their cases.

Increasing Asylum Ceiling

White House Considering Asylum for Syrians

There are proposals to increase the Asylum cap, a topic this blog briefly covered this week. The president requests the asylum ceiling on each year and Congress signs off on that number. The cap this year is 70,000. This includes asylum grants in immigration court and affirmative asylum cases that USCIS hears.

The White House announced this week that it would welcome 10,000 Syrian refugees this upcoming year. The plight of Syrian, Afghani, Iraqi, and refugees from other countries in the Levant has been headline news for months, as civil wars and internal strife have predominated in those nations in recent years. Syria’s civil war has been particularly devastating. People have been deracinated from their homes, livelihoods, and communities. Migrants have been escaping to Southern Europe through the Mediterranean in immense numbers over recent months, often to tragic ends. Their resettlement has become an intensely divisive issue in the European Union. Some countries in the EU are staunchly against resettlement in their own countries or doing it in limited numbers.

To accommodate taking in more Syrians, proposals are suggested for increasing the asylum cap to 85,000 for Fiscal Year 2016 and 100,000 for Fiscal Year 2017. The increase is criticized for being an increase and it is lambasted for not doing enough to relieve the overall crisis. Very few Syrians have received asylum in the United States since the civil war began. General bad conditions (such as civil war, disease, famine) are not bases for asylum. Syria has been accorded TPS status.