ARLINGTON, Va. — One by one, the 10 men line up against a wooden rail in this federal courtroom, right hands raised, pledging to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
"I do," each replies--one after another after another, the statement resonating powerfully by the time the 10th "I do" echoes through the room.
This is America at its most basic: a chance for these men, eight of whom have fled persecution themselves, to tell an immigration judge what they know about Tialhei Zathang, a math teacher from Myanmar who is applying for political asylum.
Immigration Judge Joan V. Churchill instructs the men to line up as if they are waiting for a bus. The analogy might seem jarring, but within these walls, the wheels of justice start and stop so many times that it is just like a slow-moving bus.
U.S. Immigration Court is unique in American jurisprudence. There is no bailiff, no court reporter, no one to record the hearings but the judge herself, using a tape recorder that she can turn on and off at will. There isn't even a full day set aside for Zathang's case, which means the witnesses will come back again and again, workday after workday, some never getting a chance to testify.
For Zathang and his supporters, the wait will prove excruciating. From the time Zathang files his asylum application, 642 days will pass before Churchill issues her ruling. During those 21 months, documents will be lost, attorneys will come and go and scheduling mistakes will multiply.
And the decision, when it finally comes, will appear to contradict much of what was said in court.
While Zathang's case may be unusual, its tortuous path reflects broader problems with the nation's Immigration Court system.
Congress defines the mission of the courts as "the expeditious, fair and proper resolution of matters coming before immigration judges." But in reality, the courts are often backlogged. It is difficult to find competent translators. And the identity of each of the 219 judges can affect the outcome.
Statistics tell part of the story: Only 20 judges granted asylum in more than 30% of their cases, while 69 judges approved fewer than 10% of the asylum cases.
"Without a doubt, who the judge is makes a difference," said Ivan Yacub, an immigration lawyer in Virginia.
To those immigrants who have experienced political or religious persecution firsthand, asylum is a cornerstone of America's image as the land of the free and the home of the brave. But relatively few of them ever get it. A Los Angeles Times computer analysis of Immigration Court statistics during a six-year period from 1994 to 2000 shows that judges approved asylum requests in about 14% of their cases.
To counter widespread fraud in asylum cases, the Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1995 began withholding work permits from asylum applicants in an effort to weed out job-seekers from those truly fearing persecution.
Zathang says he did not come for work. He came for freedom. This is the story of one asylum case in one courtroom, before just one of the immigration judges who decide the fates of tens of thousands of asylum-seekers each year.
What happened here could happen anywhere in America, in courtrooms often closed to the public, and under conditions that call into question the concept of justice for all.
DAY ONE: Dec. 4, 1998
Tialhei Zathang shows up at an INS office in Arlington, Va., and applies for asylum. He says he had been persecuted in Myanmar, the Southeast Asian nation formerly known as Burma, where human rights abuses are rampant.
He is a small, intense man, then 39 years old, with dark, quiet eyes and an indentation on the left side of his forehead. Medical records say it probably was caused by blunt trauma from a club or piece of wood. Zathang says it came at the hands of the Burmese military, who detained him for 11 days in 1988 and beat him until he was unconscious. He says he was persecuted because he was a practicing Christian in a Buddhist country who actively fought for democracy.
Zathang tells the INS he left Myanmar in the middle of the night on Feb. 27, 1998, after the wife of the village leader warned him he was about to be arrested again. The country has been under military rule since 1962.
He says he and his family reached India after walking through the jungle for 16 grueling days, clearing a path with a machete as they went. He carried his 5-year-old daughter on his back, while his 6-year-old son walked on his own and his 15-year-old son carried supplies.
Because Indian authorities have begun deporting Burmese back to Myanmar, his wife and children remain in hiding in India even now. If he were to return to his homeland, he says, he would be killed.
Zathang says friends and a Baptist pastor in India collected money for him to buy a plane ticket to New York and an Indian passport issued illicitly by a local official willing to overlook the fact that Zathang was not a citizen of India. He arrived in the United States on Nov. 1, 1998.