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Teacher Who Fled Myanmar Wins Asylum

January 11, 2002|LISA GETTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Sometime this weekend, Tialhei Zathang, a math teacher who fled persecution in Myanmar for protection in the United States, will tell his family the words they have waited more than three years to hear: "We are free."

Zathang's tortuous journey through America's immigration courts ended Monday, 1,130 days after it started, when the Board of Immigration Appeals reversed an immigration judge's earlier decision and granted him political asylum.

"I am very, very happy," Zathang said Thursday. "I feel very, very, very good right now."

The decision means he will finally be able to start the paperwork to bring his wife and three children--now 7, 8 and 17--to the United States. They have been in hiding in India since the family fled the Burmese military in 1998.

Zathang claimed he had been persecuted in Myanmar, the Southeast Asian nation formerly known as Burma, where human rights abuses are rampant. He had been imprisoned and beaten as a practicing Christian in a Buddhist country who fought for democracy. Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962.

His asylum case was featured in a Times article last spring as a window into the problems plaguing U.S. Immigration Court, where justice can be arbitrary.

Although Congress defines the mission of the courts as the "expeditious, fair and proper resolution of matters coming before immigration judges," in reality the courts are backlogged. It is difficult to find competent translators. Judges have enormous discretion to interpret the law, so that decisions often turn on who the judge is, not the facts of the case.

Immigration Judge Joan V. Churchill presided over Zathang's asylum hearing in the summer of 1999. Churchill is the toughest judge in the Washington area, granting asylum in about 10% of her cases. The national average is about 14%.

Zathang said he and his family fled 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. The journey to India took 16 grueling days. But Indian authorities had begun deporting illegal immigrants back to Myanmar, so the family went into hiding.

Zathang said he purchased an Indian passport on the black market and used it to get to the United States, where he sought asylum.

His court case bogged down from the start. It took four different court dates over three months before his hearing was completed.

Immigration and Naturalization Service lawyers argued that Zathang was not Burmese at all. They claimed he was Indian, citing as proof the Indian passport he had used to enter the U.S.

Most asylum applicants have little evidence to back up their stories. But Zathang's case was unusually strong.

A University of Illinois anthropology and linguistics professor testified that he knew Zathang in Myanmar and that Zathang spoke a dialect found only in the Chin state that he claimed as home. One of Zathang's cousins, who had been granted asylum himself, testified that he too purchased an Indian passport. An exiled member of the Burmese Parliament, who said he had known Zathang for 20 years, verified his story.

And an Indian newspaper article described Zathang's flight from Myanmar and said the police were "seeking him for interrogation."

It took Churchill 13 months to issue her decision, even though immigration judges are supposed to rule within 60 days after a hearing ends. She rejected Zathang's claim, deciding that he had Indian nationality. She said he could possibly have Burmese nationality as well, but since he had lived safely in India before coming to America, he did not qualify for asylum.

His lawyers appealed.

Zathang has been living with friends and relatives in Maryland and Indiana since then.

In May, after the Times article appeared, the immigration appeals board sent the case back to Churchill, asking her to review the tapes of the hearing.

The board said it could not finish reviewing the case because it found some of the tape-recordings to be inaudible. The only record of an immigration court hearing is a tape-recording kept by the judge.

Churchill reviewed the transcript and sent the board an addition to her earlier ruling. She stood by her earlier decision and said she found it "quite preposterous" that Zathang, his wife and children had time to flee their village in Myanmar while the military was in pursuit.

Zathang's lawyers, meanwhile, submitted additional evidence to the INS that showed dual citizenship between India and Myanmar did not exist.

INS attorneys in Washington finally conceded that Zathang was indeed from Myanmar.

On Dec. 28, INS and Zathang's lawyers submitted a joint motion to the appeals board that urged he be granted asylum.

The board ruled to grant the motion. Immigration judges are banned from talking about their decisions. A court spokesman said Churchill would not comment on the outcome of the appeal.

"I think the article had a big impact," said an elated Jessica Attie, who represented Zathang while a student at Georgetown University Law School. "Unfortunately, not every case gets its own article."

Zathang, 42, has been working 12-hour shifts at a factory in Indianapolis, where he is living with five other Burmese refugees. His long days and the time difference have made it tough for him to reach his wife. He hopes to call her this weekend.

"I got asylum," he said he will say. "Don't worry about me or you or the children. We are free."

*

To read previous stories about Zathang, go to http://www.latimes.com/asylum

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