For asylum seekers, the way their story is presented to the immigration courts can literally be the difference between life and death.
In order to prepare for a court date, those fortunate enough to have a lawyer guide them through the overcrowded American immigration system must replay over and over the emotional trauma that prompted them to seek asylum in the first place. And the court date is likely to be pushed back for months, sometimes years, to come — often causing weary asylum seekers to give up.
It’s almost as if by design, notes Rhoda Kanana in her new book, “The Right Kind of Suffering: Gender, Gender, and Arab Asylum Seekers in America. She is a former Arabic anthropologist and translator, who has volunteered her services to asylum seekers for more than a decade. Kanana spoke with the Texas Standard about being a translator for asylum seekers, writing the book in a turbulent time for immigration politics and what readers have to take away from her book.
This text has been slightly edited for clarity:
Texas Standard: You know, in Texas, we see a lot of asylum seekers coming in from Mexico. They present themselves to the Border Patrol, hoping to seek asylum, and it has become much more difficult since 2016, as you note in your book. The stories of the four asylum seekers in your book, though, are different from the kind of stories you encounter on the southern border—you tell not just because of time, but because of privilege, which seems odd to say about anyone fleeing their home. For a safer place to live. Can you say more about that?
Kindergarten Kanaana: Well, the asylum seekers I interviewed had the privilege of hiring a lawyer, which not many asylum seekers have. So they were able to receive the all-important guidance from legal counsel to navigate a very complex and complex system, greatly improving their chances of success. In this sense, they were privileged. They all got here not by presenting themselves at the border, but by entering with visas, student visas, tourist visas, etc. So they were able to enter less on their hind feet than people who presented themselves at the border in the south.
This is a turbulent time for US immigration policy. Why did I want to write this book now?
I started writing it before the current asylum-focused moment. And at the time I was very interested in the kinds of stories that the immigration system and our larger political system like to hear about immigrants and who they want to welcome into the country. As my research dragged on a bit, in part because the issues took so long to decide, political shifts made the topic more or more relevant to the broader audience. So it was an unfortunate development for the world, but a lucky one for my book.
I want to talk about the four people you focus on in your book, kind of case studies, in a sense. They are complicated stories, but they have to be conveyed somehow to an immigration judge, right? And this judge makes decisions based on, well, informal, you might say, criteria and definitely biases. Is this what you get when you say “the right kind of suffering” in your title?
Well, one of the things that asylum seekers have to communicate within a very short time before a judge is the persecution they have suffered and the pain they have experienced. They need to communicate that in the most legally impactful way possible. So, avoid talking about poverty or any economic aspects of their persecution or their immigration to the United States, and they have to kind of rekindle the feelings they were trained on during their internships with their lawyers because, you know, we’re lucky enough to have lawyers to help them prepare.
They kind of dampen their emotions so they can withstand the pressure of the referee while they remember all the details they need to remember, in certain sequences and certain dates, etc., but then they are encouraged to re-emerge the emotions in the moment, because the referees are asked to make their decisions based on On the appropriate behavior of an asylum seeker, whatever that means. This is very personal, of course.
I’m curious, what does that mean, “appropriate behaviour”, and how can one prepare for such a thing?
Yes, it is a mind game that exacerbates the trauma that is an integral part of the asylum process, unfortunately. They have to kind of guess what’s the right way to respond across cultural divides and tell the judge that they’re honest and that they were victims of trauma.
That must be a real challenge for you if you’re working in that role as a translator, to communicate that feeling that’s going to hit the right kind of tone or note, I guess?
My role was as an interpreter only for the type of positive asylum case where the asylum seeker could bring their own interpreter. In the case of the courts, there is a court-appointed translator, which I am not. But my role was to kind of try to instinctively calm the asylum seekers during this very difficult time and be a witness to what they can’t communicate outside of court.
Surely you have been following what is happening on the southern border, and I wonder how your experience informs the way you think about what is happening there?
I can’t imagine what it would be like to have such quick encounters that asylum seekers have to go through at the southern border, if they are lucky enough to be there.
I had a personal experience with my father applying for a green card. It was greatly delayed because he is a Palestinian and a Muslim. We found out he was undergoing a lengthy security check. In the meantime, he had to apply for this document that allowed him to travel in and out of the United States. And once when we were traveling together as a family, the person at the airline didn’t recognize the document. And the document says, you know, this authorizes the traveler to enter the United States. And they decided that this document does not allow them to board the plane.
And that personal experience was very frustrating. We were able to overcome it because of our communication and our ability to absorb the cost of this experience. But it made me think about how complicated and difficult it must be for people crossing the border, not only because of the difficult rules they have to abide by, but also because of the poor application of the rules, and then the poor recognition of what documents they may or may not. You have.
What do you hope people get from this book? What do you hope people will turn away from?
I hope they can walk in someone else’s shoes for a little while, to think about what it might be like to be an asylum seeker, with all the history and hardship that comes from that. And I think some of the stories we hear in the media oversimplify and demonize the people we really should be able to empathize and understand and empathize with.