07.07.11

Why the DSK Maid Lied

Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s accuser has been attacked as lacking credibility in part because she lied on her application for U.S. asylum. But her lies may have been fueled by a torturous immigration system that demands life stories that “work.” Jesse Ellison reports.

The revelation that the accuser at the center of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case lied on her application for political asylum has been met with outrage, treated as proof that she is wholly without credibility, and even used as evidence that her accusation against the former head of the International Monetary Fund is just one part of an elaborate con. But this is far from the first time an asylum-seeker has made false claims. This isn’t even the first time a Guinean living in New York who was suddenly at the center of a case that involved prickly questions about race, power and violence—one that drew international media attention—was revealed to have lied on the same application.

Just over a dozen years ago, Amadou Diallo was shot at 41 times by police officers who mistook his wallet for a gun. A month later, his lawyer announced that he had lied on his application for political asylum, (he said he was from Mauritania, and that soldiers had murdered his parents and imprisoned him and his uncle, none which was true). But Diallo was already dead, and his word wasn’t in question. Instead, the revelation that he had lied was merely an addendum to an incident that had sent a shock through New York City. The case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn is different. And where a week ago it seemed ironclad, with the revelation that prosecutors doubted the credibility of the accuser, every aspect of her story—every lie she may have told—has been seized upon and analyzed, sometimes splashed across the pages of tabloids as evidence of some larger guilt.

That she lied on her claim for asylum has been covered with particular zeal. But experts and those familiar with such claims say that dishonesty is common when it comes to refugees—not because they’re intentionally trying to scam the system, but because the way such claims are processed and determined puts asylum-seekers in a position where they may feel  they have no other choice.

“It’s hard for those of us who haven’t gone through those experiences to imagine what it would be like to continually relive something that caused you to flee your country,” says Emily Arnold-Fernandez, of Asylum Access. “When the issue of potentially falsifying testimony comes up, it tends to paint all asylum claimants in black and white. Either you tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, 100 percent of the time, or you’re not telling the truth and you have some sort of nefarious purpose. I don’t think that the reality is that stark.”

Those who, like Diallo and the woman at the center of the case against Strauss-Kahn, apply for asylum after entering the United States represent just one-tenth of 1 percent of the world’s refugees, and for them, according to Arnold-Fernandez, it’s been, on average, 17 years since they left their home countries. Legal representation is scant, and language is often an issue. But most notably: judges are given tremendous leeway. Approval rates swing wildly from courtroom to courtroom. One court officer can approve 90 percent of the cases that come before the bench, and just down the hall another might decline nine of the 10 that come before him. It’s a discretionary system—a “refugee roulette”—that has contributed to myth-making within immigrant communities, where the stories that “worked,” are passed around like lucky charms.

“When you’re going into a legal proceeding that hasn’t been explained to you and you don’t have adequate or ethical legal counsel and you know that your life or death may hinge on what you say, the temptation to use a story that worked for someone else is incredibly high,” Arnold-Fernandez says. “We have had clients whose real circumstances are more compelling than the stories they have been advised by others to use. But there’s such a lack of adequate legal advice…. And in the absence of accurate information and legal assistance, refugee communities may end up filling in the gaps with inaccurate information.” The temptation is so great, she says, that some asylum seekers have been exploited by people charging $100 a pop for stories that “work.”

“Within immigrant communities, asylum stories that ‘worked,’ are passed around like lucky charms.”

Regina Germain, a professor of asylum law at the University of Denver, and a former counsel to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, says that proving asylum claims has only gotten harder in the 20-plus years she’s been practicing. Where 50 pages of legal documentation once were required, it now takes 500, plus a medical expert if there are injuries, a country expert to attest to larger circumstances, and a psychiatric evaluation to support the applicant’s mental or emotional distress. Germain and others worry that in the wake of high-profile cases such as the DSK one, claims might get even more difficult to make. “I’m sure everybody is kind of cringing now,” she says. “Especially the person who granted [her asylum.]”

But despite speculation that the accuser could be deported as a result of her dishonesty, Germain thinks it could have just the opposite effect. She cites a 1997 case, where a man calling himself Edwin Mataru Bulus applied for political asylum based on the fact that his older brother was the leader of an attempted coup in his home country, Nigeria. His claim was denied, and Bulus made his case public, telling his story to newspapers across New York. When it turned out that he was not, in fact, a relative of the man behind the coup, representatives of the Nigerian government visited him in his detention center, and accused him of portraying Nigeria in a negative light. “They threatened him, which actually gave him a legitimate claim,” Germain says. “That could possibly happen in this case too. She is so high-profile now that she might be in danger if she goes back.”