Hundreds of people who live in Minnesota are here because they fear persecution, even death, in their home countries.
"They're held in jail and they're treated horribly," says Mark Lee, a lawyer who helps refugees win asylum here. "They're beaten and abused in ways that is hard to imagine."
Most of Lee's professional life is spent as an attorney for the Maslon law firm in Minneapolis, where he practices civil business litigation. But once a year for the past 20 he has taken on a political asylum case as a volunteer attorney for Advocates for Human Rights based in Minneapolis.
The 59-year-old man graduated from Cooper High School in New Hope and got a degree in social work from St. Cloud State University. He was a social worker in Stevens County before getting his law degree at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.
He described a recent case involving a man from Burundi as typical of the kind of work he takes on: "Government forces came to his house, shot into his house, killed members of his family, and he felt that he needed to flee his country for his own safety."
"He was arrested, thrown in prison in just unbelievable conditions," Lee says.
The Burundian didn't want to give his name for this story. We're calling him Mr. S. According to Mr. S, his parents were killed in 1994 as part of a wave of "ethnic cleansing" that swept the country. He became a human rights advocate and criticized human rights violations in the central African country.
"I was the voice of people who don't have voice," he says, and he fears for the well being of his family, some of whom, Mark Lee says, may still be alive.
"He's attempting to locate them, bring his family here with him," Lee says. He doesn't know if they're alive or dead.
Burundi is a poor central African nation of 10 million people with a poor human rights record. Mr. S., who is 43 years old, was a successful businessman, a member of the middle class, a college graduate, a family man. None of those things protected him from the government once he was in prison.
"I was tortured, all the kinds of torture that you can imagine," he says.
When released from prison, Mr. S hid at a friend's house in Burundi. It would have made more sense for Mr. S. to seek a visa to travel to France and seek asylum there since his first language is French. But his friend's home was closer to the American embassy, and time was of the essence. Eventually, visitor visa in hand and several plane flights later, Mr. S landed in the Twin Cities, all alone, without contacts.
"I was just there by myself," he said.
An airport taxi driver befriended him, and when Mr. S. eventually got to a computer he searched human rights and pro bono lawyers. That led lead him to Advocates for Human Rights and eventually attorney Mark Lee — for whom he is very grateful.
"I can give credit to Mark Lee because he understood me very, very well," Mr. S says.
Many of the more than 29,000 people granted political asylum in the United States last year left their home countries because they feared for their lives. Most, just over 10,000, were from China, according to the federal government. People from Egypt and Ethiopia granted asylum accounted for the next highest numbers.
Among all the people granted asylum, nearly three fourths were between the ages of 18 and 44, about half of them were male, half female with nearly half of them married. Statistics from an immigration analysis conducted by Syracuse University shows that about half of those who apply for political asylum in the U. S. are denied; the rate of denial in Minnesota that past five years is higher, nearly 75 percent. Immigration judges in Minnesota from 2007 to 2012 granted asylum to 244 people.
It's a complicated process with no guarantees. There's a lengthy form that requires many documents and often a hearing before an immigration judge. Lee believes fraud — people who seek political asylum based on false claims — is rare. And he says the vast majority of those seeking asylum are people who fear for their lives because of persecution in their homeland, and they turn to the United States for help.
"It's needed," Lee says. And it's something that's very satisfying for me to have helped someone out of a very, very difficult situation."