Asylum Granted to Autistic Child
February 22, 2001

The actions of government agencies or courts of law are mostly noticed only when something goes wrong or when negative, sensational consequences follow. Whether we will realize it or not, we generally expect government officials and judges to make the right decisions with justice in mind and where everybody lives happily ever after. When it comes to the U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service, one of the most under-funded and unattended-to federal agencies and the favorite kicking dog of many a politician, the negative sensational story is generally all we hear. But just yesterday, I became aware of a nice story about the INS, where compassion and justice were at the root of a decision to grant asylum to an autistic child from Pakistan and allow the child to remain in the U.S. permanently.

Like most modern nations, the U.S. grants individuals escaping persecution from their home government the right to live freely and without fear within its borders. The concept of granting asylum, or “refugee” status, to such an individual first evolved out of the need to protect those fleeing their countries because of political beliefs that were generally opposed to an oppressive, dictatorial regime. U.S. law today states in general that if a person fears persecution in their home country due to their race, religion, political belief or “social group”, the individual will be accorded protection and permanent residence in the U.S.

In recent years, the term “social group” has been the subject of much litigation and controversy. Protection under U.S. asylum/refugee law has been sought by members from a wide range of “social groups” claiming persecution by either their home government or groups their home government cannot or will not control. In recent years, among those successful in their efforts in being classified, as a protected “social group” have been women of various African nationalities escaping forced female genital mutilation as well as homosexuals from Brazil and Turkey. And just yesterday, INS’ Chicago Asylum Office announced it would be granting the asylum application of a Pakistani child whose claim is based on his affliction with autism, a serious mental illness often marked by abnormal behavior such as involuntary acts of physical self-abuse, involuntary verbal utterances and hallucinations.

The asylum request rested on the premise that the child was widely seen in his native Pakistan as a freak of nature, afflicted with an evil spirit or demon, rather than as a human being suffering from some disease that could be treated. Like others who suffer from such severe mental disorders in Pakistan, he was often the victim of physical beatings and emotional abuse by the public. In essence, his membership in the “social group” of the severely mentally ill placed him in a vulnerable position, as far as both his basic human rights and physical health were concerned, and with no one to turn to for protection. Unfortunately, as reflected in the recent ruling, Pakistani society at large saw the boy as someone to be avoided (and to be locked up and warehoused) as opposed to a human being deserving of medical treatment and with potential to contribute to society in one way or another.

Congratulations to the young asylum applicant, and congratulations to the INS and their local Asylum Office.

Copyright © 2001-2008, By Law Offices of Richard Hanus, Chicago, Illinois