Chinese Puzzle

In a setback for a Chinese mother who fled her homeland fearing for her unborn child's life, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has denied her request for asylum in the United States. The case now goes before an immigration judge for consideration.

Lijun, who asked that her real name not be published, got pregnant out of wedlock in China and feared she would be forced to have an abortion under that country's strict family planning policies (see "Deliverance from China," by John Suval, June 22, 2000). At the very least, she says, she and her child faced a pariahlike existence in which they could lose the right to housing, health care and other basic services in China.

The university-educated woman worked for an American electronics firm in China. When she learned of her pregnancy, she secured a work visa and bolted to Houston, where her daughter was born.

In her effort to remain here, Lijun had an interview December 6 with an INS asylum officer. The man seemed sympathetic, she says, and guaranteed that he would give her case "fair consideration." With her toddler in tow, she returned to the INS offices 12 days later to learn that the agency did not grant her asylum request.

"Of course, I felt disappointed," Lijun says while voicing no surprise at the result. A major problem in her case was that she was months late in applying for asylum. Under law, immigrants must file within a year of arriving in the country, or show "extraordinary circumstances" for missing that deadline.

Lijun argued that she had been unaware of the deadline and that circumstances with her pregnancy and child prevented her from filing on time. She says her greatest concern during her first year here was finding adequate care to have her baby. The work visa gave her breathing room to take care of those pressing matters.

"For me, the most important thing was to find a place that would accept me to give birth," she says.

Lijun hopes the immigration court will issue a favorable ruling, but the statistics are not on her side. Nationwide in 1999, U.S. courts heard 6,663 asylum cases involving Chinese immigrants. Judges granted asylum in 1,942 cases and denied it in 2,456 others. Applicants withdrew or abandoned the other cases.

Houston's immigration courts handled 89 asylum cases involving Chinese between 1995 and last May. They granted asylum in 25 percent of the cases and denied it in 24 percent, with others withdrawn, abandoned or pending.

To get asylum, immigrants must establish that they have a well-founded fear of persecution if they are returned to their country. Those who miss the one-year filing deadline face the additional burden of proving that conditions in their homeland changed since their arrival in the United States, or that personal circumstances caused a delay in applying, says Rick Kenney, the spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice's Executive Office for Immigration Review.

"You better have a very good reason for applying late," he says.

If the immigration court denies her asylum request, Lijun can appeal, which could win her several more years in the United States. The young mother is unequivocal about one thing: She will never return to China. Lijun refuses even to discuss that possibility, preferring to concentrate her energies on her daughter and her upcoming court case.

"I still expect a miracle happens," she says.


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