One of the most disheartening phrases to hear at an asylum interview is when the Officer says, "Government records indicate that..." This usually means the government has information contradicting the applicant's testimony. Here are a few examples from a couple recent interviews I attended:

Government records indicate that you applied for a visa from a third country. Can you explain why you said you never applied for any other visas?

Government records indicate that you traveled outside the United States since your first arrival here. Can you explain why you said you had not left the U.S. since that time?

Government records indicate that your neighborhood in Syria was controlled by rebel forces at that time. Can you explain why you said the neighborhood was under government control?

The first two questions were for a Pakistani client. The third question was for an Iraqi. Both applicants were denied and referred to Immigration Court.

As I see it, there are a number of problems with these "gotcha!"-type questions. For one, they are vague, in that the Asylum Officer does not state exactly what information the government has, and it is difficult to adequately respond to a question that you really don't understand. For another, some of these questions rely on information that is easy for the applicant to forget or overlook. Finally, the "gotcha!" information possessed by the government is not always accurate.

In the first example above, it seems unfair to impugn an applicant's credibility based on his failure to remember applying for a visa years after the fact. It's not really a major life event, and if the person did not actually get the visa and visit the country, it's easy to see how he might forget about filing a visa application (especially since some applications are done online and the person may never even have visited the country's embassy).

In the other examples above, the government's information seems to be inaccurate. My Pakistani client swears he never left the U.S. since he first arrived here, and I believe him--he has no reason to lie and his I-94 record, available at the CBP website, does not indicate that he re-entered the country after his initial arrival. In the case of my Iraqi client, she was simply baffled to hear that her neighborhood was controlled by non-government forces. She says she lived in that neighborhood the entire time, and I trust her on-the-ground experience over the government's "information." Of course, it is possible that my clients are incorrect, or that--for some indiscernible reason--they are lying, but in these example, I have more confidence in them than I do in the government.

What's important to understand here is that the United Sates government wants to test an asylum applicant's credibility, but it has limited means to do so. Asylum Officers can question applicants extensively to try to ferret out lies, but a more effective approach is when the Officer can compare an applicant's testimony with information the government knows to be true. And the government knows a lot. It knows about every U.S. visa you have ever applied for--and what you told the embassy during the visa application process. It knows about visa applications to other countries (which countries share such information with the U.S., I am not sure, but it is safest to assume that the government knows about any visa application to any country). It knows about applications made to the United Nations. It knows a lot about a person's travel history. It also knows about your relatives' travel and visa histories (including ex-spouses). The government knows about any arrests or contacts with U.S. (and perhaps some foreign) law enforcement. Of course, it knows about any other U.S. immigration application made by you or your family members, and it probably has copies of all such applications. The government may know about your employment and education histories, and whether you have used any other names. The government also knows about conditions in your home country, including information about political parties, rebel groups, and terrorist organizations.

In short, Asylum Officers can--and do--gather significant independent evidence about a person's case. Even where this evidence does not bear a direct relationship to the asylum claim, they can compare that evidence to your testimony and use that to determine whether you are credible (and remember, for the Asylum Office, inconsistent = incredible). If the Asylum Officer determines that your testimony is incredible because, for example, you lied about how you obtained your visa, she could conclude that you are lying about other, more significant, aspects of your case. If that happens, your application for asylum is likely to be denied.

So what do you do? First, don't lie. Even about small things that you think are insignificant. The Asylum Officer may ask you questions about aspects of your life that seem irrelevant or embarrassing. If that happens, think about why they might be questioning you on that topic. What might they know? Do your best to answer honestly. Don't guess! If you guess wrong, the Asylum Officer might assume you are lying. If you don't remember or do not know, tell the officer that you don't remember or you don't know.

Also, prior to the interview (ideally, when you prepare the affidavit), think about the times when you (or your family members) had contact with the U.S. government, the UN, or other foreign governments. What did you say on your applications and in your interviews? Did you lie? If so, the time to admit that is in your asylum affidavit and at the asylum interview. You are much better off affirmatively coming clean and explaining any old lies than hoping that the Asylum Officer won't know about them. Correcting the record in this way does not guarantee that the old lie won't be used against you, but in most cases, adjudicators appreciate the honesty and they are more likely to forgive a misrepresentation that you bring to their attention than one that they bring up in a "gotcha!" question. In addition, in many cases, the law forgives an asylum applicant for lying, if that lie was necessary for the person to get a visa and escape from her home country. Affirmatively coming clean is usually the safest approach for people who have something negative in their history.

Turning back to the above examples, maybe the best response to the first question would have been for the applicant to think about why the officer was asking him about other visa applications. If he was not sure about his answer, he might have replied, "I don't remember applying for a visa to a third country, and so I am not sure whether I did or not." This type of equivocal answer would at least have made it more difficult for the Asylum Officer to impugn the applicant's credibility.

What about the second two examples, where the government's information seems to be wrong? Here, I don't know what the applicants could have done, other than to state that the Asylum Officer's information is not correct. That is what my clients did, but obviously, it was not enough. The hope now is that, with the cases referred to court, the DHS attorney (the prosecutor) cannot rely on vague accusations--they will have to provide specific evidence of their claims (that client A traveled outside the U.S. or that client B's neighborhood was controlled by a rebel group). If we are allowed to see the government's evidence, we can (hopefully) refute it.

In an asylum interview, honest is the best policy. And if you don't remember or don't know, it is best to say that. Finally, if there are "issues" in your past, it is best to bring those up affirmatively and explain them in your asylum application. In these ways, you can improve your credibility and increase the likelihood of a favorable outcome in your case.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: