Growing up gay in Nigeria was dangerous, both physically and psychologically. Despite the obstacles, Edafe Okporo managed to build a life for himself, get an education, and find a job where he helped gay men access healthcare. During his years in Nigeria, Mr. Okporo watched as conditions worsened for members of the LGBT community. The country enacted anti-LGBT legislation, which criminalized homosexuality and encouraged community members to report sexual minorities to the police. In 2016, a mob attacked Mr. Okporo in his home and beat him into unconsciousness, chanting "Gay! Gay! Gay!" The last straw came later that same year when--ironically--Mr. Okporo received recognition for his activism by a U.S.-based NGO. The NGO posted an article about Mr. Okporo online, essentially "outing" him to anyone with an internet connection. He immediately fled his home and fled his country.

In his new book, Asylum--A Memoir & Manifesto, Mr. Okporo recounts his tale of persecution, his escape to America, and his experience with the U.S. asylum system.

The book is an engaging read, and provides useful insights into the asylum experience from the perspective of someone who went through the Immigration Court system while detained. I was particularly interested to learn about Mr. Okporo's difficulties during his time in detention and after his case was approved. His tale is an eloquent reminder that winning asylum is only the beginning of the journey to adjust to life in the United States, a journey marked by joy and loss.

And so for me, Mr. Okporo's story works well as a memoir. But as an attorney who practices asylum law, I can't help but read his book critically, and I think it works less well as a manifesto.

In some ways, Mr. Okporo is at a disadvantage in diagnosing the many problems of our asylum system. That's because his asylum case is hardly typical. While he did not know it when he first arrived here, Mr. Okporo had a very strong claim for protection--he was a gay rights activist with significant documentation about his activities, he had an in-person witness who was a U.S. citizen, who worked for the United States government in Nigeria, and who knew about his (Mr. Okporo's) activism, and he had the assistance of pro bono lawyers (plural). Also, Mr. Okporo is a well-educated individual who speaks English. On the other hand, like many new arrivals who seek asylum, Mr. Okporo had to litigate his claim from behind bars--at the Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey. In the end, the strength of his case proved decisive, and the DHS attorney (who--for some reason--is referred to here as the “state prosecutor”) agreed to a grant. After 5½ months in immigration detention, Mr. Okporo walked out of jail with permission to remain permanently in the United States.

Based on his experiences, Mr. Okporo makes some keen observations about the asylum system. For example, he points out the unique problems faced by gay asylum seekers, who may not have ever discussed their sexuality with anyone, and who now need to relate their story to American government officials in order to obtain protection in the United States.

However, other of Mr. Okporo's observations seem off the mark. For instance, he compares asylum seekers to other immigrants and finds that, "asylum seekers are offered the fewest protections." I am not sure what this means--as soon as a person files for asylum, they are permitted to remain in the U.S., and they can eventually qualify for a work permit while waiting for their decision. This seems like a significant protection for the individual, though for asylum seekers separated from a spouse or children--a problem not addressed by Mr. Okporo--this "protection" is cold comfort indeed.

Mr. Okporo also states that asylum seekers "have seen very little fundamental change to the asylum process over decades, despite constant changes to the asylum legislation itself." I am not sure what this means either. First, despite some incremental changes to the law, there has been no significant change to the asylum legislation since the Refugee Act of 1980. Indeed, the need for fundamental legislative reform has been the most pressing problem of our immigration and asylum system for many years. Second, contrary to Mr. Okporo's point, there have been major administrative (as opposed to legislative) changes to the asylum process. These include the last-in, first-out scheduling regime for affirmative asylum seekers, aimless docket reshuffling in Immigration Court, the "Remain in Mexico" policy, Title 42, Attorney General decisions related to asylum for victims of domestic violence and gang violence, and changes to the work permit process, to name a few.

One issue that is notably missing from Mr. Okpor's book is the problem of fraud, which animates many of our nation's political and policy discussions related to asylum. As a person who seems to have had a very valid claim for protection in the U.S., I would have been curious to hear his views on asylum fraud, which not only damages "the system," but also makes it more difficult for legitimate asylum seekers to obtain sanctuary in our country.

I would also have liked to learn about Mr. Okporo's position on the debate over how many asylum seekers should be permitted to enter the United States. Public support for a generous asylum policy has been on the wane, and it would have been valuable to hear Mr. Okporo's views on why the rising restrictionism is bad for our nation, and what can be done.

Perhaps some of these criticisms are unfair, but Mr. Okporo is a successful advocate who has gone through the asylum process himself, and so I would have liked to hear more about his policy ideas. I think he has a unique perspective and a unique moral authority to discuss our asylum system. His new book is a good start, and I look forward to hearing what else he has to say.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: