Wearing a borrowed dress and a shy smile, a West African teenager said Monday she felt “like a human being again.” She was free after 16 months of detention in an immigration case that could set a precedent for women seeking U.S. asylum to escape genital mutilation.
“I came to the United States for protection and instead I received punishment,” said Fauziya Kasinga, 19, of Togo, who was released last week. “If my suffering can help others then it will not be for nothing.”
An immigration appeals board in Virginia is scheduled Thursday to hear Kasinga’s case. A judge denied her asylum, saying he didn’t believe her and didn’t consider female genital mutilation a form of persecution.
Russ Bergeron, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said the INS will recommend that the 12-member appeals board use the case to establish guidelines for immigration judges.
“The INS believes female genital mutilation should be considered for granting asylum under certain circumstances,” Bergeron said. “But this still needs to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.”
The decision by the highest administrative tribunal in the U.S. immigration system would be binding on the nation’s 179 immigration judges.
Richard Boswell, one of a half dozen human rights attorneys and American University law students who helped gain Kasinga’s release, said she was treated cruelly. The immigration system treats foreigners who enter the country illegally as criminals to be detained, often in jail or prison.
“Nobody should have to endure what Fauziya went through,” said Boswell, a visiting professor at American University. “Fauziya’s case has put a human face on a problem that has become more and more common.”
Kasinga, wearing a traditional blue-and-white print West African dress borrowed from her U.S. hosts, she told reporters: “I feel very happy to feel like a human being again.”
She is staying with a Virginia family.
Kasinga fled Togo in 1994 after her aunt forced her to marry a 45-yearold man and told her she would have to undergo female genital mutilation, a tradition in some African and Middle Eastern cultures. Her mother and sister, who were against the practice, helped her escape.
Upon her arrival in the United States on Dec. 17, 1994, at Newark International Airport, Ms. Kasinga was detained by INS authorities.
She spent the next 16 months at a detention center in New Jersey and in jails in New York and Pennsylvania, Kasinga claims she was housed with criminals, chained to a table during attorney visits, strip-searched repeatedly, denied sanitary napkins and given ill-fitting, soiled clothing.
On Aug. 25, 1995, she was given a hearing for political asylum. Philadelphia immigration Judge Donald V. Ferlise denied her application, saying he didn’t believe her. He also said that even if her tribe did plan to ritualistically cut away parts of her genitalia, he couldn’t consider her persecuted because she was “not being singled out for circumcision.”
Kasinga said her mother’s sister died from circumcision. “I would never allow myself to go through with the procedure.”