Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Nationality, Religion and Immigration: We Are All Children of Babel

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Nationality, Religion and Immigration: We Are All Children of Babel

Article excerpt


"Now the whole earth had one language and few words. And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly." And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, 'Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. ' And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, ' Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.' So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth." (1)

We today are the children of Babel, the progeny of the arrogant and sinful who must face the confusion that befalls our attempts to cross cultural divides and in so doing attempt a way of understanding one another despite differences of language, community, customs, memory, and psychology. No where is this attempt at a rapprochement of understanding more important than in the protection of the persecuted--the adjudication of asylum claims by those whose bodies and souls have been broken by the intolerant, the uncompassionate, and the homicidal who oversee many of the world's nations. The challenge faced in the United States by judges and others who assess the credibility of asylum seekers is often a cultural one: Even an interpreter often does not cure the dissonance of people of radically different backgrounds and beliefs when they try to communicate and comprehend the most awful and embarrassing of stories--the threats, incarcerations, torture, rapes, and other humiliations that make the discovery of the truth of an asylum claim a matter of the greatest consequence. What can and should we do to ensure that our system of justice accommodates cultural differences in order to find that truth?

Asylum Adjudicators

During my almost seventeen years as a United States Immigration Judge ("IJ") in Los Angeles, I often felt as if my colleagues and I were still smarting from the curse incurred by the hubris of our common ancestors (who apparently became among the first reported refugees). We were fellow judges and friends; we shared our lunches and reveled in our bull sessions caffeinated by twice-cooked coffee only a litigation-addict could love. Indeed, among the more than 200 IJs in courts across the United States, I counted many men and women whom I had known, respected, and liked from our days as lawyers to our time on the bench. Notwithstanding my close relations with my fellow judges, or perhaps precisely because of them, I was constantly confounded and confused by our conversations on the subject of asylum law. (2) I was even more lost for words (no small matter, given my nature) by the manner in which many of my colleagues approached asylum applicants and adjudicated their cases. (3) In fairness, I note that my colleagues were just as unable to understand much of what I did in my courtroom in my own proceedings.

Trial judges experience the aloneness and autonomy of adjudication in a way appellate judges do not. The camaraderie that we IJs experienced at rest and in each other's chambers was replaced by a constant scattering of our sensibilities about asylum law when we donned our robes and voluntarily departed to our separate corners of the world, our own tiny principalities, and our own courtrooms. We may have shared a taste for good food, bad coffee, and even worse jokes, but we seemed to speak very different legal languages when we heard and decided asylum claims. …

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