Protecting the Persecuted
By Alex McKechnie, Photo by Jared Castaldi
“Why are you afraid to go home?” he asked.
Without speaking, the two children answered in unison, lifting their shirts to reveal raw, pink scars stretching like spider webs across their torsos. It is an image that will haunt Andrew Damron, JD, forever.
Damron, a 2009 graduate of Drexel’s International Area Studies program, was working as a volunteer legal advocate for Asylum Access Thailand at the time. The young siblings had been sent to Bangkok by their parents to seek refugee status after their home in Pakistan was set on fire by a mob — while the children were trapped inside. The family’s crime? Practicing Christianity, a minority religion in the primarily Muslim country.
The siblings cried and shook as they recounted their hellish story.
“It was a lot for me to process,” says Damron, who received his JD in international human rights law from Hofstra University School of Law in 2013.
“They definitely don’t teach you how to deal with situations like that in law school.”
As a legal advocate, he wasn’t supposed to show emotion during meetings with clients. He’d had to step out of the room, pretending to make copies in order to collect himself.
While the experience was difficult, it helped prepare Damron for the many other cases of pain and trauma he would hear throughout his career.
Now an asylum officer with the Department of Homeland Security, Damron screens applications from people seeking asylum or refuge in the U.S. He interviews two or three individuals per day at the DHS’s New York office, as part of a rigorous vetting process that also includes screening by the FBI, State Department and the National Counterterrorism Center.
“I sit down face-to-face with each applicant, and they tell me their story,” he says. “I only get a small glimpse of their life, but it’s so important for them to be able to paint a picture of why we should grant them protection — and for them to be heard by someone who can make a big impact on their life.”
Damron must then make a legal determination as to whether the facts of the case qualify the individual for protection.
“They have to show that they have been persecuted or have a ‘well-founded fear’ of future persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion,” says Damron. “These are considered ‘protected grounds.’
“If we go through their testimony and the evidence — like human rights reports or news articles that corroborate their stories — and we see that their fear is well-founded or reasonably objective, then we can grant them protection and they can eventually become [U.S.] citizens.”
Religious persecution cases are some of the most frequent. Damron saw the complexity of these cases firsthand in the two years he spent as an immigration attorney prior to coming to the DHS. Many of the asylum-seekers that came through the door were from China or Egypt, where Coptic Christians are a religious minority targeted by other majority religious groups.
“Some were afraid of being attacked for simply walking down the street while holding a Bible,” says Damron. “It’s horrifying how many times the government in those situations is not willing to help its citizens, and, in essence, condones the acts by turning a blind eye.”
Sometimes, however, the government is unable to protect its citizens, especially in countries like Syria where ISIS dominates, or in regions where insurgent groups like Al Qaeda are in control.
And sometimes, it is the government itself that they are afraid of, with many asylum-seekers fearing that they will be arrested or unlawfully detained for long periods of time.
“When I can grant someone protection from situations like this — and I know that one day they will be a great American — it feels good,” Damron says.
He doesn’t get to see the faces of the people he’s interviewed when they receive their verdict, but he did get a taste of the experience last spring, when he spent a few months serving asylum decisions in New York.
“When you hand an applicant their approval letter, you see an instant change in their face,” Damron says. “The first time I did it, I got chills up my spine. Their life is completely changed the second the paper passes from my hand to theirs. They don’t have to go back to their country where they could be killed or thrown in jail for something that we consider a human right.”
But the people who fall just below legal threshold?
“It’s tricky, especially when you see kids who have family here, who go to school here, and who are already part of a community,” says Damron. “It’s always a difficult thing to grasp. But there may be other legal protections or legal grounds for them to stay in the U.S., which eases the burden of not being able to grant their case.”
Many of those who are denied asylum can be referred to immigration court, says Damron, which gives them another chance to be heard. “We reassure them that there is still hope, that they can try again,” he says.
In addition to cases of religious persecution, Damron has seen a significant number of individuals fleeing persecution because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
“Being gay is still criminalized in more than 70 countries around the world,” says Damron. “Not every country enforces those laws, but those laws tell society that it’s okay to attack someone in the street because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Damron has been advocating for LGBT rights since his days at Drexel.
In 2008, he became president of a social organization on campus called FUSE (Foundation of Undergraduates for Sexual Equality), which met weekly to discuss issues in the LGBT community.
While the group was started several years earlier, Damron helped to revitalize it. By the time he graduated, nearly 50 students attended each weekly meeting. The group is still active today.
“FUSE inspired me to go to law school and to start working with LGBT immigrants, which led me to where I am today,” he says.
It also inspired him personally. “When I started at Drexel, I didn’t identify as gay,” he says. “But I started to see the visibility of LGBT people at Drexel, and it gave me the strength and support I needed.”
Damron came out to his family and friends after spending time away on his first co-op, where he found the time and space to explore truly being himself.
“It worked,” he says. “People weren’t throwing stones at me when I told them I was gay. In fact, it was quite the opposite. That was reaffirming.
“They call it ‘coming out,’ but it’s really ‘coming in’ to yourself and understanding yourself,” Damron says. “I felt like I could finally be the person I am.”
He continued his journey of self-discovery during his final co-op as a research assistant to the late Anne-Marie Obajtek-Kirkwood, PhD, a Drexel French professor and Damron’s mentor, who was writing a book on Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. The experience — looking up country conditions and human rights reports in French and English — was good preparation for his current job.
Obajtek-Kirkwood also encouraged Damron to study abroad in France. He spent a full academic year in Paris, where he had a rare opportunity to study at the historic Sorbonne.
“It’s an experience I can carry with me to better understand what an applicant might be experienc- ing: to be in a country that is unfamiliar to them, speaking a language that is not native to them,” says Damron.
Damron’s diverse experiences led him to his current role at the DHS in April 2016, a job he finds deeply rewarding.
“I feel proud every day when I come to work at such a great organization that saves thousands of lives every year,” says Damron. “I get to represent the United States — in my limited capacity — when I am speaking to an applicant. I am the face of our country in that moment.”
Damron credits the United States with developing a strong and powerful humanitarian protection program. In fiscal year 2016, the U.S. admitted nearly 85,000 refugees, according to the Pew Research Center, and granted protection to thousands of asylum-seekers who were already present here.
It is slated to admit even more — 110,000 refugees — in 2017.
While there are some who say accepting so many refugees poses an economic burden, or even increases the likelihood of a terror attack, others feel the U.S. could do more.
“The worldwide refugee crisis is at dangerously high levels,” says Damron.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, an unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world have been forcibly displaced, including 21.3 million refugees, half of whom are children.
While Damron believes that the international community needs to come together to tackle this daunting humanitarian crisis, he is proud to be able to do his part to help provide protection to individuals and families in need.
“I am not naïve. I understand that we still have many problems that we need to work on here in the U.S. — you can turn on the TV and see that any night — but oftentimes it doesn’t compare to the countries these people are fleeing. As far as human rights and protections that we can offer refugees and asylum-seekers, we’re really leading the world.
This article appeared in the 2015 issue of the College of Arts and Sciences' Ask magazine.
Note: The content of this article is the personal opinion of Andrew Damron and does not reflect any position of the United States government or of the Department of Homeland Security.