They arrive at the Chicago Asylum Office from as far west as Idaho, as far south as Missouri, as far east as Ohio. How they reach those places from where they start—Bangladesh, Romania, Somalia, Guatemala—doesn’t matter. Why is the only question he has to answer, though it seems the strangest one to ask. The asylum officer knows it contravenes the very foundations of his profession, the universal notions that gave rise to his office, his chair, his desk, and every piece of paper here on the thirtieth floor, but the question of what seems so much more pertinent. What happened to you in Dhaka or Mogadishu or Villa Canales? What will happen if you return?
I was kidnapped.
I was beaten.
I will be tortured.
I will be killed.
Yes, he is required to ask, but why?
When he first started the job, the asylum officer often read the definition of “refugee” to the people he interviewed:
Someone who is unable or unwilling to return to and avail himself or herself of the protection of his or her country of nationality or, if stateless, country of last habitual residence because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
As if the definition would do his work for him. The Romanian man going to pop up and say My apologies, I did not realize it had to be a well-founded fear. The Algerian woman so easily persuaded to concede, They will kill me, but not because of race/religion/nationality/group membership or political opinion. They will kill me because I wouldn’t give up my seat on the bus/I went out without my headscarf/I flirted with my neighbor. So sorry to have troubled you. I’ll get on my way now.
It is the women who get to him the most.
But today none of this matters. Today why is irrelevant. Only your file in his mailbox matters. Chance is truer, the asylum officer believes, than any testimony he will ever hear.
Image: Photo: Benson, Richard. “Souls of Puerto Rico.” 1983. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.