This article appeared Monday in the NYT, supposedly in response to the accusations leveled at Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s alleged victim (and yes, she’s still an alleged victim) concerning her asylum claim. In an earlier post, I expressed the concern that too much attention would be paid to her false claim for asylum. This, unfortunately, in addition to claims that she might be a prostitute, come with the corresponding disinterest in her claims of rape, and possible dismissal of the charges. We might never know what really happened between them because clearly, anyone who has ever lied would lie about being raped and put themselves through the hell and media firestorm that results when claim you’ve been raped.
Snarkiness aside, the somewhat sensationalist NYT article really only confirms one thing, that we have no idea how often people make fraudulent asylum claims. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, and not to say that we’re bad (or good) at catching them, merely that we don’t know. They certainly happen. And from an economic standpoint, it’s likely, though, that if we make the process harder, we would see more fraudulent claims. Or if we make some other part of the immigration process harder, visas for skilled immigrants, for instance, we would see more fraudulent claims. If you increase the costs of something, particularly necessities, you create incentives to get around it, often in ways we don’t like. Most of the data on asylum claims are confidential in order to protect all parties (asylum-seekers, those who represent them, etc), so we’re stuck again in the place where even if we could come up with a clever way to test for fraudulent claims, we don’t have access to what we’d need to do it. We just don’t know.
However, our ability to econometrically test for this, as fun as it might be, is less important than whether people are being afforded the services and assistance they need. To paraphrase the words of a lawyer friend, there is bad legal advice everywhere. Despite attempts to keep lawyers within a strict code of ethics, there are of course people who would encourage clients to exaggerate their claims. There are also people who would do so of their own volition out of fear, all of this even when their own story is horrific enough to merit asylum without lying. What prompts someone to file a fraudulent claim, fear that it’s too difficult to get asylum, fear of returning to one’s country, bad legal advice? Some combination of the above? Also, there are checks in place to prevent fraud. Are they perfect? Probably not, but I have plenty of checks in place to make sure my students don’t cheat, that doesn’t mean some of them haven’t gotten away with it.
The fact that people file fraudulent claims doesn’t mean we should crack down harder on asylum claims, but perhaps we should be examining why someone might feel the need to lie. Gender, in particular, is not grounds for asylum, under most interpretations. You must be part of a particular class, like abused women, to seek asylum. Requirements are open to interpretation, but you must show that you’ve been persecuted for being part of one of those classes or show that you face imminent danger if you return to your country because of being part of one of those classes. It’s not particularly easy to prove, even when you’re telling the truth. But perhaps we should take a closer look at what drives people to lie to seek asylum, rather than using isolated examples of lying to encourage a backlash against all asylum seekers, most who would face real danger if they returned to their countries.