The teenage runners from Ethiopia may seek U.S. citizenship

4 mins read

By Josephine Woolington
The Register-Guard
AUG. 17, 2014

missingathletesj282014jpg-b4e7ef40600e902bOne of four Ethiopian athletes who went missing after an international track meet last month in Eugene told a University of Oregon police officer that all the athletes plan to seek asylum in the United States, according to a newly released UO police report.

Amanuel Abebe, 17, told the officer that he and the three other athletes — Dureti Edao, Meaza Kebede, Zeyituna Mohammed, all 18 — planned to start the asylum application process at a U.S. immigration service office in Portland on July 28, three days after the runners were reported missing, according to the police report, which was supplemental to the main police report. It was released to The Register-­Guard on Friday after University of Oregon police reviewed the information.

When the UO officer told Amanuel that their case was getting lots of media coverage, the runner said the athletes would go to the immigration office first thing the next morning. However, when the police officer checked in with several federal agencies on July 28 to see if the athletes had inquired about the asylum process, none said they did.

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A spokeswoman with the U.S. Citizen and Immigrations Services said the agency does not release the names of individuals applying for any immigration services, including asylum, because of federal privacy law.

The four athletes went missing after last month’s World Junior Champion­ships at Hayward Field — the first time the meet was held in the United States.

All four athletes were found safe with acquaintances in Beaverton and Washington state.

Mohammed, who was found in Federal Way, Wash., told a local police officer through an interpreter that she may seek asylum. She said she is afraid to return to Ethiopia, which has seen significant political turmoil and human rights abuses in recent years.

Their coaches — Dube Jillo and Mear Ali Sirro — also told a UO police officer that the athletes may try to seek U.S. citizenship “to defect from Ethiopia,” according to a UO police report.

The athletes are in the United States legally and can stay per the terms of their visas, a university spokeswoman previously said.

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If the athletes do seek asylum, the process will be lengthy.

After submitting an asylum application, the U.S. Citizen and Immigrations Services sends an officer to interview the person seeking asylum, the agency’s spokeswoman, Sharon Rummery, said. She didn’t speculate on how long the average case takes to process.

A person seeking asylum must prove persecution based on at least one of five factors: race, national origin, ethnicity, membership in a particular social class, or political opinion, Rummery said. The person must also be afraid to go back to their native country, she said.

If the federal agency does not grant asylum, an applicant is referred to an immigration judge.

If the judge denies the request, the applicant can then appeal to a Board of Immigration Appeals, then to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and then to the U.S. Supreme Court.

During the 2013 fiscal year, USCIS received 44,446 asylum applications from people legally in the United States, Rummery said. Of those, 10,981 were granted that year. Some cases are carried over from year to year, while applicants may be granted asylum in immigration court, she said.

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In 2012, a total of 1,122 people were granted asylum from Ethiopia. Other countries with a high number of asylum seekers include Russia, China, Egypt, Iran, Venezuela and Haiti.

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