The Case Of Edward Snowden: Asylum For An American Abroad?
I thought I’d take this opportunity to depart from my usual blogs on U.S. immigration law and procedure to showcase how immigration law works on the international stage. By now, many of you have heard of the former CIA official, Edward Snowden, who is facing a world of trouble for revealing a secret surveillance program run by the U.S. government. Lauded by some as a hero and denounced by others as a traitor, Snowden, a U.S. citizen, is now trying to do something that may sound peculiar at first – seek asylum in another country. Each year, scores of individuals come to the United States seeking asylum based on meeting a standard of past or potential future persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Is it possible, however, that the U.S. can be the persecuting country?
Generally speaking, the same asylum standard used by the United States applies internationally. Based on all recent reports, Snowden is currently in Hong Kong but has voiced interest in seeking asylum in any country that espouses his free speech beliefs. According to various reports, Hong Kong itself, as well as Iceland and Russia, have voiced support for Snowden and may be options. To succeed on an asylum claim, Snowden would have to show persecution in the U.S. as opposed to just prosecution. Prosecution seems likely as federal prosecutors will soon announce a myriad of charges carrying hefty jail time and seek to extradite Snowden back to the U.S. Whether Snowden would be subjected to “persecution” in the U.S., however, is much more of an open question. If Snowden can show that his actions constitute “whistleblowing” that falls under the protected asylum category of “political opinion” and, furthermore, that the punishment could be imprisonment for treason, he may have a viable asylum claim. Furthermore, an anti-Western country may be keen on “championing” the rights of an individual seeking to distance himself from the most powerful nation in the world.
This case is reminiscent of that of another high profile individual, Julian Assange. As the founder of WikiLeaks, Assange was the mastermind behind the publication of secret U.S. military and diplomatic documents. With Assange facing extradition to the U.S. and subsequent imprisonment or even execution, Ecuador granted Assange political asylum in 2012. Assange has been living at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, unable to leave as British authorities have said they will arrest him if he leaves the Embassy grounds.
The future for both Assange and Snowden remains up in the air. What’s clear is that the image of the United States as a defender of human and civil rights is not always accepted wholeheartedly by those abroad. Because Snowden himself may have just as many supporters in the U.S. as those who vehemently disagree with him, future U.S. action as well as his potential asylum case abroad are things to watch.