If you have been persecuted (or you have a well-founded fear of being persecuted) in your home country based on your perceived political opinion, then you may qualify for asylum or refugee status in the United States.
The emphasis on the word “perceived” highlights the fact that people can become targets of political persecution not just for the opinions they actually hold but also for opinions that their persecutors falsely attribute (or “impute”) to them – whether by mistake or otherwise.
This article discusses the different ways in which political opinions can be imputed, and how persecution on such a ground can be proven for purposes of applying for asylum.
How Are Political Opinions Imputed?
“Political opinion” refers to a broad category of attitudes that people may have on matters that concern their state, their government, or their society. Such attitudes may be deliberately expressed through a variety of behaviors – including voting, party membership, union membership, issue advocacy, or even everyday commentary on public affairs.
When not deliberately expressed, political opinions may nonetheless be inferred (rightly or wrongly) from people’s behavior – or even from their associations and personal characteristics. In fact, political opinions are sometimes wrongly inferred from accidental circumstances. Such imputed political opinions could form a basis for political persecution.
(For a look at some common examples of political persecution, see Nolo’s article, "Claiming Asylum Based on Persecution on Account of Political Opinion.")
Political Opinion Imputed Based on Behavior
Political opinions can be imputed to people on the basis of their oral and written statements, as well as other forms of expression, such as music or works of art. Although such expressions may not be clearly about politics, they may nonetheless be interpreted by others as being political. For example: A novelist could be persecuted for allegorically criticizing her country’s leaders in one of her books, or a musician could be accused of playing “bourgeois” music in a communist country, even if both insist that their works have been misinterpreted.
In addition, political opinions can be imputed to people on the basis of other types of actions – even ones that are not meant to express anything at all. For example: Under a totalitarian regime, a person could be persecuted simply because government agents falsely suspect him of being a dissident or even a spy, solely based on his unusual habits or lifestyle.
Political Opinion Imputed Based on Associations
A political opinion can also be imputed to a person based on the people he or she associates with (or is associated with) – including friends, colleagues, neighbors, family members, and members of the person's other social groups, or even mere acquaintances.
For example: A business owner could be persecuted for employing a political activist, even if the latter’s functions involve no political matter. Likewise, a country’s government could target the children of a prominent member of the opposition, even though they themselves have never been involved in politics.
Political Opinion Imputed Based on Personal Characteristics
Similarly, political opinions can be imputed to people based on their personal characteristics or background – including their race or region of origin. For example: A country’s government could suspect members of an ethnic minority of sympathizing with rebel forces during a civil war, even if this suspicion is unfounded in some individual cases.
Political Opinion Imputed Based on Accidental Circumstances
Finally, political opinions can be mistakenly imputed to people simply by accident. For example: In a case of mistaken identity, a person could become persecuted for simply sharing the same name as her government’s intended target.
How to Prove Persecution for Imputed Political Opinion?
“Persecution” generally refers to serious threats or inflictions of physical, psychological, or economic harm by one’s own government or by groups whom one’s government is either unwilling or unable to control.
Proving persecution for imputed political opinion requires showing a causal link between one’s persecution and one’s persecutor’s beliefs and perceptions. This can be difficult, especially when persecutors do not explicitly describe the motivations behind their actions.
In such situations, victims should try to show that their case fits an established pattern of persecution against similarly situated persons in their home country. Evidence for this might be found in news media articles as well as reports by human rights organizations and government agencies – the U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Reports, for example. Also see Nolo's article, "Preparing Persuasive Documents for Your Asylum Application."
In particular, when an asylum applicant has not suffered past persecution but fears that he or she might be persecuted in the future based on a political opinion that might be imputed on the basis of associations or personal characteristics, the applicant will likely be expected to show that other persons like him or her were targeted on the same ground in the past. Otherwise, immigration officers and judges might deem the person's asylum claim too speculative.
So, for example: If your father was persecuted as a political dissident in Guinea, but your mother and siblings still live there freely, then you may have a harder time establishing a well-founded fear of persecution by association with your father.
In any event, the assistance of an immigration attorney could significantly improve any asylum case’s chances of success.