18-year old Sister Danxiang Cheng was recognized as a refugee after a legal battle that lasted several months.
Sister Danxiang Cheng is an 18-year-old member of The Church of Almighty God (CAG). During her time as a CAG member in China, she experienced several episodes that made her uncomfortable and fearful of living in Chinese society as a CAG member. She received intense scrutiny in school regarding students’ religious affiliation and, even though she was a good student, this pressure resulted in her dropping out of school. Her mother was nearly arrested by the police for her CAG membership and narrowly escaped, forcing her to hide in another town away from her daughter. In addition, two CAG members that Ms. Cheng was close to were arrested by the police and one of them was even sentenced to 12 years of imprisonment for her beliefs and activities!
Danxiang chose to escape to America and was able to board a flight directly from China to Saipan without a visa under the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) Visa Waiver Program. Under this program, Chinese nationals are able to be “paroled” into Saipan without previously securing an American visa. However, at the airport, Ms. Cheng informed immigration officials that she was escaping persecution in China and wanted to apply for asylum. Although she had the right to invoke her desire to apply for asylum, she unfortunately fell into an undesirable category of an “arriving alien”. An Arriving Alien under the Immigration and Nationality Act is someone who is not eligible for a Bond for several reasons. Those include persons who are intercepted at sea, as well as those who use the CNMI program to gain admission to the United States without a visa. Therefore, Ms. Cheng was taken by the Department of Homeland Security and was denied bond by the DHS. Because of the arriving alien status, the Immigration Judge also determined that she was powerless to grant Ms. Cheng a bond. Therefore, her entire case would have to be completed while in DHS custody. Ms. Chang was then transferred to a detention center in Milwaukee.
Luckily, Ms. Cheng had incredible support from the CAG community in the US who were able to visit her in detention, provide affidavits of support, research country conditions, find an immigration lawyer experienced in Chinese asylum cases, and even contact Professor Massimo Introvigne who is a world renowned expert in CAG persecution in China. With the help of the CAG members and Professor Introvigne, Ms. Cheng was able to secure over 15 affidavits in support of her claim. Some of those witnesses were able to confirm that they personally knew Ms. Cheng as a CAG member in China, while others attested to their knowledge of current persecution practices against the CAG by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), including listing the CAG as a xie jiao (“heterodox teaching”) in their criminal code and subjecting any member of the CAG to automatic imprisonment. Reports also detailed the vicious persecution by the CCP that has actually resulted in the deaths of many CAG members.
Under case law, Ms. Cheng’s Attorneys argued that Ms. Cheng had actually suffered past persecution when looking at her experiences cumulatively and in light of her age at the time (she was still 17 when she left China). The evidence was presented along with legal arguments and Ms. Cheng delivered detailed, compelling, and credible testimony regarding her experiences and her fear of returning. Fortunately, the Immigration Judge in Chicago found that the evidence clearly demonstrated a pattern of persecution of the CAG by the CCP, that Ms. Cheng was clearly a devout member of that church, and that Ms. Cheng had sustained her burden of proving that it was more likely than not that she would be persecuted by her government for her beliefs. Since the judge reached this finding, she did not address the past persecution argument.
This case is important for the CAG community because it illustrates that, while corroborated past persecution can be a key component to a victory in asylum, proving a well-founded fear of persecution based on government practices and one’s devotion to the CAG faith is certainly a viable strategy for receiving protection under U.S. asylum law. After six months in detention, Ms. Cheng is now free to be with the CAG community in the U.S. and to begin a new life here free from repression and fear.
Felipe Alexandre (see picture) is a member of the New York Bar. He represented Ms. Cheng in her appeal case in Chicago.