A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Accounts of Asylum: A Call Toward Transnational Literacies of Displacement

Monica Reyes, The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and Old Dominion University

(Published February 26, 2020)

In my native Rio Grande Valley of south Texas, where I teach and volunteer, a small, unassuming place of respite exists for people seeking asylum. Located off a farm road, La Hostería Bendecida (LHB) offers complete care, including shelter, meals, ELL classes, and case management for up to twenty-five displaced individuals at a time.[1] Most clients are from Central America or Africa and are awaiting final decisions on their respective asylum cases or approval to work in the US. Despite the variety of people at the shelter, one thing they all have in common is a need to tell their story. Through my interactions with staff and clients as a volunteer for the past few years, I became very interested in the importance of storytelling within the US asylum process and how people seeking asylum may consider their own narratives the most powerful resource that they have; after all, so much of their future rests on how “credible” their fear-based stories are.[2] I specifically wondered how people seeking asylum strive to compose an institutionally approved ethos, and how they may exhibit a unique agency to enter into universally recognizable migration conversations across various scales of power.  

I suggest that one such universally recognizable story which people seeking asylum may tell is based on the ideology that the use of quantification will authenticate a narrative. Such narratives—what I call here accounts of asylummay not only provide access within the globalized migration conversation, but also serve as a proof of authenticity for the displaced individual themselves. In order to understand the effects of accounts of asylum, this paper includes case studies with two LHB clients,[3] Abraham from Africa and Santos from the Caribbean,[4] who are both seeking asylum. I interviewed them not simply about why and how they came to the US but also about their credible fear interviews and the asylum processes, culminating in a type of reflective discussion of the US demand for narratives of credibility. I learned from Abraham and Santos that those who construct narratives of displacement, like those seeking asylum, are caught in the postcolonial perplexity of cultural authentication, as the stories represent the negotiated balance between an individual’s own, unique migration story and the “mainstream demands they are invited—or even expected—to meet” (Huggan 157). 

While such an insight regarding accounts of asylum is intriguing, a more meaningful and wider contribution of this study suggests that careful scholarly reading of and listening to the kinds of stories told by people seeking refuge, as well as their underlying ideologies, allows a transnational feminist literacy to emerge, a literacy built on the necessity to connect the storytelling of marginalized people, especially those from/within the global South, to the intricate geopolitical contexts in which such stories are heard and circulated (Dingo; Hesford). In what follows, I examine excerpts of Abraham’s and Santos’s narratives about migration and analyze how both relied on quantification to establish (1) fear of persecution in country of origin; (2) difficulty in immigration journey; and (3) difficulty in US asylum process. Ultimately, I argue that by relying on quantification, people seeking asylum demonstrate agency in that accounts of asylum speak back to the reductive and simplistic representations of their stories across rhetorical contexts (media, humanitarian rhetoric, cultural works, for example) which often ignore the intricate networks of oppression in which they are entangled. I conclude by offering a further direction from this small-scale study, which focuses specifically on accounts of asylum as one kind of rhetorical strategy, about how rhetorical scholars who work with people seeking asylum—either in governmental/institutional, advocacy/community-engaged learning, or research contexts—should revise and expand our rhetorical inquiries and scholarly practice to include the wider contexts in which these narratives are constructed in an effort to advance toward transnational literacies regarding displacement.  

Methodologies & Methods

Abraham and Santos were two clients at LHB who were willing to share their experiences with me.[5] After legally presenting themselves to immigration officials at a Mexico-US bridge, they began the lengthy process of securing legal permission to live and work in the country; however, months before I conducted these interviews, both had already been denied asylum status.[6]

As I designed the interview, I was inspired by standpoint epistemology which posits that “the knowledge and theories of marginalized populations (women, people of color, gender and sexual minorities, etc.) hold more epistemic authority than the knowledge and theories developed by dominant groups” (Naples and Gurr 33) because their position in the world compels them to perpetually negotiate between their own ideologies and the oppressive, dominant ideologies in which they exist. Additionally, a cultural rhetorics lens helped me aim to “deeply listen” to my participants’ stories in order to work toward decolonizing knowledge about people seeking asylum. As Powell et al. have extensively discussed, “stories as a decolonial practice matter; stories, then, should be shared in our discipline (“Our Story Begins Here”).

The private, semi-structured interviews focused on two inquiries: first, how each man immigrated to the United States; and second, how Abraham and Santos perceived the credible fear interview and the US asylum process. This latter inquiry allowed both men to reflect on the rhetorical challenges and opportunities of this experience in ways that need more scholarly attention.[7]

To analyze my interviews, I employed a Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), which explores “whether and how a speaker’s linguistic choices contribute to the judgment of their account as more or less credible than competing accounts” (Cameron 125). To be sure, this paper is not an effort to gauge the authenticity of any one narrative; instead, I explore the ideological underpinnings of how someone seeking asylum constructs their credibility narrative and provides an opportunity for asylum seekers such as Abraham and Santos to reflect on the demand for credibility in their own credible fear interview. In doing so, the linguistic patterns within the data demonstrate naturalization, or how the more people make the same choices about how they talk and write about certain things (like asylum) so that “in time they may come to seem like the only possible or rational arrangements” (to describe migration) (Cameron 124). Furthermore, I understand that both Abraham and Santos are not being deceptive by choosing particular words and arrangements; in other words, CDA understand that as the participants share their story, “choice is not consciously an issue. Rather it appears obvious that this, and not that, is the most natural and neutral way to describe a given phenomenon” (Cameron 124).[8]

The following excerpts[9] demonstrate how Abraham and Santos create accounts of asylum as a means to authenticate their fearful and/or difficult experiences in their attempt to develop narratives about their efforts to pursue asylum. As a rhetorical strategy, quantification often provides a prompt, straightforward means of communication that is resounding and spectacular (Battersby 1), and as an ideology, quantification within narrative illustrates the assumption that quantification rhetoric will authenticate a narrative and appear objective (Douglas and Wildawski; Kadous, et al.; Koetsenruijter; Yalch and Yalch). Discussing one’s displacement experience through quantities, or accounts, allows for what Potter et al. describe as “applied quantification,” a mode of communication in which “numerical formulations of one kind or another enter into arguments of a non-mathematical nature” (335), especially in composing arguments based on facts to establish credibility. Focusing on the media portrayal of the 2015 mass migration into the EU, Fotopoulos and Kaimaklioti; and Abid, Manan and Rahman conclude that quantification produces a dehumanizing perspective of the impacts that mass migration creates. This approach is predicated on the ideology that numeration within narrative subtly works to consolidate and reduce displaced individuals into stock experiences and identities—a means of postcolonial control; however, it may also be a manageable way to establish a universally acceptable ethos. 

Fear of Persecution in Country of Origin

All people seeking asylum must provide credible narratives regarding their fear of or experience of persecution within their countries of origin. Previous scholarship which has specifically explored the implications associated with the demand for credibility narratives from displaced people (Hesford; Powell; Vogl; Heaton; Kjelsvik; Smith-Khan) argue that agencies of power, such as US Immigration, favor certain kinds of stories.[10] While this paper focuses tightly on people within the US asylum process, I understand that many countries follow similar processes which demand credible narratives within challenging and racist geopolitical contexts.[11] For example, Vogl explains that “part of the lawʼs requirement for ʻplausibleʼ evidence involves an expectation that refugee applicants tell a good story—that is, one that predominantly conforms to the conventions of model narrative forms” (63), usually centered on stock characters (Steimel) such as “savages,” “victims,” and “saviors” (Matua 1) within plotlines of escape from injustices which are highly sensationalized and recognizable, such as mass rape, (Hesford; Heaton). Also, despite the fact that the burden of proof is solely on the applicant to validate their narrative, people seeking asylum must collaborate among multiple players within the institutional setting of governmental review, such as immigration boards, translators, lawyers and judges, (Vogl; Kjelsvik; and Smith-Khan). What’s more, stories of people seeking asylum must problematically interact with the slippery geopolitical understanding of what constitutes as “credible fear” within their new locations. For example, certain EU countries have only recently ceased to psychologically test asylum applicants who claim to be homosexual or bisexual and are persecuted for their sexual orientation in their country of origin (Rainey; Wamsley). Such testing and demand for credible narratives are obviously futile attempts to methodically corroborate and classify an applicant’s sexuality, ignoring the “nuances of how sexuality might be expressed or explored in difficult situations or countries” (Rainey). Such scholarship about credibility narratives rightly pays attention to complex contexts of peoples’ lives and the stories they tell about their lives, often to save their lives. In Abraham and Santos’s respective cases, each described their reason for leaving their country in terms of governmental coercion that violated their human rights; however, they did so by quantifying their experiences as a means to authenticate their fear within US contexts. 

In the first excerpt below, Abraham immediately describes the compulsory military recruitment as an example of his lack of freedom, and his experience is emphasized by contextualizing his age at the time of recruitment (late teens), the expansive location for military training, and the amount of men overcrowded in the barracks. In the next two excerpts, Abraham continues describing the military training camp, relying heavily on hours of time, sizes, measurements, and sums. Santos also develops a narrative about the difficulty of his country of origin by emphasizing the futile conditions for the citizens, or the lack of “freedoms . . . the lack of everything that a human being deserves,” but he does so by quantifying the rampant economic oppression. Interesting about Santos’ perspective is that while his use of numbers is limited in his description of his experience, he provides general examples to point at the shared, universal concern of living wage and upward mobility associated with amounts and figures.


Extract One
(R)[12] Could you maybe tell me about . . . why you left your country, if you can?
(A) My country no have human rights. It is dictatorship.
(R) Mmhmm
(A) Government is dictatorship . . . My government is deprivation.
(R) Mmhmm
(A) All people in my country leave after eleventh grade . . . went to . . . its name is place Military Training Camp[13] . . .
(R) okay
(A) [Military Training Camp] is very, very big . . .  place. But no live . . . another person. Because only military and . . . together . . . student.
(R) oh . . . okay yeah
(A) But it’s the same like soldier, no difference. One room, very big 150
(R) people
(A) peoples but the same bed, top and bottom they both sleep.

Extract Two
(A) At five o’clock wake up.
(R) And you went here?
(A) yes, but not long time after I went away because it’s not life, because . . . I get in jail . . . that is why I run away. 
(R) So, so you . . . your government . . . after a certain age, everyone has to come to the military. 
(A) yes, I went to go to—you have rounds. Every year, you have rounds. For example, it starts round one, you have one year. Round two, again next year. Round three . . . I went to twenty-four rounds. But, it’s twenty-four rounds, 17,520 person.
(R) That was the . . . the 
(A) Yes. Went together. 
(R) Together. 
(A) Yes. Together. 17,520 person, together went. 

Extract 3
(A) But at 5 o’clock you stand up, like this [whistles]. All the people stand up. Three times like this, all the people outside . . . We want piss or urine . . . you have chance—five minutes . . . for all people. Imagine?
(R) The bathroom in . . . ?
(A) No. No bathroom. In . . .
(R) Right out there. 
(A) Right outside. All people . . . maybe one, it’s one room is like this. This room one, room two, another . . . room. It’s three to one-hundred, to one-hundred to 150. This we have three bowls. Another here, three bowls, another here, three bowls. But this for 150 persons, for all total is one bowl. This total for 150. 
(R) Mmhmm
(A) Again but again outside but one for one-hundred persons, imagine. Outside here.


Extract One
(S) They [country of origin] treat you like a prisoner. My country is an island, and I call it . . . I call it the—the “island prison.” So you cannot go out. You can be there. They feed you small food. You cannot—you cannot get a better job, even if . . . even if you . . . if you go to university. They have university. But if you become a doctor or a lawyer, there’s no point to do that because finally when you get a job in a hospital or in a bureau or something 
(R) mmhmmm
(S) your salary is going to be the same as a waiter or as a person who sells fruits in the streets. So it’s . . . you cannot go out of the country, so it’s like a prison. You know there are these prisons that they have the library—the library, you can go to the library even if you are twenty years in prison you can go and make a degree or something like that . . . but you’re still in prison. 

Abraham and Santos’ respective descriptions of their persecution demonstrate the dynamic agency that people seeking asylum may exhibit by telling accounts of asylum, and thus working within the ideology of quantification within narrative. Abraham uses numeration to demonstrate the futility of his coerced military service by repeating the pattern of military life in terms of “rounds,” a word he echoes 7 times. Although it is not a number, it involves the rhetoric of quantification as it connotes succession, routine and sequence. This seemingly unending, long-term cycle of service is emphasized as Abraham contextualizes each round as experienced by individual members of a large group: “17,520 persons.” Still, Abraham reduces these “17,520 persons” into smaller units of 150 to highlight the lack of freedoms in his everyday human experiences, especially waking up to “piss.” He describes how he was routinely awakened at the same time each day by a whistle blow repeated three distinct times. And his example of the harsh bathroom breaks demonstrates his appeal to the shared, universal and fundamental human experience of relieving oneself, but it is his precise account of the harshness in terms of quantity which makes his illustration so poignant: “five minutes,” “150 people,” “one bowl.” Within his two excerpts above, Abraham uses the strategy of numeration to describe the coercion he experienced on small and large scales. Without quantifying the various elements of this experience, listeners, such as US asylum officers, may not have adequately understood the gravity of the conditions in which Abraham was living in ways that would be credible.

Santos’ apprehension to discuss his country of origin was noticeable, and so the hypothetical examples (seen in his use of “you” and “your,” in place of “I” or “my”) and metaphors he employs here are a reasonable means to demonstrate his country’s injustices without divulging details which may have been exceptionally difficult to reveal. By comparing home life with a prison sentence of “twenty years,” Santos is able to quantify, in lengthy terms, the meaninglessness of economic and scholarly pursuits in his home country. For Santos, there is no proportionate compensation for a citizen’s efforts to earn a living wage. In addition, by developing a plausible narrative about an experience that he did not endure in exactly the same way, a wider audience is able to identify with his point: the unusual comparison of the imagined salaries of a doctor with a fruit vendor illustrates the economic control which his government exercises. 

The result of their strategy here is multi-faceted: first, by relying on quantification rhetoric, or accounts of asylum, someone seeking asylum is essentially able to enter into the globalized migration conversation in ways that are familiar with audiences in the global North; also, through quantification, a person seeking asylum may be able to satisfy the required detailed account for the purposes of their credible fear interview.

Difficulty in Immigration Journey

Perhaps what is most familiar to media consumers of asylum credibility narratives is the extreme and often tragic depictions of the geographical escape and migration itself (Tomasi; De Poli, et al.). There is a growing awareness that displaced people are not simply telling their story, or recounting events which they have experienced (Powell, Identity; Kjelsvik). Instead, people seeking asylum may be also be painfully aware of the need to establish both “credible fear” and also what Graham Huggan would describe as “cultural authenticity” (157). Huggan describes how commodified ethnic autobiographies demonstrate “obvious tensions created between oppositional forms of ‘marginal’ writing and the multiple constraints placed upon them by the mainstream demands they are invited—or even expected—to meet” (157). In other words, claiming authenticity is a complex endeavor because it requires discourses which include a culturally exclusive experience while also incorporating culturally stereotypical people, events, and experiences to serve the “international ‘market reader’” (176). 

Huggan examines how a marginalized rhetor often enacts “strategic exoticism,” a composition technique in which “postcolonial writers/thinkers, working from within exoticist codes of representation, either manage to subvert those codes . . .  or succeed in redeploying them for the purposes of uncovering differential relations of power” (32). In other words, a commodified, culturally “authentic work” contains universally recognizable stock characters, as well as particular “(inter)cultural” key traces and distinctions of a particular, local culture. In cultural production, this is a savvy rhetorical move which, according to Huggan, allows the rhetor to compose narratives “to their own ideological ends,” not necessarily for economic profit (176).

While Huggan’s point is not specifically contextualized within the rhetorics surrounding displacement credibility narratives, it is meaningful in this discussion because the means in which marginalized rhetors establish an ethos of authenticity to audiences in the global North is comparable to the rhetorical ecology of credible fear interviews. While I am not conflating an asylum seeker’s composing process with that of a fiction author, I do understand that audiences, such as those in the US, consume and commodify narratives of marginalized authors similarly across rhetorical contexts and genres, such as fiction, news media, humanitarian aid rhetoric, and even institutional contexts (Hesford; Powell, Identity; Vogl). 

In the excerpts which follow, and despite the differences in Abraham and Santos’ respective modes of travel, they each develop their journey narrative through quantifying time and amounts of resources in order to showcase their determination to enter the US through quantifying amounts of both time and money, the following excerpts show how both Abraham and Santos portray the physical severity of the escape, possibly playing into what US audiences would deem culturally authentic asylum journeys.


Extract One
(A) I worked there . . . for two years in African countrySouth American Country . . . first I traveled by boat . . . about 4 hours. I spent 4 days in the jungle . . . South American Country to Central American Country. I sleeping outside . . . it was jungle. Then again Central American Country travel, travel walking, fifteen hours. Traveling, travel—yes walking, fifteen hours. About four hours by car in Central American Country. Four hours by car, one hour by horse. 


Extract One
(S) But at that moment, when I found myself in Latin American Country, I didn’t have any money. Because . . . I mean, the money that I took, that my mother gave me was not enough. I had two options. One is buy or pay a smuggler ten-thousand dollars or fifteen-thousand dollars to them. To bring me over all of these countries by the jungles, by boats, by plane and, but I didn’t want to take that risk because I knew that many people die in the journey, many people get killed, they die of starvation or killed by some animal or smugglers themselves. And the other way that I find—that I found—was working in Latin American Country and save money, and that’s what I did. 
(R) okay
(S) But . . . mmmm . . . at that moment, I didn’t have the residence of Latin American Country or any permission to work in Latin American Country, so it was very, very difficult for me to find a job in Latin American Country
(R) Mmhmmm
(S) So . . . mmmm . . . most of the time, well, I- I, I remember that I was, that I was going to interviews, job interviews, maybe twice a day, and in all the interviews, all the jobs that I was going to present myself, they said no. No because you are not from Latin American Country. No because you do not have the mmmm . . . permission or the paperwork, proper permission to work, or they just said no. 
(R) yeah
(S) Because they put first the Latin American Country people than the rest, no matter if you are very educated or—they don’t care—so, I began washing dishes at night in a karaoke cafe and then they didn’t pay me what they said what they were going to pay me, they lied to me. And from one job of that kind to another, I began to . . . to . . . to run out of money, out of food, out of money, and I began to starve. So I didn’t have no food, no money. It was very, very hard. No one could help me, so . . . and . . .  in the meantime I was doing the paperwork, I mean . . . I want to—I didn’t want to go back to my country anymore. Even though I have family, I have a very important family there. And well finally, the first year in that it was the worst year of my life, I, I got the residency—the residency of Latin American Country—after fighting and after doing what it is impossible to do what I did, and in—in—in—in March 2015, I began to work in a company, security company . . . and they offered me a better job. 

Both men develop accounts of asylum that may be all too recognizable for US audiences who consume narratives of displacement: perilous journeys, grueling experiences, and even exploitation. Through exact specification of amounts and times, Abraham begins by establishing the extended duration of time it took for him to save money to leave for the US, and he then provides details about the length of each leg of his travel, along with means of transport and setting; the exact extent of time in his description provides a support of the narrative and also works as a feature of awe for the listeners. On the other hand, while Santos seems to only numerate the overwhelmingly expensive cost of hiring a human smuggler and his numerous attempts to find a job, he is in fact also quantifying his lack of income, thus sustenance, along his journey to the US—“I didn’t have any money . . . they didn’t pay me . . . out of money . . . no food . . . no money”—to develop his narrative of hardship and the “impossible” circumstances which he was able to overcome. Even the term, “starve” develops the theme of lack and absence of quantity. These descriptions are working similarly to the excessive amounts common throughout the narrative data, and the preciseness and striking value is still effectively at play. While such accounts need to be heard, there is a danger in focusing or gazing fixedly at the journeys of people seeking asylum, as it is but one aspect of the process of a person’s endeavor toward refuge, and it does little to explain why they have left their homes in the first place.

Difficulty in Asylum Process

Not only is the US asylum process difficult to navigate, but it is also in perpetual change within the current administration. Briefly explained, a person is eligible to apply for asylum if they are able to effectively persuade the US that they are “unable or unwilling to return to their country of nationality . . . because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion” (I-589 Instructions 2). To do so, applicants must share their migration story numerous times to various agents of power. If entering through a US Customs and Border Protection Port of Entry,[14] a person seeking asylum may be asked to immediately describe their basis for seeking asylum informally to immigration officers. Prior to the Migrant Protection Protocol (otherwise known as “Remain in Mexico,” which began in Texas in the summer of 2019), a policy which forces certain asylum applicants to stay in Mexico while their case is being processed in the US, people seeking asylum, like Abraham and Santos, were then detained before being sent to an immigration detention center, often located in deep rural areas where lawyers are scarce. There, they have the opportunity to officially begin the asylum process through a “credible fear interview,” where they are asked detailed questions about why they are fearful of living in their home country. During the interview, despite the high likelihood that the asylum applicant is emotionally and physically distressed and perhaps confused about the asylum process, the “burden of proof is on [the person seeking asylum] to establish that [they] are eligible for asylum or other protection in the United States” (Credible Fear). Once the asylum officer approves that the applicant’s fear is authentic, the applicant must complete and submit the written asylum application, and sometime after (often months) attend their hearing with an immigration judge where their official decision for asylum, deportation, or withholding of removal is confirmed. Throughout the process, applicants are reminded of their obligation to “provide a detailed and specific account of the basis of [their] claim to asylum” with as much supporting documentation as possible (I-589 Application 5).

In their own retelling of the events and setting of his credible fear interview and adjudication of their cases, Santos and Abraham’s respective narratives demonstrate quantifiers to describe the difficulty of their asylum process upon entering the US, especially highlighting the absence of individual attention to their narratives. 


Extract One
(S) I—I—I—I stayed there for 4 days. No shower, no washing your mouth, no—only in a small room that we call the freezer, in Spanish is “la hielera.”
(R) mmhmmm
(S) Because it is too cold. They do it on purpose, I don’t know why. Maybe—a small room like this. I mean two meters by two meters. Eh . . . They . . . they keep there maybe twenty to thirty immigrants sleeping on the floor, covering themselves with only with a sheet of like . . . aluminum paper
(R) yeah
(S) You underst-
(R) Yes
(S) This—this very thin . . . that you see on the movies, well . . . that wasn’t a movie, that was real life. I stayed there four days. After that, they opened the door, they said, you, you, you, you and you, pick up all of your S-H-
(R) Mmhmmm
(S) that you leaving this place. Where are we going to? You don’t care. It’s not your problem. Okay. So they took me to . . . Southwest US 
(R) okay
(S) So I stayed in Southwest US twelve days. Twelve days, and eh . . . many officers there, they were saying, like “you are immigrant, like you are nothing, you are garbage, you don’t deserve to be here. This is my country. This is—we don’t want you here.” I mean from one-hundred officers, maybe one or two were nice or just normal.
(R) mmhmm, mmhmmm
(S) And I don’t know why, but always the—the nicer ones, they look like white, blonde, blue eyes. But the bad officers always look like descendant of immigrants too.
(R) mmhmmm
(S) I don’t know, maybe Mexico, South America, Central America, who knows?
(R) yeah
(S) but anyway, I was there, I had to follow the process
(R) right
(S) After twelve days in Southwest US, the final day they moved me to South US. Well, finally, I spent the rest of the time, I mean total like eight months . . . in detention . . . I mean the whole process. Eh . . . when, when I got to the South US Detention Center, it was the—it was the eh . . . the—the center that supposed to—I mean where I supposed to do all the procedure. And when I got there, the first thing that they did was—mmmm—that they did to me was—the credible fear interview. 
(R) sure
(S) so, you have the right to have that credible fear interview, but also, it’s not like a right, it’s like they have to be sure that you deserve to go in front of the immigration judge. Eh—to see if you have chance to win your case or to receive any benefits from the government. Because other—I think—that otherwise everybody could go there by millions and immigration judges are not—I mean—they are very busy, they are very busy because they don’t have time for you. You can wait for eight months, but when you see him, you only see him twenty minutes. 
(R) mmhmmm
(S) maybe one hour, and it’s finished.
(R) yeah
(S) and he will forget you. Because he has many—too many—thousands of cases.


Extract One
(A) I need freedom . . . from the United States. After eight months [in detention], they say . . . the judge release because no can go back my country. [. . . ] I say everyday, ‘United States is a safe country’ so I came here.
(R) mmhmmm. And did you know about the asylum, like the process?
(A) ah, no. Getting first in immigration. I know this [immigration process] because I start a case.
(R) you started a case.
(A) yes, but after three months, four months maybe, I take a lawyer
(R) and was that helpful?
(A) not for—Why? Just bad support because it is just rules because me no write good English, and that’s why I take my lawyer, but my lawyer is Jesus Christ. 
(R) mmhmmm
(A) I tell the judge my history, why I was scared. Never helped me. Why help me? Lawyer. 

Extract Two
(A) But I don’t know before this [US asylum process] in my country, but I liked [this country], so I came here.
(R) mmhmmm
(A) But judge say, “okay. I listen to you. But you—but your country was problems, right?” I say, “my country is not safe country.” 
(R) right
(A) And first I say, “back in my country I know one-hundred persons—101! Plus one! [bangs on his chest] plus myself. I know back in my country could get in my chair. I’m sure. I’m sure no liar. Really. After [If I return to my country] I don’t know. Because maybe my government kill me. Hit me, I’m sure, but you have a chance maybe. Maybe break my legs, I don’t know. 

The process of seeking asylum is lengthy and is shared by hundreds of thousands of people in the US immigration system. Santos and Abraham both comment on their frustration of the impersonal ramifications of enduring such a process through quantification. For example, measurements and temperatures of the detaining room, along with the number of human bodies that he shared this space with, underscore not only that Santos’s experience with US immigration officers is authentic— “that wasn’t a movie, it was real life”—but that the experience was also dehumanizing. Even Santos’ retelling of how the immigration officer addresses those in holding is indicative of the faceless, patterned tally in which the US perceives displaced people: “you, you, you, you and you”—a thought further developed later in his account as he realizes he is one of “too many—thousands of cases” (and in a hypothetical open-border system, one of “millions”). Ultimately, he understands that the US will only be able to decide his individual case based on “twenty minutes . . . maybe one hour” only to erase him from their memory. 

By composing within this ideology of quantification, Santos is poised to subtly critique it (Bhabha; Spivak). His use of numbers here demonstrates both the incongruity between his extended wait for his case to be heard and the limited amount of time of the hearing itself. In other words, Santos “mimics” the dominant mode of discourse surrounding displacement in order to critique the backlogged system itself (Bhabha). 

In contrast to Santos, Abraham’s descriptions about the US asylum system are notably vague, especially compared to his descriptions of his experiences in his home country and while in transit. He is not sure how long he waited to receive legal help: “three months, four months maybe.” His lack of detail is interesting when considering his admitted insecurity about his English. He revealed to me that during the “credible fear” interview, he was preoccupied that the translator that worked in the room was not accurately communicating the details of his circumstances of persecution. He also, in a rare moment of raising his voice during our interview, describes how the lawyer who was supposed to help him with communicating his narrative was no help at all, and he relied on his Christian faith as support instead. Perhaps what is most interesting is that Abraham claims that during the hearing when he faced the judge to learn the ruling on his case, he employed quantification as a means of authentication. Abraham claims to have told the judge plainly, “back in my country I know one-hundred persons—101! Plus one! [bangs on his chest] plus myself. I know back in my country could get in my chair. I’m sure. I’m sure no liar. Really.” Perhaps this suggests that people seeking asylum who are not fluent in English also use quantification as a universally recognizable means of communication; however, it more poignantly suggests how Abraham frames his authenticity on an individual and quantifiable level. By juxtaposing himself as the “one,” against a general sample of one-hundred who have suffered like him, Abraham draws attention to his own story and lived experience, instead of a faceless mass of many.  


Abraham and Santos’s stories are rich, not simply in their detailed accounts of spectacular rhetoric of persecution and escape; their accounts of asylum meaningfully demonstrate how quantification, as a rhetorical strategy, works as a means to discursively achieve the multi-layered goals of the stories they tell, such as establishing fear of persecution in their country of origin; authenticating the difficulty of their immigration journey; and even critiquing the ambiguous and dehumanized US asylum process. Through noticing the use of quantification in their accounts of asylum, I am able to begin to read how people seeking asylum speak back to reductive narratives and portrayals of their experiences, thus advocating for scholars to carefully observe the meaningful nuance in first-hand representations of marginalization and oppression. Indeed, the mainstream, universal narratives of displacement distract from or constrict the understanding of specific, local contexts which lead to the displacement to begin with. Looking forward, future rhetorical studies with people seeking asylum should aim for complex, nuanced representations of the individual stories and contexts within human rights dialogues, as well as an awareness of how western framing of such narratives/visualizations promotes established networks of geopolitical power.

Toward that end, I advocate for rhetorical scholars to build and nourish a transnational rhetorical literacy approach in our readings of displacement. Dingo articulates that such an approach compels “rhetoric and composition scholars to examine critically our own literacy, writing practices, and pedagogies making sure that we connect localized and individual micro-stories to global macro-conditions . . .” (“Macro and Micro” 536). In her illuminating essay, “Networking the Macro and Micro: Toward Transnational Literacy Practices,” Dingo explains how a transnational feminist literacy practice traces the overlapping global systems of power in which marginalized people exist. Thus, a transnational feminist literacy seeks to blur the simplistic and complicate the reductive about marginalized and oppressed people and the power relations which contribute to the systemic inequality in their daily lives (544).  

As a cultural rhetorician, I too must rely on such contextualization, or I may simply perpetuate the simplistic understanding of forced displacement, the proposed solutions that are involved, and most significant, the people who are displaced. A practical way to achieve a more transnational rhetorical literacy, I argue, is to make connections between the stories my participants tell and the socio-cultural and geopolitical contexts with which they must interact (Dingo, “Macro and Micro” 540), such as the US immigration system. For example, by listening to Abraham and Santos’s respective accounts of asylum with a reliance on quantification, it becomes apparent how metanarratives, largely co-produced and demanded from audiences in the global North contribute to the ideologies found within stories of those seeking asylum as well as listeners’ interpretation/validation of displacement. The result is a narrative cycle of supply and demand or a type of displacement rhetorics echo chamber. Additionally, by tracing Abraham and Santos’ respective use of quantification within the stages of their journey through the US asylum system, I am able to notice their shades of rhetorical agency in their accounts which are working to critique the dehumanization of people seeking asylum they have endured within the system itself. And in the end, with an appreciation of how deeply linked storytelling and asylum really are, noticing the humanity and hope within such a rhetorical approach to agency is a critical part of conversations about displacement and the people who must endure it.

[1] “The Blessed Inn” is a pseudonym, but the meaning of the shelter’s actual name, also in Spanish, remains intact.

[2] The US requires a preliminary screening for many seeking asylum known as the “Credible Fear Interview.” This interview, conducted by a federally trained asylum officer with the US Immigration and Citizenship Services, asks people seeking asylum to describe, in extensive and specific detail, their persecution or fear of persecution. 

[3] Ultimately, I was not trying to capture a "sample size" as would be the case in positivist research. Nor was I seeking a saturation of content, since every person at the shelter has a different story. Instead, I attempted to gather a snapshot in time within a space of very transient people, and my study was limited by voluntary participation and language abilities. Overall, 2 critical case studies such as these offer a reasonable contribution (from this area) to the conversation. 

[4] Pseudonyms have been used to protect the privacy of the research participants.

[5] This study was approved by Old Dominion University’s Internal Review Board, IRB approval #18-024. 

[6] Instead, Abraham and Santos each received “withholding of removal,” in their respective cases. This decision allows them temporary permission to stay and apply for a work permit; however, the ruling also stipulates that upon improvement of living conditions in their respective country of origin, they will face deportation. As they await a work permit, they resided at the shelter temporarily with many others in similar circumstances.

[7] While I planned to informally share my interpretations of the data with the participants, both Abraham and Santos had moved on from the shelter at the time of writing this article. Instead, I provided a copy of this article to the shelter director for review. 

[8] It is important to reemphasize that while I did not collect data within an institutional context, the narratives I present here are still relevant in inquiring how people seeking asylum establish credibility within such contexts, as in the credible fear interview itself, in that both Abraham and Santos’ physical, legal, and eligibility for employment statuses were liminal and still in flux at the time of the data collection. In sum, their decisions of “withholding of removal,” are perpetual reminders that their permission to reside in the US is impermanent; thus, I argue that the data presented here may demonstrate how both participants feel the need to reaffirm their ethos when sharing about their immigration experience.

[9] For the purposes of this article, I have collected excerpts by theme with the awareness that by omitting sections of Abraham and Santos’ stories, and reordering these extracts in an alternative way that differs from their own respective tellings, I am implicated in co-constructing these narratives which may be interpreted as reductive. This study (as all inquiry surrounding displacement narratives should) comes with apprehension and acknowledgment that my contribution to the conversation is a complicated entanglement in a wide system of scholarship, social justice, and postcolonial commodification and exploitation. Heaton; Hugman, Pittaway and Bartolomei; Powell; Puvimanasinghe et al.; and Sumathy offer meaningful discussion concerning researcher roles and goals when working with human subjects, especially displaced populations, and their life stories. 

[10] Without intending to conflate various processes of asylum across geopolitical contexts, it can be argued that the underlying common theme of credible displacement narratives is the perpetuation of western power throughout the postcolonial world (Hesford; Powell).

[11] While I focus my discussion here on the US assessment of credible fear narratives, it is important to point out that the vast majority of people who are displaced are seeking international protection in developing countries within the global south. In other words, the necessary, yet complicated, supply and demand of credible fear narratives exists in various forms in many geographical regions and is not simply an issue of concern for the global north.

[12] A: Abraham; S: Santos; R: Author

[13] In an effort for confidentiality, I have substituted specific names of locations and countries with general terms or geographical regions indicated by the use of italics. 

[14] A port of entry is any place, such as a harbor, border city, or airport by which people and goods may legally enter a country. Common ports of entry for people seeking asylum are located in California, Arizona, and Texas.

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