Before you judge the housekeeper

Some of you enjoyed Mike McGovern’s ethnography of development economists.

For those that did, see Andy Gelman’s comment on the statistical argument under Mike’s claims here.

Also, Mike is an expert on Guinea among other things. He had an op-ed in yesterday’s NY Times on a certain hotel housekeeper and her apparent deceit:

asylum claimants are often asked to perform an impossible task. They must prove they have been subject to the most crushing forms of oppression and violence — for this, bodies bearing the scars of past torture are a boon — while demonstrating their potential to become hard-working and well-adjusted citizens.

This is where the lies and embellishments creep into some asylum seekers’ narratives. Immigrants share tips and hunches about ways to outwit the system, even as immigration judges try to discover the claimants’ latest ruses.

…Many Africans feel the International Monetary Fund, which Mr. Strauss-Kahn led, and the World Bank have been more committed to the free flow of money and commodities like bauxite than to the free flow of people and the fulfillment of their aspirations.

Guinean press accounts, and recent conversations I’ve had with Guineans, suggest that they disapprove of the deceptions by Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s accuser. But given the poverty and systemic violence in their country, they understand the circumstances in which such deception could occur — and we should, too.

There are other good points. Read it here.


5 thoughts on “Before you judge the housekeeper

  1. I worked at a rehabilitation centre for survivors of torture for a few years. Something that I see missing in all this is that it is not uncommon for victims of torture, or rape or other traumatic experiences to lie about their experiences because simply telling the “real” truth is re-traumatizing for them. Many also experience actual chemical changes in their brains after abuse, that can affect memory and neuro-hormone responses.
    Many times I found that people’s “lies” of their experiences had basis in truth, and that the more I got to know them and when they were more comfortable with me, the more I realized that in many cases, the “truth” was far worse than the “lies” they had told about their experience.

  2. what has non declaration of FGC status got to do with this case?
    as the case will now swing on character, balance demands that the prosecution also pores into every detail of the lives of our two principal characters!

    • As an attorney having dealt with asylum cases, I can back McGovern’s point. Unfortunately the status is often granted based upon how well you can fit your facts into the narrative that ILJs are looking for rather than what the truth is (but then I guess you can say that just about any legal cases).

      Of course, many of the refugees have indeed gone through extreme hardship, and whether they can stay or not may even mean life or death for them. But that’s not enough under the system, you have to prove that your hardship was “persecution” as a result of your opinion or characteristic corresponding to one of the five specific categories mentioned in law. Since it’s not that often that somebody’s story would fit so neatly into that narrow definition (and let’s admit it, many of them probably came for a reason that had nothing to do with that hollywood-movie-alike political persecution ILJs are looking for, although it still probably had to do with a very sympathetic situation), embellishment, distortion and even deception are a lot more common than we would like to admit.

      The FGM status probably came up because it is, as a senior asylum attorney I once worked with put it, a “slam dunk” piece of evidence that, if true, would have dramatically strengthened her case (which also shows the problem of this system– if it is functional, there shouldn’t this kind of “trendy” flavor-of-the-month narratives that get you through the door more easily). So I guess what the journalists were saying was that, if she had a reasonably competent lawyer and if it it was true, it’s hard to believe that she would not have put that down in her application. But that still doesn’t answer the question I share with Noel, i.e. what that has anything to do with this case.

      On that note, I thought this Slate article summarized a lot of what I was thinking about while watching this case develop, although the author does seem a bit too defensive about the victim.

      • It’s almost certainly the case that she had undergone FGM. The 1999 DHS showed 99% of women in Guinea had, and I think she emigrated sometime in the 90s. (The figure was 96% in a more recent DHS.)

  3. Its refreshing to see such a reasoned point of view which doesn’t try to demonize or make a saint of either character. Recently I have been particularly annoyed at how the fact that the housekeeper did not declare having undergone FGM on her asylum application despite her statements to the contrary has been used to call into question her character. Theres a nice little commentary on this here: