Who Gets Believed?: When the Truth Isn't Enough

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Release Date: 
March 7, 2023
Reviewed by: 

Dina Nayeri’s book centers on the immigration process for potential asylum seekers to the United States and to the UK. It becomes clear within the first few chapters that the author is a fine storyteller with accounts that enlighten, entertain, and clearly elucidate her thesis. The stories, true but disguised, have been obtained from immigration officers, visa candidates, and lawyers. The content will surprise and possibly enrage the reader about our home country, already a land almost totally of immigrants.

The details show an immigration system that is broken in ways that most of us would not assume. Asylum officers are evaluated on how many potential immigrants are denied, not how many that are accepted. Despite extreme hardship to themselves or their families, abuse, mental and physical torture, the asylum applicants present histories that are often disbelieved. This despite the apparently obvious likelihood that they are relating truth, which will often be repeated if they return to their homes. Hence the book’s subtitle When the Truth Is Not Enough.

In addition to providing truthful accounts of “a good story” the immigrant must be totally consistent and believable even though the officer is trying to “trip up” the immigrant through lengthy interrogations and repeatedly asking the same questions. When even the smallest details are not consistent, it provides a black mark on the application and can often lead to rejection. Signs such as burn marks from metal rods, broken bones, cuts and bruises, which in many ways should be prima facia evidence of torture, the official will attempt to poke holes in the story and even suggest that the immigrant has self-inflicted the signs or hired someone else to create them. It makes no difference if it is well known that perverse elements in the immigrants’ home country have used these methods of torture on a regular basis, the evaluator tries to find reasons to reject the client.

While the stories alone are a reason to read this book, in describing which applicants are believed and which are not, the author gives elements which can apply to the reader’s everyday life. For all of us it is often crucial to be believed. Witnesses to a crime, defendants in a trial, or descriptions of an event to an insurance company and public speakers to name a few, need to be believed by listeners. Simple issues such as visual presentation and body posture can quickly affect those who are hearing an immigrant’s account.

Another factor affecting believability is the quality of the applicant’s speech. It is much more believable to listeners if the speaker uses common idioms or analogies correctly and less believable if they do not. In courts of law or immigration courts, which lawyer represents the immigrant can be crucially important. Certain social situations or classes almost automatically point toward untruthfulness (such as persons already in jail who are frequently judged to be liars). Undercover police must be totally believable to obtain the evidence that they attempt to uncover. Entering a new social group, persons will find it much easier if they speak believably. Unfortunately Immigration officers often disbelieve even photographs, which are felt to be “staged” to support the immigrants’ claims. Some evaluators correctly base their judgment on the law, while others have predetermined biases coloring the outcome.

Thus this book gives the reader information that they may use in situations where they wish to be believed and signs or signals which may raise the possibility of disbelief. As is so often the case it is the person who has been through the process herself (as the author has) or someone who looks at the system without having been raised in American culture who best shows us the faults in our system. In Who Gets Believed? the author also courageously exposes her own beliefs, biases, and foibles in revealing the unfortunate and at times dishonest behavior of our government officials. It is a must read for anyone wishing to have an unbiased view of a crucial part of our society and wishing to see reality as it is, not as we hope it is.