Ibragim Todashev told federal immigration officials he feared persecution in his native Russia and needed safe harbor in the United States. He won asylum in 2008, then a green card. Then, relatives said, Todashev made plans to return to the country he’d fled.
Before he could follow through on those plans, the 27-year-old was shot and killed in Orlando on May 22 by an FBI agent investigating the Boston Marathon bombings. But Todashev’s willingness to return to a place he said he feared is raising new questions about his asylum claim, and focusing new attention on the asylum case of his friend, suspected Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
“I haven’t seen any justification for the granting of asylum to any of them, to be honest,” said Mark Kramer, director of the Cold War Studies program at Harvard, who is not involved in either case. “I am baffled because I’ve known of others who applied and been turned down in cases that seemed to me far more deserving than these.”
Federal immigration officials say they cannot discuss the cases because asylum claims are generally confidential to protect applicants, who might be victims of war, rape, or other atrocities. But critics say the law also protects people who concoct stories to win asylum and eventually, US citizenship.
Thousands of foreigners seek asylum every year in the United States. According to federal law, to be granted asylum, they must fear persecution in their homeland based on their political opinion, race, religion, nationality,or membership in a particular social group, such as people who are gay or lesbian.
Federal officials can revoke asylum for reasons that include if immigrants voluntarily return to the homeland they feared, but revocations are rare. Since 1994, immigration officials have rescinded 1,582 asylum grants, less than 1 percent of roughly 300,000 granted during that time. The Department of Justice’s immigration courts also grant asylum, but a spokeswoman said the courts do not track revocations.
Advocates for asylum seekers say the federal system is designed to prevent fraud. Asylum officers or immigration judges question immigrants, hear witness testimony, and review records, including newspaper accounts, research reports, and medical evaluations that can corroborate torture or post-traumatic stress.
And advocates point out that it is not uncommon for asylum seekers to return home when they feel it is safe, after wars end or political regimes turn over.
“Country conditions change,” said Christy Fujio, director of the asylum program for Physicians for Human Rights, a Cambridge nonprofit that helps asylum applicants find doctors to evaluate their claims. “The fact that they feel safe going back now doesn’t mean that at the time they applied and were granted asylum that there wasn’t a very real danger for them.”
But others say the US government should better investigate cases in which immigrants such as Todashev are willing to return to the places they fled. They say the asylum system remains plagued by fraudulent applications from foreigners desperate to remain in the United States. In recent years, federal immigration officials have accused lawyers and others of submitting hundreds of fraudulent asylum claims from citizens of China, Albania, and other countries.
“If it was safe enough to go back, then it’s questionable why they should’ve gotten asylum in the first place,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington organization that favors tough controls on immigration. “It just indicates the difficulty of really verifying these claims.”
Todashev and the Tsarnaevs were ethnic Chechens, and in the past, the US government has granted asylum to Chechens who fled two brutal civil wars that started in 1994, when Russian troops clamped down on an uprising of Islamic separatists in Chechnya, a semiautonomous region in southern Russia.
But Todashev’s father, Abdulbaki, has told the Globe that his son had no reason to fear persecution in Chechnya. He said his family fled the fighting in Chechnya but returned home five or six years ago. Now he is a department head in the local government.
“He was too young to fight in the war, and he has nothing to fear here now,” Todashev said. “He would have faced no oppression here.”
His father said Ibragim left for America in 2008 on an exchange visa to study English. Abdulbaki Todashev also obtained a visa in 2006 but never used it, a federal official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
On May 22, a Boston FBI agent shot and killed Ibragim Todashev, who had two prior arrests for violent attacks, after he allegedly initiated a violent confrontation during an interrogation. His family and friends dispute that account and called for an independent investigation.
Todashev’s father said his son, who recently received a green card, was planning to come home to visit his family. He was the oldest of 12 children.
The case of the Tsarnaev family is more complex. Friends and relatives say Anzor Tsarnaev, the father of the suspected Marathon bombers, suffered effects from persecution, though it remains unclear what those effects are.
His son Tamerlan, 26, died after a shoot-out with police in Watertown, and his other son Dzhokhar, 19, remains in federal custody.
Relatives said Anzor Tsarnaev came to America in April 2002 and won political asylum, which also likely covered his wife and children. The country he feared persecution in is Kyrgyzstan, the former Soviet republic where he was born, according to a federal official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Maret Tsarnaeva, Anzor Tsarnaev’s sister, told the Wall Street Journal that Tsarnaev was fired from his job in the prosecutor’s office in Kyrgyzstan after the second war erupted in Chechnya. She said he suffered persecution in Kyrgyzstan because he was Chechen, and that she helped write his application for asylum.
“We were lucky to take him out of Kyrgyzstan alive,” Tsarnaeva, who lives in Canada, said in an interview broadcast online after the bombings. She did not elaborate and did not respond to messages left on her cellphone.
Representatives at the Kyrgyz Embassy in Washington declined to comment but said they would look into reports that Anzor Tsarnaev suffered persecution there.
About a year ago, according to media reports, Tsarnaev moved to Dagestan, the southern Russia home of his former wife, though researchers say the fighting is now more intense than when he came to America. His former wife, Zubiedat, also returned home, and their son Tamerlan, visited last year.
Former neighbors in Kyrgyzstan told reporters that Anzor Tsarnaev also visited his hometown of Tokmok in the past year, a decade after he sought asylum.
Anzor Tsarnaev had suffered health problems and divorced in 2011. But one former neighbor said Tsarnaev seemed content.
“He was very happy and proud of his sons’ success in the US,” Badrudi Tsokoev, a former neighbor told the Associated Press, describing Tsarnaev’s visit. “We also were happy for him.”
David Filipov contributed to this story. Maria Sacchetti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti.