Singaporean teenage dissident Amos Yee, held in an Illinois jail following a US political asylum bid, faces at least several more days behind bars during the holiday lull period – and may have to wait years to find out if American authorities will grant him citizenship, his lawyer said on Saturday.
US officials meanwhile confirmed the 18-year-old was detained at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on December 16.
Yee was detained and sent to the McHenry County Jail near Chicago after he told immigration officials during a secondary screening that he was seeking asylum.
He was turned over to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and remains in their custody “pending federal immigration court proceedings,” a Department of Homeland Security official told This Week in Asia.
Yee served two jail stints in Singapore for online posts denigrating religion and an obscene cartoon featuring the country’s late founding leader Lee Kuan Yew.
Maryland-based lawyer Sandra Grossman, who is representing Yee on a pro-bono basis, said Yee was likely detained because he entered the US with a tourist visa despite “an intention to apply for asylum or remain” in the country.
“This would have meant he was present without possession of a valid visa or entry document, making him inadmissible to the US, and subject to what is known as expedited removal,” Grossman said.
To obtain political asylum, Yee would first have to undergo a “Credible Fear Interview” by an asylum official who would assess if he faces a “credible fear of persecution or torture”.
After a positive credible fear determination, he would likely be released from detention to await a court hearing on his asylum bid. He would have the right to remain in the US and seek work authorisation during this period.
The holiday season could delay Yee’s case being referred for the first interview, Grossman said. The interview process usually takes a few days. “We are calling and writing to ICE in Chicago with the hopes that they will interview him quickly,” she said.
The subsequent opportunity to appear before an immigration judge could take years because of backlogs in the immigration system, Grossman added.
“Once his case goes before an immigration judge, I think his chances are extremely high.”
Singapore’s foreign ministry did not immediately comment on the case. A Singaporean diplomatic source said the city-state does not extend consular aid to asylum seekers.
News of Yee’s detention drew vastly opposing views in Singapore after it was first reported on Friday by This Week in Asia. The teenager – who has more than 40,000 followers on Facebook and thousands of others on Twitter and YouTube – is a polarising figure in Singapore.
Some view him as an enfant terrible challenging the city-state’s tight lid on dissent, while others regard him as a divisive attention seeker. On Friday, some online commentators speculated that Yee’s asylum bid was aimed at dodging conscription – which is compulsory for all able-bodied male citizens and permanent residents in Singapore once they turn 18.
Yee was first jailed for four weeks in July last year for wounding religious feelings in an expletive-laden YouTube video comparing Singapore’s late political patriarch Lee with Jesus and for posting an obscene image featuring the leader and the late former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The video, titled “Lee Kuan Yew is finally dead!” was uploaded days after Lee’s death at age 91 on March 23 last year, sparking widespread public anger.
In September this year, a local court sentenced him to six weeks imprisonment for similar offences of wounding religious feelings in online comments criticising Christianity and Islam.
In an interview with online portal The News Lens International after his last jail stint, Yee said he was a changed man who had “transitioned from an entertainer to a full-fledged activist”.
“At around the same time as going to jail, I thought I should change my approach,” he said in the interview published on December 12.
Rights groups say Yee’s convictions showcase Singapore’s overly tough laws to curb dissent, but the ruling People’s Action Party has long defended limits on freedom of speech to ensure social stability in the multi-ethnic and multireligious country.