Assimilation is one of the most critical aspects of any successful immigration system. It determines whether an aspiring migrant will be able to adapt to a nation’s values, laws, and culture. And no, this type of assimilation doesn’t mean that one must throw away all of the cultural heritage that makes a person who they are. Rather, it means that they must reconcile their heritage with the laws and values of the nation they wish to join.
A breaking story in New Hampshire highlights the importance of this concept. According to court records obtained by the New Hampshire Union Leader, a prosecutor dropped domestic violence charges against Augustin Bahati, a Congolese refugee, when she unilaterally decided “that he lacked the cultural competency to participate in the American justice system.” In essence, this means that the prosecutor determined Bahati was still so rooted in his old culture – where domestic violence is presumably acceptable – that he was incapable of being legally responsible for violating American domestic abuse laws.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where Bahati is originally from, sexual abuse and domestic violence are commonplace. In fact, The DRC is often referred to as “the rape capital of the world.” Throughout the 20-year, ongoing civil war within the republic’s borders, the Brooking’s Institution estimates that as many as 48 rapes occur every hour, largely stemming from members of rival militias. In addition, there are very few laws on the books aimed at protecting women from spousal abuse.
This decision is highly troubling, especially since Bahati’s alleged crimes include “striking, pushing, grabbing, kicking and pulling out the hair” of a woman who was 27 weeks pregnant, according to the Union Leader. What the Manchester prosecutor seems to be saying, is that Bahati’s domestic abuse should be tolerated, because he is new to the United States and still acting according to the moral and legal standards of his native country.
This reasoning makes little sense when all the facts are considered. According to documents obtained from the court, Bahati had already participated in classes designed to help new refugees understand the American legal system, including domestic abuse laws. Bahati should have known better. But even if he didn’t, it makes no difference. In the United States, ignorance of the law has never been considered an adequate defense for a crime.
A responsible immigration system should be aware of the harsh realities in places like the DRC, and should closely vet every applicant, impressing upon them that it is their obligation to adhere to the cultural customs and the laws of this nation. The United States must make it clear that negative cultural practices, such as abuse and sexual violence will not be tolerated here. Such a system weeds out the bad apples and allows us to (in a responsible manner) offer visas and/or refugee status to displaced men, women and children at risk of abuse, instead of the individuals who are responsible for inflicting it.
The American immigration system failed the alleged victims of Augustin Bahati before a prosecutor did, and that’s a shame. If we are unwilling to adequately vet immigrants and refugees by American legal and cultural standards, then we invite with open arms the trouble that is collapsing their home countries. Assimilation isn’t about imposing homogeneity, as critics often charge. It is about maintaining the core values that make this a nation that people want to live in. And, as the Bahati case indicates, it’s required to ensure public safety.