A Singapore teenager seeking to stay in the U.S. after his blog posts mocking his government twice landed him in jail made his first appearance Monday in a Chicago immigration court, where an attorney officially submitted his application for asylum.
Amos Yee appeared via video and spoke little during the hearing. He's been detained at a northern Illinois jail since December, when immigration authorities took him into custody at O'Hare International Airport.
His 246-page application includes statements of support from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, who urged U.S. officials to let him stay. They allege Yee has been harassed by the Singapore government for publicly expressing his views on religion and politics, and for criticizing the city-state's leaders, including late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
Yee, 18, was imprisoned in Singapore for six weeks in September on charges of hurting the religious feelings of Christians and Muslims, after breaching bail conditions following a monthlong sentence he served on the same charges.
"Our theory is that he was persecuted in Singapore and that the prosecution against him was illegitimate because it was based on laws that were meant to restrict his freedom of expression," Yee's attorney Sandra Grossman said outside court. "If he returns to Singapore, he's likely to be convicted again for similar acts."
Wearing an orange jumpsuit, Yee sat with hands folded in his lap, his once shoulder-length hair closely cropped. He briefly greeted and thanked the judge and said he didn't have anything to add to his attorney's comments.
A federal government attorney said in court that Yee's criminal record in Singapore would be reviewed. Grossman said she intended to call witnesses at the next hearing. Judge Samuel Cole set a March 7 hearing, though he indicated he'd seek an earlier date.
It was unclear if Yee will remain in custody as his case proceeds.
Grossman said his release was at the discretion of the Department of Homeland Security, but President Donald Trump's recent immigration orders had fueled an air of uncertainty.
Trump's executive order stopping immigration for citizens of seven predominantly-Muslim countries for 90 days created chaos over the weekend. Those with legal permission to live in the U.S., including refugees and green-card holders, were detained at airports.
Some were sent back before a federal judge issued an emergency order temporarily barring deportations. Thousands protested from Seattle to New York.
Grossman said those in the U.S. have legal protections.
"He's lucky that he's already here," she said of Yee. "But he is affected by the general atmosphere that the administration is creating."
Kathryn Mattingly, a spokeswoman for the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees U.S. immigration courts, declined to comment.
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