When Tim Carmichael heads to the stand, he shoulders a heavy burden. Should he falter, should his testimony prove unconvincing, someone will be sent home to Africa. More than likely, they'll also be persecuted.
When Carmichael isn't teaching history at the College, he serves as an expert defense witness in Department of Homeland Security courts, testifying in asylum cases for Ethiopian political refugees. Carmichael testifies on behalf of Ethiopians seeking a permanent home in the United States, far away from a government that commits regular human rights abuses, including the burning of villages, gang rape and murder. Occasionally, Carmichael reviews cases that are culturally based and not political, such as asylum requests from two Ethiopian parents who feared they could not protect their daughter from genital mutilation.
No matter what the specifics, it's a safe bet that if Carmichael agrees to testify on behalf of the defense, the stakes are high, and he believes the asylum request has considerable merit. Carmichael is extremely selective about who he advocates for. Out of more than 400 requests from defense lawyers in the last few years, he has agreed to testify in support of only 33 cases.
His job can be nerve rattling. During his testimony, prosecutors often try to discredit his comments. Although Carmichael carefully studies affidavits for the case and regularly reviews news articles and reports from human rights groups and the U.S. State Department, the pressure can mount.
"If this claim isn't successful, this person will go back to his country and could be killed by his own government," says Carmichael. "Normally a historian doesn't deal with that kind of pressure."
Carmichael, who grew up in Saudi Arabia, lived in Ethiopia for four years as an adult and is an expert on the country's modern political history. He's troubled by the fact that many of the people he helps seek asylum have been persecuted for daring to participate in Ethiopia's supposedly democratic government. So far, all but one of the cases he's testified in have had successful outcomes for the asylum-seeker.
"I find this work to be particularly rewarding," Carmichael says. "This is a practical way to use my research and training ... to make an immediate difference in someone's life."