Update on the Asylum Backlog

by Jason Dzubow on May 13, 2015

in Asylum Office, Asylum Seekers

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If you’ve visited this website before, you know that I’ve written about the asylum backlog again and again… and again and again and again and again. And yet again. And once more. And probably a few other times in-between. USCIS recently released some new statistics on asylum, and so I thought I would share them here and discuss the current situation.

Measured in smoots, the backlog is 86.9 miles long + one ear.

Measured in smoots, the backlog is 86.9 miles long + one ear.

First off, despite the efforts of the Asylum Division, the backlog continues to grow. In January 2015, the total number of backlogged cases was 76,446. By the end of March 2015, there were 82,175 backlogged asylum cases nationwide. The numbers have only increased since then.

The main cause of the backlog has been large numbers of people–mostly young people–coming to the United States from Central America. These young people are detained at the border and receive a credible fear interview, which is an initial assessment of eligibility for asylum. If they pass the credible fear interview, their case is referred to an Immigration Court, which then fully reviews their asylum application. The credible fear interviews are conducted by Asylum Officers, and because they are detained at government expense, the young people are given priority over other (non-detained) asylum seekers. Because the Asylum Division must devote resources to these credible fear interviews, they have been unable to keep up with the more traditional asylum cases. Hence, the backlog.

I keep expecting the number of young people coming here to wane, but so far that has not been the case. Indeed, the number of people coming from Central America this year is nearly identical to the numbers we saw last year. And given that summer is traditionally a busier time for migration from Central America, we can expect more young people to arrive at our border in the next few months. Thus, it seems likely that the backlogged cases will keep piling up.

According to the latest statistics, the least backlogged offices are Houston (3,971 backlogged cases), Arlington (5,791), and Chicago (6,485). The most backlogged office is Los Angeles (17,042), followed by Newark (14,924), New York (13,568), Miami (11,366), and San Francisco (9,028). Wait times in these offices roughly correlate with the number of cases backlogged, so Houston is currently the fastest office and Los Angeles is the slowest.

Of course, obtaining a (relatively) quick interview date is of little value if the case is denied. In terms of grant rates, the fastest offices are not necessarily the most likely to grant asylum. Although the statistics on this vary, the offices in Chicago, Houston, Miami, Newark, and New York all grant asylum less than 33% of the time. Arlington and Los Angeles grant about 50% of their cases, and San Francisco grants over 60% of its cases.

So what is the Asylum Division doing to address the backlog?

For one thing, they have been hiring more Asylum Officers. Since the backlog began in 2013, the number of staff members has increased by 90% and they continue to hire and train more officers. It appears that the Asylum Division will continue to add new officers through 2016. So if–and it is a big if–we see a drop in credible fear interviews at the border, the asylum offices should be well positioned to make some progress on the backlog.

The Asylum Division is also making an effort to keep the public more informed about the backlog. For some months now, there has been discussion about providing more information about processing times at the different asylum offices (for example, the Arlington, Virginia office is currently interviewing cases from July 2013). Because workloads are unpredictable, the asylum offices do not know when they will interview an individual case, but they do know which cases they are processing now. By posting this information, at least asylum seekers will have some idea about where they stand in the queue (the Department of State has a similar system for family- and employment-based immigration visas).

The asylum offices have also created some very limited ways to expedite cases. I have discussed those here.

As an advocate for asylum seekers, of course I believe that more should be done. Most importantly, I would like to see the asylum offices give higher priority to people separated from their immediate relatives. I would also like to see more resources devoted to processing I-730 petitions, which allow approved asylum seekers to bring their spouses and children to the U.S. Also, given that asylum cases are moving slowly, I would like to see USCIS issue work permits (EADs) for two or more years, instead of just one year. Finally, I would like to see responsibility for credible fear interviews moved from the Asylum Division to a separate unit or–better yet–the elimination of credible fear interviews altogether (CFIs are basically rubber stamps and thus a waste of resources; it would be better if such cases were adjudicated in the first instance by an Immigration Judge).

The Asylum Division is faced with a very difficult–if not impossible–task: To continue adjudicating asylum cases while dealing with an unpredictable and overwhelming number of credible fear cases, all the while, with a hostile Congress looking for excuses to reduce asylum protections. For the sake of our asylum system and those who need protection, I hope they can navigate these treacherous waters.

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We think of spring in the Northern hemisphere as a time of rebirth and renewal. But in the Mediterranean, for refugees attempting to reach Europe by sea, it is a time of dying.

Deporting children protects them. Vaccines cause Autism. Ketchup is a vegetable.

Deporting children protects them. Vaccines cause Autism. Ketchup is a vegetable.

Last month, over 800 people died when an overcrowded boat sank en router from Libya to Southern Europe. That brings the number of migrant deaths at sea during this season to 1,780 people, as compared to 96 people during the same period last year.

By contrast, deaths at the U.S. border are down from previous years. The Associated Press reports that, “The number of people who died trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border has dropped to the lowest level in 15 years as more immigrants turned themselves in to authorities in Texas and fewer took their chances with the dangerous trek across the Arizona desert.” In FY 2014, the government recorded 307 deaths at the border. Although this is significantly lower than what we are seeing in Europe, hundreds of people are still dying each year on their journeys to the United States (and of course this figure does not include people who die on the route to the U.S. before they reach our border).

In many cases, the migrants coming to Europe and the United States are fleeing severe violence in their home countries. They are desperate people seeking safety and a better life in the West. And although in many ways the U.S. and Europe are hostile to asylum seekers, we do provide strong “pull factors” that encourage people to make the journey. We offer such people asylum.

So it’s fair to ask: Does the very fact that we offer asylum provide an incentive for people to risk their lives–and sometimes die–to reach our country?

A recent bill proposed in Congress and passed by the House Judiciary Committee seems to answer this question in the affirmative. The bill, called the Protection of Children Act of 2015, would “protect” unaccompanied minors who come to the U.S. by sending them home more expeditiously. One of the bill’s sponsors, Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) explained the rationale for this new legislation:

The Obama Administration’s immigration policies have given confidence to parents who are in the U.S. illegally that they can stay and have encouraged them to bring their children, who are still in Central America and beyond, to the United States unlawfully. These children, often assisted by smugglers, face many dangerous situations as they travel through Mexico and then walk miles across a hostile border environment. We need to take action to stop these children from risking their lives to come to the United States unaccompanied and unlawfully. The Protection of Children Act makes common sense changes to our laws to ensure minors who travel to the U.S. alone are returned home safely and quickly.

While the bill will not, in fact, protect any children (rather, it will harm them), the Protection of Children Act is–at least in part–an effort to reduce the incentive for people to come to the U.S. for asylum and thus an effort to reduce the number of people who die attempting to reach our country.

But still, the question remains: Do our asylum laws encourage people to come illegally to the United States and risk their lives in the process? Is our generosity killing people?

One way to look at the question is to explore the motivation for asylum seekers’ coming to the U.S. Which is more important, the “push” of danger in the home country or the “pull” of asylum in the United States? If the “pull” is more important, we would expect that people from similar countries would come to the U.S. in similar numbers, regardless of violence levels in those countries. So for example, we would expect to see people coming to the U.S. in similar numbers from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua (all poor Central American countries). A review of the data, however, indicates that this is not the case. Many more people come to the U.S. from the more violent countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) than from the less violent one (Nicaragua) (I have written more about this here). 

Some of the disparity may be because there are more people from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in the U.S. than there are people from Nicaragua, and so perhaps migrants are not fleeing violence, but instead are coming here for family unity. There is no doubt that this is part of the equation. However, according to the Pew Foundation, there are roughly 408,261 Nicaraguans in the U.S. By comparison, there are 774,866 Hondurans, 1,265,400 Guatemalans, and 1,969,495 Salvadorans in the United States. I could not find recent data on the number of Nicaraguans coming to the U.S., but for December 2014, Nicaragua was not even in the top 10 sending countries for asylum seekers. In that month, 333 people filed for asylum from Honduras, 495 from El Salvador, and 546 from Guatemala. One hundred and fifty four people filed for asylum from India, which is # 10 on the list, so we know that even fewer people sought asylum from Nicaragua. Given the significant number of Nicaraguans living in the U.S., if family unity was the main “pull” factor, we would expect greater numbers of migrants from Nicaragua.

All this leads to the conclusion that violent conditions in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are “pushing” people to come to the United States. And, by the way, this squares with anecdotal evidence from the asylum seekers themselves and the lawyers (like me) who represent them.

So what does it all mean? If people are coming here mainly due to “push” factors (violence) and not “pull” factors (asylum), then making it more difficult for them to claim asylum in the U.S. (or Europe) is unlikely to dissuade them from making the journey.

Most asylum seekers, like most people, are rational and respond to their environment in rationale ways. If conditions are violent and they fear for their lives, people will flee. If there is somewhere safe for them to go, they will go. The Protection of Children Act does nothing to protect such people. It merely shifts the problem somewhere else. To help reduce the number of asylum seeker deaths, the United States and Europe need to do more to address the root causes of violence. Making life even more difficult for those fleeing harm will only make a bad situation worse.

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One of my more memorable cases involved testimony from my client’s uncle, a well-known singer from Ethiopia who had been living in exile in Sweden and the U.S. since 1974. He was testifying about conditions in Ethiopia and whether it was safe for his nephew (my client) to return home. He mentioned that even after 40 years away, many of his songs were about Ethiopia. I asked him about his feeling towards his homeland. “I love my country,” he responded. Did he want to return? “If I could, I would return tomorrow.” It’s a beautiful and sad testament to a life lived in exile, and it is not an uncommon story.

The Refugee All Stars embody the old proverb, "It ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward." (Balboa 3:16).

The Refugee All Stars embody the old proverb, “It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward.” (Balboa 3:16).

It seems there is a natural connection between exile and art. Some artists are forced into exile after their art offends the powers that be. Others create art to remember their previous lives or to help heal themselves and their loved ones. I suppose there are as many motivations for art as there are artists, but memories of a homeland lost are a particularly powerful muse. 

In that vein, one of my favorite musicians is Enrico Macias, an Algerian Jew who had to leave his country during the war of independence in 1961. He has not returned to Algeria since, but many of his songs reference his homeland and the loss he experienced by leaving. 

Recently, I’ve learned about a band called the Refugee All Stars, which is currently touring American (their schedule is here). Members of the band are from Sierra Leone, and their story is inspiring: 

Throughout the 1990s, the West African country of Sierra Leone was wracked with a bloody, horrifying war that forced millions to flee their homes. The musicians that would eventually form Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars are all originally from Freetown, and they were forced to leave the capital city at various times after violent rebel attacks. Most of those that left the country made their way into neighboring Guinea, some ending up in refugee camps and others struggling to fend for themselves in the capital city of Conakry.

Ruben Koroma and his wife Grace had left Sierra Leone in 1997 and found themselves in the Kalia refugee camp near the border with Sierra Leone. When it became clear they would not be heading back to their homeland anytime soon, they joined up with guitarist Francis John Langba (aka Franco), and bassist Idrissa Bangura (aka Mallam), other musicians in the camp whom they had known before the war, to entertain their fellow refugees. After a Canadian relief agency donated two beat up electric guitars, a single microphone and a meager sound system, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars were born.

Now, the band tours worldwide and works with many well-known musicians and producers. They have also performed benefits for Amnesty International and the World Food Program, among others.

Like many people who have experienced war and exile–including many of my clients–it seems that the band members’ desire to carry on with their lives and work to improve the world has not been dimmed:

The senseless deaths and illnesses of friends and family, including some of the band’s original members, and the slimming hope for great change in their country as a result of peace, has only strengthened the resolve of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars to do what they can to turn their country around. Their weapon in this struggle is music, and their message, while offering critique and condemnation of wrongdoing, remains positive and hopeful. Optimism in the face of obstacles, and the eternal hope for a better future motivates their lives and music.

Given the world’s current refugee situation and all the problems in the U.S. asylum system, optimism is in short supply. But it’s needed now more than ever.

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Asylum for the Jews of France?

by Jason Dzubow on April 17, 2015

in Asylum, International

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Over the past few years, there have been a number of deadly and horrific attacks against Jewish people in Europe. Targeted by radical Muslims, Jews have been murdered in a Kosher market, outside a synagogue, and at a Jewish daycare facility. They have been targeted for attack at a Jewish Community Center, and there have been hundreds of lesser (but still frightening) instances of anti-Semitism.

The Jews of France are not alone. But is that enough?

The Jews of France are not alone. But is that enough?

In response, some (non-French) Jews have suggested that there is no future for Jews in Europe and that they should leave. On one level, this suggestion is based on genuine concern. But on another level, it is quite insulting. It’s as if an African leader came to the U.S. and told American blacks that—in light of Ferguson, Treyvon Martin, and Eric Garner—they should abandon their homeland. My feeling is that a French Jew, an African American, or any other put-upon individual should have the right to make his own decision about whether to leave his country. Unless and until he decides to go, we should do everything possible to help him stay.

Here, however, I am concerned not with the existential issue of European Jewry. Rather, I want to discuss a more narrow question: Whether a French Jew–and I am choosing France because that country has seen the most instances of anti-Semitism–could qualify for asylum under U.S. immigration law.

Asylum decisions are highly dependent on the specific facts of each case; so it is difficult to answer this question in the abstract. However, we can look at general country conditions to get an idea for whether an individual might qualify. Also, where there is a “pattern and practice” of persecution against a specific group, and the asylum applicant demonstrates that she is a member of that group, she can receive asylum (for example, during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, if an asylum applicant demonstrated that she was Tutsi, she could receive asylum).

To demonstrate a “pattern and practice,” the applicant would have to show that the persecution is systemic, pervasive or organized. Although radical Muslims have attacked Jews in France on several occasions, and the unpredictable nature of the attacks makes everyone feel vulnerable, I think the problem is not systematic, pervasive or organized enough to qualify as a “pattern and practice” of persecution under U.S. asylum law. The recent attacks have been by individuals or small groups; not (as far as we know) the systematic work of an organization. There is a much more widespread problem with harassment, threats, and vandalism. These problems–while frightening–probably would not constitute “persecution” as that term is generally understood. For all these reasons, I believe that a French-Jewish asylum seeker would have a hard time proving that Jews in France suffer from a pattern and practice of persecution.    

In the absence of such a pattern and practice, our theoretical French Jew would need to show that he faces a reasonable fear of persecution based on his religion (or other protected ground). If the persecutor is not the government—and here, it is not—he also must demonstrate that the government is unable or unwilling to protect him.

First, it seems clear that the Jews who have been targeted were targeted because they were Jews. Persecution on account of religion is a basis for asylum. So the real question is whether there is a reasonable likelihood of persecution.

Courts have stated that an alien may qualify for asylum where there is a 1-in-10 chance of persecution. This is a fairly low standard, but even so, a person needs to demonstrate some type of individualized threat in order to qualify. I doubt that the average French Jew would be able to show that he faces a 10% chance of persecution. There are nearly half-a-million Jews in France, and only a small number have been harmed. And even in countries with much higher instances of violence–Iraq and Syria, for example–a person can generally not qualify for asylum without an individualized threat. Although the average French Jew would probably not meet this standard, some Jews–those who have received specific threats or who hold high-profile positions, for example–might be able to prove that they face a likelihood of harm.

If our theoretical French Jew demonstrates a likelihood of harm, the next question is whether the government of France is able and willing to protect him. While there are surely people within the French government who do not like Jews, the French government as a whole clearly wants to protect Jewish people. After the Kosher supermarket and Charlie Hebdo attacks, the government deployed thousands of troops to protect Jewish sites. But given the nature of the attacks (random and against soft targets), there is a good argument that the government of France is unable to stop the terrorists.

In the end, it seems that most French (or European) Jews would not qualify for asylum, but some might: Those who have received threats or who are high profile, and who their governments–unfortunately–cannot protect. 

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Syria of Blessed Memory

by Jason Dzubow on April 6, 2015

in Human Rights, International

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The Greek philosopher Heraclitus tells us that you can never step into the same river twice. We often find ourselves returning to places we visited long ago, though of course those places have changed and so have we. At least that’s how it is for me with Syria.

A dashing young traveler visits the Old City of Damascus.

A dashing young traveler visits the Old City of Damascus.

I visited Syria with two friends way back in April 1990, when I was a student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. We left Israel during our Passover break, making the reverse commute, as it were, to Egypt, where we got new passports without Israel stamps (people with Israel stamps were not admitted to Syria–and they could be arrested). We then crossed Sinai and the Red Sea, spent some time in Jordan (where we further rid ourselves of evidence that we’d been living in Israel), and finally took a bus to Syria.

In those days, Syria was ruled by Hafez Asad, father of the current dictator. His Droopy-Dog image adorned buildings, money, walls, and calendars. This was eight years after Asad put down an uprising in Hama, killing thousands in the process. Syria in 1990 was repressive, but it was safe for tourists and very welcoming. I don’t remember what I expected before I went, but as a young Jewish student visiting Israel’s number one enemy and finding human beings–friendly ones at that–I found myself changed forever. I’m reminded of a line from Christmas in the Trenches, a song about World War I: “The walls they kept between us to exact the work of war / Have been crumbled and are gone for ever more.”

Aside from the friendly reception, Syria was a wonderful place to visit: the Old City of Damascus, the 1300-year-old Umayyid Mosque, the Citadel and covered souk in Allepo, the Crack de Chevalier (a medieval castle), the Roman ruins of Palmyra. Over the years, I had many occasions to think about my trip to Syria, and how it affected me. However, despite the repressive nature of the regime, I never had any Syrian clients.

That changed after the Revolution began in 2011. I started receiving cases from Syria, and I started thinking about the country in a new way.  

Since then, some of my most tragic cases have come from Syria. Many of my clients have lost family members–siblings, parents or children. Others were detained and tortured during the early days of the Revolution (now, it seems, the regime no longer releases detained opponents–it kills them). Many have had their homes destroyed, their property looted, and their businesses seized. All have had their lives profoundly disrupted.

On one level, it is difficult to square the destruction and the terrible stories from Syria with my memories of the place. I was there during peace time, and I’ve come to view my time in the Middle East in 1990—and especially my trip to Syria—as a dividing line in my life. For me, it marks the transition from childhood to adulthood.

Maybe because my trip to Syria came at a significant time in my life, the difficulties of my Syrian clients has affected me more deeply. Or maybe it is because I became a father–with all the new emotions that entails–not long before the Revolution began. Or maybe it’s simply that the stories from Syria are so heartbreaking. I suppose the “why” doesn’t much matter. For anyone who deals with Syrians–even one so far removed as me–it is impossible not to be moved by the human tragedy that we are witnessing. And for those of us who have visited Syria, the loss is somehow more vivid.

It’s Passover again, and once again my family and I are celebrating the holiday of freedom. This year, I am remembering my trip to Syria a quarter century ago. I am also thinking of my clients, and the millions of others, who have been harmed by the current war. It seems impossible that the war will ever end, but one day it will. Until then, I hope we will continue to protect refugees from Syria. As we are reminded each Passover:

When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Chag Sameach. Happy Passover.

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If you look at the processing times on the USCIS Texas Service Center website, you will see something interesting. The website indicates that USCIS will complete an asylum seeker’s I-765 form–the application for an Employment Authorization Document or “EAD”–in three weeks. Perhaps USCIS views this time frame as aspirational. I view it as metaphorical. Or maybe delusional.

EAD ETA? WTF.

EAD ETA? WTF.

The reality is that EADs are not processed in three weeks. If you’re lucky, it will take three months. If you’re not lucky, it may be a lot longer than that. Indeed, it seems of late that processing times for EADs have become much slower. As a result, some of our clients have lost their driver’s licenses (which are tied to the EADs) or their jobs. The problem has caught the attention of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which is investigating (and if you are an attorney whose client’s EAD is delayed for more than 90 days, you can report it here). 

So why is this happening? As usual, I have no idea. USCIS doesn’t explain such things. What can be done about it? A few things:

– If you are filing to renew your EAD, you should file as early as possible. The instructions indicate that you can file the application 120 days before your old card expires. That would probably be a good idea. However, you should be careful not to file any earlier than 120 days ahead of time. EADs filed too early might be rejected, which will result in further delay (because you have to wait for the rejection notice and then re-file).

– If you already filed for your EAD and the application has been pending more than 75 days, you can contact USCIS customer service and ask that an “Approaching Regulatory Timeframe ‘service request’ be created.” Supposedly USCIS will route the service request to the appropriate office for review. You should note that if you receive a request for evidence and then respond, the “clock” starts over for purpose of calculating the 75-day period. You can see more about the obscure and exciting calculation of the 75-day period here.

– If you are applying for your first EAD based on a pending asylum case, you can file 150 days after your asylum application was initially filed (the date of filing is on your receipt). However, if you have caused a delay in your case (by rescheduling an interview, for example), the delay will affect when you can file. The I-765 instructions explain how applicant-caused delay affects eligibility for an EAD. Please note that the 150-day waiting period is written into the law and cannot be expedited.

– If your case is in Immigration Court, and you cause a delay (by, for example, not accepting the first hearing date offered to you), the Asylum Clock might stop, and this could prevent you from receiving an EAD. I have written about the dreaded asylum clock before, but if you are in court, you’d do well to consult an attorney about your case and about your EAD.  

– If you entered the country at the border and were detained and then “paroled” in, you might be eligible for an EAD as a “public interest parolee”: see page 4 of theI-765 instructions. This one can be tricky, so you might want to consult with a lawyer before you file under this category.

– If you already have asylum, but your EAD expires, fear not: You are still eligible to work. You would present your employer with your I-94 (which you received when you were granted asylum) and a state-issued photo ID (like a driver’s license). For more information, see the Employer Handbook, pages 13 and 50.

– If you are a refugee (in other words, you received refugee status and then came to the United States), you can work for 90 days with your I-94 form. After that, you must present an EAD or a state-issued ID. For more information, see the Employer Handbook, pages 13 and 50. 

– If all else fails, you can try contacting the USCIS Ombudsman about the delayed EAD. The Ombudsman’s office assist USCIS customers and tries to resolve problems. Normally, they want to see that you have made some effort to resolve the issue through regular channels before they intervene, but if nothing else is working, they may be able to help out.

The last thing I will say about asylum seekers and EADs is this: If you do not have an EAD, you are not eligible to work lawfully. However, if you are able to find a job without the EAD, it should not affect your asylum case. In other words, working without permission does not block a person from obtaining asylum. It may affect your ability to obtain other types of immigration benefits, and if you have questions, you should consult a lawyer.

It is unclear to me how an asylum seeker is expected to survive without a job or a driver’s license. With all the problems in the asylum system, you’d think USCIS could do something to make life easier for people waiting for their cases to resolve. One thing to be done is to process the EADs in a timely fashion. Another would be to make the EADs valid for the length of the case, so there is no need to re-apply (or at least make them valid for two years instead of one). For now, however, it is up to asylum seekers to fend for themselves: Apply as early as you are allowed for the EAD and hope that it is granted quickly.

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Last week, the House Judiciary Committee passed a bill that would grant asylum to families of homeschoolers who are persecuted by their governments. The bill, sponsored by Congressman Jason Chaffetz, would also make it more difficult for others fleeing violence to obtain asylum in the U.S. by (among other things) raising the bar for credible fear interviews and blocking all government funding for child refugees who need lawyers. Congressman Louis Gutiérrez criticized the bill’s restrictions: “Shouldn’t children who are fleeing child abuse and violence be afforded the same protection as a child who is denied homeschooling?”

While I personally find this bill distasteful, it seems to me that it falls within the grand tradition of asylum. One of the unique characteristics of asylum is that, by granting asylum to an individual, we implicitly condemn the actions of his home country. You can’t have asylum without a bad guy—a persecutor. When, for example, we grant asylum to a member of a religious minority from China, we send a message that the Chinese government persecutes its own people based on religion. Thus, asylum is inherently political: We make a political statement about another country, and at the same time, we demonstrate our own values.

Guttierrez Chaffetz 2

Gutierrez to Chaffetz: “You’re like a homeschooler on a school day – No class.”

Historically, the political nature of asylum has played an important role in the development of our law. For example, the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees (which we helped create and upon which our current law is based) limited asylum to the five protected categories: Race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and membership in a particular social group. This definition had the effect (probably intended) of helping people fleeing from persecution in the Soviet Union (because they generally faced a type of persecution that fit within a protected category) without offering much to people fleeing from persecution in the West (because such people generally faced “persecution” in the form of economic harm or crime, which does not qualify them for refugee status).

What’s more, we’ve never been particularly subtle about the political nature of asylum. During the Cold War, we gave asylum to “trophy refugees,” high-profile people who defected from the Soviet Block to the West. Such refugees helped demonstrate Western moral superiority over the Communists, and so we were happy to take them.

More recently—in the mid-1990s—Congress amended the definition of refugee to include victims of forced family planning. This amendment was a direct refutation of China’s one-child policy. And it was an expression of our country’s (or at least Congress’s) opposition to abortion.

Except for the forced-family-planning amendment, Congress has never modified the definition of refugee. But courts—prompted by creative lawyers—have expanded the definition to include gays and lesbians, victims of female genital mutilation, and people facing domestic violence, among others. While these changes have helped many people, they were not driven by a desire to make a political statement about other countries. And certainly they are not based on our collective desire—as expressed by Congress—to send a message condemning behavior that offends us. Rather, they are based on the idea that people fleeing persecution should be treated equally.

Most lawyers—including yours truly—are big fans of equality. If the state offers a benefit to Joe (be it a tax break, the right to marry, a lenient criminal sentence, or asylum), it should offer the same benefit to Mary. My belief in equal treatment for asylum seekers leads me to oppose special preferences for certain groups, like victims of forced family planning and people fleeing Cuba. In my opinion, such people do not need special laws to protect them. They can request asylum like everyone else. In short, I believe that asylum should not be about sending a political message; it should be about protecting people from harm. If a person demonstrates that she faces harm, she should receive asylum.

The problem is that democracy and equality don’t always go together. The Equal Protection clause protects Americans from the tyranny of the majority, but equal protection does not apply in the context of asylum. Congress could, for example, offer asylum only to people from certain regions or to people of certain religions.

Perhaps we can call it the Realpolitik theory of asylum versus the Equality theory. The Homeschoolers’ asylum bill falls on the Realpolitik side, in that it is designed to further our country’s political agenda by offering a humanitarian benefit to a group that we deem worthy of protection.

Should  it become law, the bill would also represent a democratic development of asylum law, something we have not seen in almost 20 years. Wouldn’t it have been nice if some of the other developments in the law–protecting gays and lesbians, for example–had been accomplished democratically instead of by lawyers pushing the boundaries of asylum in court?

To be sure, I don’t like this bill. I don’t like how it restricts most asylum seekers (especially children) while offering special benefits to people who I think should apply for asylum like everyone else. But my opinion is clearly not the point. The Homeschoolers’ bill falls within the democratic, Realpolitik tradition of asylum. It helps a group of individuals who “We the People” view as deserving of protection and it places restrictions on another group that is deemed less deserving. It also sends a message about American values, for better and for worse.

{ 8 comments }

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Perhaps you’ve heard about the plan by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to derail U.S.-Iranian negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Many Republican leaders have joined the effort, and 47 Senators (all Republican) led by Tom Cotton wrote an open letter to the Ayatollahs warning them against a deal. All this is in the public record.

Senator Tom Cotton: Warmonger or job creator?

Senator Tom Cotton: Warmonger or job creator?

What’s less well known is the role of a powerful lobbying group, which has pushed efforts in Congress and in the media to end negotiations before any agreement is reached. The group is known by its acronym: AIPAC. No, no, not that AIPAC. I speak of the “Asylum and Immigration Professionals Advancing Chaos” lobby, also known as “the Other AIPAC.” 

Why would asylum and immigration professionals want to advance chaos, you ask. Although I shouldn’t do it, I’ll let you in on a little secret: Chaos is good for our business. Let’s face it–the more things suck over there, the more likely people are to come here. And when they come to the United States, they need immigration and asylum lawyers to help them stay. Move over Big Tobacco and Big Oil; make room for Big Asylum!

The Other AIPAC has a record of success. Take, for example, the Second Gulf War in 2003. Before the U.S. invasion, our friend Mr. Netanyahu told Congress, “If you take out Saddam, Saddam’s regime, I guarantee you that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region.” I’m not sure about that, but taking out Saddam’s regime has certainly had positive reverberations in the region of my wallet. Scores of Iraqi asylum-seekers have hired me since we “brought democracy” to Iraq. Thank you, Bibi and the Other AIPAC! 

What’s so wonderful about the Other AIPAC is that people seem to accept what it says despite all evidence to the contrary. For example, Mr. Netanyahu recently indicated that he would never cede territory to the Palestinians: “[T]here will be no concessions and no withdrawals,” he said. He apparently views the land as vital to Israeli security. But what say the people who are actually experts in Israeli security. In contrast to Mr. Netanyahu’s position, over 180 retired Israeli security officials–high ranking members of the military and intelligence services who have devoted their lives to protecting Israel–have strongly endorsed a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians and a two-state solution:    

We believe that it is imperative, possible, and urgent to launch an Israeli regional initiative to determine borders that ensure security for the citizens of Israel and a firm Jewish majority. Such an initiative will strengthen Israeli society from within; allow for more effective handling of security threats; create dramatic political, security and socio-economic transformation; and enhance Israel’s international standing.

So does this mean that Mr. Netanyahu’s position is actually endangering Israel? Is he substituting self-delusion for reasoned analysis? No matter, the Other AIPAC has got his back. More chaos = more business, that’s our mantra.

But, you ask, what about Iran? Mr. Netanyahu says that we know enough about the current, not-yet-negotiated deal to know that it is worse than no deal at all. It will leave Iran able to produce a nuclear weapon in a short period of time, it will lift all restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program after 10 years, it won’t stop Iran’s aggression in places like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, or its sponsorship of terrorism. He gives us a simple alternative: Tighten the sanctions and hold out for a better deal. Sounds reasonable, no?

Well, let’s ask the experts. The same group of retired generals that oppose Mr. Netanyahu on Palestine also opposed his speech to Congress:

[T]here is not a single security expert that doesn’t understand that after this speech, Iran will not be distanced from the nuclear option it is attempting to achieve. The people of the US see the rift between the countries and the leaders, the people of Israel see it, and no less importantly, the people of Iran see it.

The international coalition of countries that has been squeezing Iran, and that forced them to negotiate, has been led by the Obama Administration. To be fair, the effort to isolate Iran began under the Bush Administration. But the sanctions have been significantly expanded under Mr. Obama.

Perhaps–as Mr. Netanyahu proposes–we could continue to tighten the screws on Iran, and our coalition partners would follow along. Or maybe, as many experts believe, increasing sanctions would cause the coalition to fall apart. Then, I suppose we could go it alone. Unilateral sanctions work so well, after all. Just ask Cuba. But again, all of this is of no consequence to the Other AIPAC. We say, “Tighten those sanctions! To hell with the coalition! Bring on the chaos!”

Ignore the experts, block all negotiation, pander to the base with angry statements about Iran, put partisanship ahead of policy. This is the Other AIPAC’s recipe for chaos. And, as we know, chaos is good for business.

{ 4 comments }

For Every Child, a Lawyer

by Jason Dzubow on March 10, 2015

in Asylum Seekers, Federal Courts

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A case recently argued before the U.S. District Court in Seattle seeks to ensure that every child in removal proceedings is represented by an attorney. The case–styled J.E.F.M., et al. v. Holder–was filed by the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, and claims that without the assistance of a lawyer, children in Immigration Court cannot receive due process of law.

Some children probably don't need lawyers.

Some children probably don’t need lawyers.

The Complaint notes that despite the efforts of many non-profit organizations, volunteer lawyers, and the government itself, the majority of children who appear before Immigration Judges go unrepresented. It compares the situation of children in Immigration Court with children in juvenile delinquency proceedings:

[The] Supreme Court recognized that when the Government initiates proceedings against children facing juvenile delinquency charges, the Due Process Clause requires the Government to provide those children with legal representation to ensure that the proceedings are fundamentally fair. In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 41 (1967). The Court held that “[t]he juvenile needs the assistance of counsel to cope with problems of law, to make skilled inquiry into the facts, to insist upon regularity of the proceedings, and to ascertain whether he has a defense and to prepare and submit it… The Constitution guarantees children this safeguard notwithstanding the civil, rather than criminal, character of juvenile delinquency proceedings.

Immigrants, including immigrant children, are also entitled to Due Process when facing deportation [and Immigration Court proceedings, like juvenile delinquency proceedings, are civil, not criminal]. Reno v. Flores, 507 U.S. 292, 306 (1993). Both the Constitution and the immigration laws guarantee all children the right to a full and fair removal hearing, including the opportunity to defend against deportation and seek any forms of relief that would enable them to remain in the United States. And just as in juvenile delinquency proceedings, children cannot receive that fair hearing without legal representation.

In terms of the basic legal argument, this seems like a slam dunk: There is no way a child–or even your average non-English-speaking adult–can navigate the Immigration Court system without the assistance of someone who knows what she’s doing (i.e., a lawyer). But of course, the hard realities of life in the immigration world are not so simple, and there are a few policy arguments that may carry more weight than the legal claim. 

The first policy argument against providing lawyers to unaccompanied minors is cost. I view this argument as a bit of a red herring because I am not convinced that the cost of paying for lawyers is much different than the cost of not paying for lawyers. In cases where the alien is unrepresented, the Immigration Judge and the Trial Attorney must spend significant extra time on the case, and this time obviously costs the government money. I imagine this problem is particularly acute in cases involving children, who cannot easily articulate their claims. Where the child is represented, her attorney can prepare the case, communicate with DHS counsel, and present the case efficiently. Whether paying for this attorney is much more expensive than making the IJ and DHS sort out the case, I don’t know. But I would imagine that the difference in cost is not as significant as opponents of providing lawyer might have us believe.

The second policy argument concerns the incentives that providing lawyers will create. To me, this is the strongest policy argument against giving lawyers to children. The so-called “surge” of unaccompanied minors does not correlate with a spike in violence–the source countries have been very violent places for years. Rather, it seems likely that the surge was caused by “pull” factors–maybe the belief that immigration reform in the United States would grant benefits to people, if only they could get here before the reforms were implemented. I have little doubt that providing lawyers to unaccompanied minors would further incentivize children (and everyone else) to come here. Whether this is necessarily a bad thing, I am not sure. On the one hand, many of the young people who have come here face real harm in their home countries. On the other hand, more people coming to seek asylum in the U.S. burdens an already overwhelmed system and causes long delays–and great hardship–for everyone in the system. Of course, there are already many incentives for people to come to the United States: Safety, jobs, family reunification. I am not sure that one more incentive–the guaranteed assistance of an attorney–will make much difference.

Finally, there is the issue of public perception. It’s unclear to me where the public stands on asylum in general, and on unaccompanied minors in particular. There are loud voices on both ends of the spectrum: Advocates on one side who essentially believe in open borders and who want to use the asylum system to achieve that goal, versus restrictionists on the other side, like some in Congress who hope to “protect” these children by sending them all home. Frankly, I am not much of a fan of either camp, and I suspect that the general public is also somewhere in the middle. If the asylum system becomes too costly, or too much of an open door, we will likely see a shift in opinion against it, which will be bad for everyone. Whether or not providing lawyers to unaccompanied children will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, I do not know, but given the current mood in Congress, it is a danger that needs to be considered.

All these policy considerations should (theoretically) not count for much with a court of law, but traditionally, such arguments have impacted decision-making in asylum and immigration cases. As advocates have continually expanded the categories of people eligible for asylum and the protections available to asylum seekers, we run the risk of making asylum a victim of its own success. For the sake of the many people who receive protection in our country, I hope that will not be the case.

{ 6 comments }

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These days, I feel a bit like a broken record: Delay, delay, delay. It’s all I seem to write about (and what I spend much of my work day dealing with). But it is the big issue with asylum cases, both in the Asylum Office and the Immigration Court, and so it is on everyone’s mind. Today I want to talk about delay at the Asylum Office and what can be done about it.

Yipee! Asylum cases filed during the Jurassic period are now being interviewed.

Yipee! Asylum cases filed during the Jurassic period are now being interviewed.

Most recently, the Asylum Office changed its policy and is now interviewing old cases before new cases. This means that new cases will probably take one to two years before the interview. Previously-filed cases will be interviewed in the order that they were received by the Asylum Office. Our oldest backlog cases–filed in April 2013–have just been scheduled for interviews, so we are starting to see the effect of the new policy.

Anyway, let’s get to it. If your case is delayed, what can you do about it? There are several actions you can take to try to get a faster interview date. None of them is guaranteed to work, but–depending on your circumstances–some may be worth a try.

Short List: You can put your case on the “short list.” The short list is a list of people who will be contacted for an interview if another case is canceled. In my local Asylum Office (Virginia), there are approximately 250 cases on the short list. The Asylum Office interviews about 10 such cases per month, so the “short list” is not very short or very fast. When your name is called, you may not have much notice before the interview (for example, the Asylum Office could call you today and tell you to appear for an interview tomorrow). For this reason, when you put your name on the short list, your case should be complete and all documents should be submitted. This is particularly crucial if your Asylum Office–like mine–requires all documents to be submitted at least one week prior to the interview.

Once your name is on the short list, the Asylum Office will eventually contact you for an interview. In the event that you are called, but cannot attend, there is no penalty. However, your name will go to the back of the line, so probably you will not be called again for some time.

The bottom line here is that the short list may be a way to get an earlier interview date, but it is not all that fast. So it is certainly not a perfect solution. On the other hand, there really is no downside to putting your name on the short list, so if you would like to move your case faster, this is a good first step.

Request to Expedite: If you have a medical, family, professional, or other emergency or need, you can ask the Asylum Office to expedite your case. We have had mixed luck with this option. We’ve tried to expedite for several people where they had family members overseas who were facing problems. For most of these cases, the Asylum Office did not expedite, but for a few, it did. We were able to expedite a case where the client had cancer. We’ve also had luck expediting a case where the client needed to obtain status for professional reasons. In short, our success at expediting cases seems to have little relationship to the seriousness of the client’s problem.

If you want to expedite your case, you need to contact the Asylum Office and ask to expedite. You need to explain why you want to expedite and include some evidence–such as a doctor’s note–about the reason you want the case expedited. Again, we’ve had very mixed success with getting our clients’ cases expedited, but there really is no down side to trying.

Congress: You can contact your local Congressional Representative to ask for help with your case. You can find contact information for your local Representative here and for your state’s Senators here. Generally, in my experience, this option has not been effective at getting a faster interview date, but there is no harm in trying. If you have a U.S. citizen friend (or church group or other group) who can make this request for you, it may be more effective.

DHS Ombudsman: You can inquire with the DHS Ombudsman’s office about your case. This office exists to assist people who have problem cases. The Ombudsman’s website is here. I have a high opinion of the Ombudsman’s office, and they do want to help, but I think their ability to make cases go faster is very limited. I doubt they will be able to help make a case faster under ordinary circumstances. But perhaps if you have tried to expedite due to an emergency, and you have not had success, they could assist you.

Mandamus: You can file a Mandamus lawsuit against the Asylum Office. In a Mandamus lawsuit, you sue the Asylum Office and ask the Judge to order the Asylum Office to do its job (process your case). I have never done this, but I have heard about some applicants successfully suing the Asylum Office. Generally, the Asylum Office will not want to waste resources fighting Mandamus suits, so they might agree to process the case rather than fight the lawsuit. As I see it, the two downsides to this are: (1) There is not a strong legal basis to force the Asylum Office to process a person’s case. The regulations generally require asylum cases to be processed in less than six months, but there are broad exceptions to this time frame, and the Asylum Office can rely on those exceptions to process cases more slowly. Although the suits may not be very strong legally, they can still succeed where the Asylum Office would rather interview the applicant than fight the lawsuit; and (2) It can be expensive to hire an attorney to process a Mandamus lawsuit. For applicants who can afford this approach, however, it might offer a way to make things faster (though it will surely not enamor you to the Asylum Office). 

To learn more about your options, you may want to contact your local Asylum Office. Contact information about your office can be found here. There is no magic solution to delay at the Asylum Office, but I hope that some of these suggestions will be helpful. If you have had success with these or other ideas, please let us know.

{ 142 comments }

Old Asylum Cases Are the New Priority

by Jason Dzubow on February 12, 2015

in Asylum Office

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As of December 2014, there was 73,103 asylum cases pending in Asylum Offices across the United States. That’s up from 65,759 in October, an increase of 7,344 cases in just three months (you can see the latest stats here, including a breakdown for each Asylum Office). So it’s clear that despite their efforts, the Asylum Offices are continuing to fall behind in terms of processing cases. Indeed, in the best month of the last quarter, the Asylum Office completed 2,947 cases. At that rate–and assuming no new applicants file for asylum–it would take over two years to get through the current backlog. This is not good, and the Asylum Offices are now making changes to deal with the situation. 

"Congratulations! It's finally your turn."

“Congratulations! It’s finally your turn.”

I’ve written before about the reasons for these delays. Primarily, it was due to a significant increase of asylum seekers from Central America arriving at our Southern border. As best as I can tell, the number of people coming here from Central America has not abated. Since most of these applicants are detained at government expense and because many of them are minors, their cases are given priority, at the expense of other asylum seekers.

So how were the Asylum Offices dealing with the increased volume, and what has changed?

Until December of last year, the Asylum Offices were attempting to process cases on a “last in, first out” basis.  Meaning, they skipped over the old cases and tried to process new cases. The logic was that if they started with the old cases, processing times would be greatly increased for new cases. If an alien knows her case will take several years, she might decide to file a frivolous case, just for the Employment Authorization document (“EAD”). The slower the case moves–the thinking goes–the greater the incentive for such people to file false cases. The fear of frivolous applicants taking advantage of the system in this way is not unfounded.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, when a person filed for asylum, he received an EAD more quickly. At this time, there were massive delays and cases took many years. The combination of long waiting periods and quick EADs encouraged fraud. I heard one anecdote from an INS officer who remembered a U-Haul truck full of applications arriving for processing. They were all boilerplate cases from China, filed by the same (probably unscrupulous) attorney. Even if the cases were ultimately denied, the applicants would have an EAD and be able to live and work in the U.S. for several years. Of course, many cases during this period were legitimate. In those days, there were very brutal civil wars in several Central American countries. As a result, many people fled to the United States.

In 1995, the law changed so that asylum applicants had to wait 180 days before they were eligible for an EAD (though they could mail the application for the EAD after 150 days). This was intended to reduce fraud. I have my doubts as to whether this change made much of an impact, but as the civil wars to our South ended, refugee flows decreased, and the Asylum Offices slowly reduced wait times.  By the time I went into private practice (in late 2003), asylum cases were interviewed a few months after filing, and most applicants received decisions a few weeks after the interview.

This all changed in early 2013, when large numbers of Central Americans–mostly young people–again began arriving at our border. The migration was not spurred by war, but by generalized violence from gangs and domestic abusers, as well as a failure by Central American governments to protect their citizens. The influx of new people overwhelmed the system and created the situation that we have today.

USCIS (the Asylum Office) has been struggling to keep up. Here is a recent announcement about their efforts:

The USCIS Asylum Division is hiring an additional 175 asylum officers, increasing the number of authorized asylum officer positions to 448. This represents a 65% increase since July 2013. As of January 2015, the Asylum Division has 350 officers on board and continues to hire and train new personnel. During 2014, USCIS also trained and temporarily detailed officers to the Asylum Division to assist with the increasing workload. 

Unfortunately, their efforts have not been enough. As of December 26, 2014, they abandoned the “last in, first out” system. Now, the Asylum Offices will process cases in the following order of priority:

  • First, applications that were scheduled for an interview, but the applicant requested a new interview date;
  • Second, applications filed by children; and
  • Third, all other pending affirmative asylum applications will be scheduled for interviews in the order they were received, with oldest cases scheduled first.

In other words, aside from rescheduled cases and cases involving children, the Asylum Offices will now process old cases first. So what does this mean? 

First, the good news. For those who have been waiting for two years for an interview, hopefully, your time is coming soon (though in my office, we have not yet seen any of our old cases scheduled).

Next, the bad news. If you are a new asylum applicant, you can expect to wait a long time for your interview. How long, we do not know, but I suspect that–even if they hire more officers, as they are trying to do–it will be at least a year. There are some minimal things to do to make a case faster (the “short list” and a request to expedite for emergent reasons), but generally it is very difficult to obtain a faster interview date.

And finally, the possibly bad news. We will see whether long delays encourage people to file more frivolous cases. If so, it will further clog the system.

As for me, of course I am rarely happy about change, and this change is no exception. I am glad that the government will start processing old cases. Those people have been waiting a long time. However, I wish they would give priority to people separated from their spouse and children–whether they filed two years ago or two days ago. It seems to me that single people can endure the wait much better. Like the old system, the new system does little to help people who are missing their family members, and to me, that is the real tragedy of the backlog.  

{ 155 comments }

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I’ve written quite a bit in these pages about the backlog at the Asylum Offices, but today I want to focus on another backlog–in the Immigration Courts–and what can be done to improve the situation. The Court backlog has been a bit off my radar; I suppose because the Immigration Courts have always been slow, and so delay in that realm was the norm. But the fact is, the delays in Court have gotten worse. My furthest case is currently set for March 2019. I expect to travel to the Court in my hovercraft.

Maybe aliens can hire Doc Brown to get them to their Individual Hearings more quickly.

Maybe aliens can hire Doc Brown to get them to their Individual Hearings more quickly.

The basic problem for the Courts, and across the government, is money. Resources are limited and now, with a Congressional leadership hostile to immigration, it seems less likely that the budget for EOIR–the Executive Office for Immigration Review; the agency that oversees the Courts–will be expanded (though a new, anti-immigration bill pending in the House would create 50 new Immigration Judge positions). However, there are some reforms that could be implemented that would not require additional money from the government.

Below are a few suggestions. Some might require Congressional action; others would not. Given the current situation, something needs to be done. Perhaps some of these ideas would help alleviate the Court backlog:

Impose Costs: Criminal and civil courts routinely impose costs and fines on people in the system, so why shouldn’t Immigration Courts do the same? There generally is only one reason that a person would have a case before an Immigration Judge–he violated the immigration law. Maybe the violation wasn’t his fault (think referred asylum seekers), and so a fine or payment of costs is not warranted, but the IJ can make this determination. The Immigration Court system is expensive, and it seems fair that people who are in the system because they violated the law should help pay for it. And of course, this money could be used to help improve the system.

Premium Processing: Certain application before USCIS allow for premium processing. The applicant pays additional money and receives a faster decision (though not necessarily a better decision). Maybe the Immigration Courts could create some type of premium processing so that an alien could pay additional money to speed up her case. I have written about this idea in the context of the Asylum Office. The people who pay the premium processing fee would benefit the most from this plan, but the infusion of money into the system should benefit everyone.

With regard to the imposition of costs and premium processing, it seems a reasonable question to ask: Is this fair to people who cannot afford to pay? I suppose it is not, but America is not really a fair place. We are a liaise faire capitalist democracy. Every man for himself, and all that. We routinely fine the poor for being poor, and while I don’t like imposing costs in the immigration context, it is a way to improve the system for everyone–even those who cannot pay.

One last point here. Maybe one way to ease the burden would be to spread out the cost. If an alien is fined or forced to pay costs (to pay for the court, DHS, his own detention, etc.), those costs could be paid over time. Instead of receiving a green card, for example, the alien could receive a conditional green card that must be renewed every two years. As long as he continues to pay his debt, the card will be renewed.

– Empower DHS: DHS attorneys are overworked and lack the resources necessary to properly do their jobs. Adding additional staff to the various Trial Attorneys offices would allow DHS to review cases in advance. This would allow attorneys like me to file applications for relief in advance. DHS could then review the applications and–where appropriate–agree to the relief. Of course, DHS would not agree to relief in all cases, but in many cases, relief is not contested. If we could agree on relief in advance, we could remove the case from the Court’s docket, thus freeing space for other cases. Indeed, perhaps this could be combined with premium processing, so that the alien can pay a fee to DHS to review her case (and DHS could use this money to hire more staff). Maybe DHS could even meet with the alien to further explore whether relief is appropriate. If, after examining the case, DHS determines that relief is appropriate, it could inform the Court, which would then grant the relief without a hearing.

There has been some (tepid) movement in this direction, with prosecutorial discretion, but that does not go far enough. Aliens who are eligible for substantive relief do not want prosecutorial discretion; they want their cases granted. If DHS had the resources to review and decide cases in advance, it would help alleviate the backlog before the Immigration Courts.  

Pre-Master Calendar Hearings: Let’s face it, Master Calendar Hearings (“MCH”) are a huge waste of time. Why not require any alien who enters the system to attend a pre-MCH with a member of the Court staff (not an IJ). The pre-MCHs could be arranged by language group, so that everyone attending speaks the same language and the Court staff member could be fluent in that language (or have an appropriate interpreter). At the pre-MCH, the aliens would watch a video–in their own language–explaining the system and their rights (basically what the IJ repeats to pro se aliens 31 times each MCH). The staff member could answer basic questions and encourage the pro se aliens to find lawyers (basically what the IJ does 31 times each MCH). Aliens who will not use a lawyer can be scheduled for an in-person MCH, like what we have now. Aliens who say they will hire a lawyer will be given a deadline for the lawyer to enter her appearance (see the next suggestion for more on lawyers and MCHs). If the deadline passes, the alien will need to attend an in-person MCH.

e-Master Calendar Hearings: EOIR now requires all attorneys to register and obtain an EOIR ID Number. As far as I can tell, EOIR does nothing with these ID numbers. However, it (supposedly) is a first step towards electronic filing. Federal courts across the United States require electronic filing, and I see no reason that the Immigration Courts should not do the same. Once an attorney enters her appearance, she should be able to go on-line and plead to the allegations and charges in the Notice to Appear (the charging document in Immigration Court). She should also indicate the relief sought. If there is some reason that the lawyer needs to see the IJ, she can request to appear at a regular MCH. But for the large majority of cases, all the pleadings and requests for relief could be done on-line. How, you ask, would this be an improvement over the current system, where lawyers can file written pleadings? At least in my experience, written pleadings are a huge pain in the tuchus. IJs often ignore them until the last minute, and we have to repeatedly call the Court to see whether the IJ will rule on them. So they really are not worth the trouble. If there was an easy electronic system that actually worked, and we could avoid MCHs, attorneys would be much inclined to use that system. It would save Court and DHS time, and it would also save attorney time and perhaps reduce costs for the alien.  

OK, I suppose that is more than enough for now. If anyone at EOIR wants to hire me to implement these changes, you know where to reach me…

{ 6 comments }

USCIS Errors Compound Asylum Applicant Woes

by Jason Dzubow on January 27, 2015

in Asylum Seekers

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"Bye, Mommy, I'll see you in high school."

“Bye, Mommy, I’ll see you in high school.”

I’ve written about the “backlog” a number of times. Essentially, as a result of large numbers of Central American youths arriving at our Southern border and seeking asylum, the system was overwhelmed and—though it didn’t exactly grind to a halt—there have been major delays for many applicants. The “surge,” as it is known, was not USCIS’s fault and, in fact, USCIS has worked hard to continue processing cases under very difficult conditions.

I’ve discussed before about some things USCIS could do to ease the burden on asylum applicants—prioritize applicants separated from family members, expedite following-to-join petitions once a case is approved, perhaps implementing “premium processing” for asylum applicants who can afford it—but lately I’ve noticed an unfortunate trend that USCIS needs to correct.

We’ve seen several of our clients’ applications for Advance Parole improperly handled or denied. Advance Parole is a document that allows an asylum applicant to leave the United States, travel to another country, and then return to the U.S. and continue her asylum application. When asylum applications generally took only a few months, Advance Parole was much less necessary. But now, when applications can take years, it is very important. In the era of the “backlog,” many asylum applicants face prolonged separation from spouses and children, not to mention parents, siblings, and friends. As you can imagine, these long separations are often the worst part of the whole process.

Advance Parole is a way to mitigate the difficulty of long separations. The applicant can obtain Advance Parole, travel to a third country to see her family members, and then return to the United States and continue her case. The application form itself (form I-131) asks whether the applicant plans to return to the country of feared persecution and—if the applicant returns to her country—it could result in a denial of asylum.

In recent weeks, we’ve been seeing two problems with USCIS decisions in Advance Parole cases. The first problem involves outright—and improper—denials of the I-131s. In these denials, USCIS claims that the I-131 must be denied because the applicant has not filed a concurrent form I-485 (application to adjust status to lawful permanent resident). In other words, because the asylum applicant has not filed for his green card, USCIS believes that he is not eligible for Advance Parole. This is simply incorrect: Asylum applicants are eligible for Advance Parole. See 8 C.F.R. 208.8. What is so frustrating about these denials is that we clearly indicated on the form I-131 that the person was an asylum seeker, and we included evidence of the pending asylum application; evidence that USCIS completely ignored. Not only do these denials prevent asylum applicants from seeing relatives (including relatives who are in very poor health), but they also waste money: The cost of an I-131 application is $360.00. To appeal the denial of an I-131 costs $630.00 (not counting any attorney’s fees) and takes many months, so it really is not worth the trouble and expense.

The second problem we’ve seen with Advance Parole applications is that USCIS has been requesting additional evidence about the purpose of the trip. So for example, where one client has a sick parent who he hopes to visit in a third country, it has not been enough to provide some basic evidence about the sickness (like a doctor’s note or a photo in the hospital), USCIS has requested more evidence of the health problem. Why is such evidence needed? As applicant for asylum is eligible for Advance Parole. He can travel for any reason: To see a sick relative, to attend a wedding, to go to a professional conference. So why should USCIS need to see evidence that a relative is ill in order to issue the Advance Parole document? It is insulting and unnecessary; not to mention a waste of time. I suppose this type of request for additional evidence is better than an outright denial, but it is still improper.

What also been a source of frustration, is that we’ve filed three identical Advance Parole applications for a husband, a wife, and their child. We mailed the applications in the same envelope with the same evidence. So far, the husband’s was denied because there was no pending I-485, the wife was asked for additional evidence about her sick relative (so presumably USCIS believes she can travel despite the absence of a pending I-485), and the child’s has been transferred to a different office altogether and is still languishing there. They say that consistency is the Hobgoblin of small minds, but it would be nice if USCIS could get its act together on these Advance Parole applications. Real people are harmed because of the government’s confusion about how to process these cases. I don’t know if it is a training issue or something else, but USCIS should examine what is going on here.

As the backlogged cases drag on and on, foreign travel becomes more important for many applicants. The uncertainty surrounding the I-131 applications, and the inability to see family members, is only adding to the applicants’ stress and frustration. Let’s hope that USCIS can resolve the problem and give some basic relief to asylum applicants.

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Lessons Learned from Cases Lost

by Jason Dzubow on January 20, 2015

in Asylum, Asylum Office, Asylum Seekers

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They say that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. In that spirit, I’d like to discuss some asylum cases that I’ve lost (or at least that were referred by the Asylum Office to the Immigration Court) and why the cases were not successful.

Remember: You can't spell "client" without "lie."

Remember: You can’t spell “client” without “lie.”

I am prompted to write about this topic by a recent, unpleasant experience at the Asylum Office. My client was an Iraqi man who claimed to have been kidnapped by a militia, which targeted him due to his religion. Unfortunately–and despite us directly asking him about his travels–the man failed to tell us that he had been to Jordan and applied for refugee status there through the UN. At the interview, the client again denied that he had ever been to Jordan, but then the Asylum Officer told him, “Service records indicate that you applied for refugee status in Jordan in 2011″ (whenever an Asylum Officer begins a sentence with “Service records indicate…”, you know you are in trouble). The client then admitted that he had been in Jordan for a year. At this point, it was obvious to me that things were only going to get worse from there, and so I recommended that the client end the interview immediately, which he did. That is the first time I ever had to end an interview in this way, and, frankly, it is pretty upsetting. The case has now been referred to court, where–if I continue as the attorney–we will have a mess on our hands. So what are the lessons?

First, and most obvious: Don’t lie to your lawyer. In the above example, if the man had told me about his time in Jordan, we could have dealt with it. He didn’t and so we couldn’t. Unfortunately, many immigrants take the advice of their “community” over that of their lawyer. Asylum seekers need to understand the role of the attorney–it is our job to represent you in a process that can be confrontational, and so the government can use information from your past against you. If you don’t tell your lawyer about past problems (especially when he specifically asks you), we cannot help you avoid those problems.

Another lesson is that the U.S. government often knows more than you think they know. If you have crossed a border, it’s likely that the government knows about it. The Asylum Officer will have access to anything that you said during any previous contacts with the U.S. government (including during visa interviews). The Asylum Officer also probably has access to anything you said in interviews with other governments or the United Nations. So if you lied in a prior encounter with the U.S. government or any other government, you’d be well advised to inform your attorney. That way, he can try to mitigate the damage. Also, in asylum cases, where a person lies to obtain a visa in order to escape persecution, the lie is not necessarily fatal to the asylum claim. See Matter of Pula.

A different area where we see clients get into trouble is with family relationships. Sometimes, a client will say he is single when he’s married, or that he has five children when he has two. Of course, if the client listed different relatives on a visa application, the U.S. government will know about it, and the lie will damage the client’s credibility. Why would a client lie about this? The most generous explanation, which has the virtue of being true in some cases, is that the client considers the listed relative to be his child, but there is no formal adoption and the client does not understand the legal niceties of the question. In many societies, people who raise a relative’s child consider that child their own. As long as the client explains the situation and the Asylum Officer doesn’t think the client is trying to hide something, she should be fine, but again, if the client doesn’t tell the lawyer, the lawyer cannot properly prepare the case.

Speaking of family cases and cases where the government knows more than you’d think, I had one case where the woman got married, but did not list the marriage on her asylum form (and did not tell me). In fact, she really did not consider herself married–she signed a marriage contract, but never consummated the marriage, and she seemed to have put it behind her. Unfortunately for her, the Asylum Officer somehow knew that she was married. The result: Her case was denied and referred to court. Had she informed me (and the Asylum Office) that she was married, she likely would have been approved–her brother’s case was approved under the same circumstances. So again, the lesson is that the government may know more than you think they know. 

The bottom line here is that when preparing an asylum application, it is a bad idea to lie. The U.S. government knows a lot. How do they know so much? I don’t know. Maybe ask Edward Snowden. But the point is, if you are filing an asylum application and you are not forthcoming with your responses, you risk losing your case.

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For some time now, the threat of Islamic extremism has been an important factor in our country’s immigration and asylum policies. But two recent–and horrific–events overseas have reminded us about the gravity of that threat.

CharlieFirst is the case of Man Haron Monis, an Iranian national who received asylum in Australia. Last month, Mr. Monis took hostages in a café, forced them to display a Jihadi flag, and demanded to speak to the Australian Prime Minister. By the time the incident ended, two hostages were dead and several were injured. Mr. Monis also died in the confrontation. The incident was only the most recent in a long history of problems for Mr. Monis. Among other things, he had been charged as an accessory in the murder of his ex-wife, he was charged with several counts of sexual assault against various women, and he had notoriously sent hate letters to the families of Australian service members killed in Afghanistan, which also resulted in criminal charges.

The second incident is the massacre at Charlie Hebdo magazine in France. The suspects in that attack seem to have been French nationals of Algerian decent who saw the attack as revenge for the magazine’s cartoons disparaging the Prophet Mohamed. At least some of the suspects in that attack have had prior problems with the law, including terrorism-related arrests, and the men seem to have been connected with a Yemeni terrorist network.

So with two fresh examples of Islamic extremists attacks in the West, it seems to me a fair question to ask: Why do we risk allowing terrorists into our country through the asylum and refugee system? Why not simply limit asylum to people who hale from non-Muslim countries? Certainly there are plenty of non-Muslim refugees who need our help. And certainly, as well, there are people not too far on the fringe who–assuming they could not eliminate asylum altogether–would be very happy to limit humanitarian relief to non-Muslims.

There are several ways to address these questions. One way–which I won’t discuss in detail but I want to mention–is to talk about historic injustices in the relationship between the Muslim World and the West: Colonization, economic exploitation, repeated military interventions, humiliation. The West’s actions in the Middle East have contributed to the problem of Muslim extremism. But we have to live with the world that now exists, however imperfectly that world came to be, and I don’t think the West’s past failures justify putting our citizens at risk of attack by extremists. In other words, just because we helped create the problem of extremist terrorism does not mean that we shouldn’t do everything possible to prevent terrorists from coming to our countries, including–if appropriate–closing the door to asylum applicants from Muslim countries.

However, there are other reasons that I think justify allowing people from all countries to seek refuge here.

For one thing, allowing ourselves to be intimidated by terrorists into modifying our humanitarian values or cutting ourselves off from Muslim people would be a victory for the terrorists. It would mean that we gave in to our fears. Great nations are not bullied by ignorant thugs. We already have strong safeguards in place to identify potential terrorists and criminals, and prevent them from coming to our country. In a future post, I will make some suggestions for how we might further strengthen our defenses. 

Second, many of the Muslims that seek protection in the U.S. are people who worked with the United States military or government, or who worked for international NGOs and companies in concert with our efforts (however imperfect) at nation-building. Such people risked their lives and trusted us. To abandon them would be to send a message that America does not stand by its friends. This is a message that we cannot afford to send. If we are not trustworthy, people will not cooperate with us going forward.

Third, allowing terrorists to drive a wedge between our country and moderate Muslims would make the world more dangerous. There will be fewer bridges, not more. We need to keep strengthening ties between the West and the Muslim World. The terrorists want to cut those ties; we cannot let them.

Finally, on a more personal note, most of the asylum seekers I represent come from Muslim countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. Almost all of them hold strong pro-Western views (i.e., they believe in the foundational values of our country). Many of them worked with the United States or with Western organizations. Others are political activists, women’s rights activists, and gay rights activists. One of them famously (or infamously in his country) made a trip to Israel in an effort to promote peace. Many of my clients have been threatened by the same types of people who committed the murders in Australia and France. Some of my clients have lost family members to Islamic extremist attacks. A good number of my clients continue their political activities after they are granted asylum, as they hope to help bring change to their countries. As a matter of principle, morality, and as a matter of our national interest, I feel we are well-served by offering protection to such people.

Although the news usually reports terrorist attacks, it rarely reports the opening of a new school for girls. It reports threat levels and terrorist “chatter,” but it often ignores peace-building efforts, reconciliation, and democratic activism. Many people in the Muslim World want change. We saw that in the Arab Spring. We need to align ourselves with such people and give them our support. We need to stay engaged with the world and not retreat. We need to remain hopeful and not surrender to fear.

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