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Some asylum seekers file their applications and never receive an interview. Others are interviewed for asylum and never receive a decision. I’ve discussed the first problem–called the backlog–several times, but today I want to discuss the second problem. What happens to people who are interviewed for asylum, but then wait forever for a decision?

Better late than never.

Better late than never.

I’ve had a number of clients with this problem. They fall into a few broad categories.

One group are people from countries that are considered a security threat to the United States–countries like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Somalia. People from such countries are subject to more extensive—and thus more time consuming—security background checks. The security check process is very opaque, so we really don’t know much about what the government is checking or why it takes so long, and the length of the delay seems to have nothing to do with the person’s personal history (for example, I’ve had clients who worked in the U.S. Embassy in their country or with the U.S. military, and still the background check was delayed). To me, the security background check delays don’t make sense. If the person is a threat to the United States, allowing him to live freely here for months or years while the government investigates his background seems like a bad idea. Another aspect of the background check that does not make sense is that asylum seekers in court never seem to be delayed by security checks. Also, aliens seeking their residency in other ways (marriage to a U.S. citizen or through employment) don’t seem to have problems with background checks either. While the need for background checks is clear, the inordinate delays for asylum seekers is hard to understand.

Another group of people who face delays after the interview are people who may have provided “material support” to terrorists or persecutors. I have a client like this–he was kidnapped by terrorists and released only after he negotiated a ransom (which was paid by his relative). Had he not paid the ransom, his case would not have been delayed post-interview. Of course, had he not paid the ransom, he would have been killed by the kidnappers, so the point would probably be moot. I imagine that his case is subject to review by Headquarters, which again, seems reasonable. But why it should take 10 months (so far) and what they hope to discover through an additional review, I don’t know.

A third group of people whose cases are delayed are members of disfavored political parties or organizations. Such people might also be subject to the “material support” bar, but even if they have not provided support to persecutors, their cases might be delayed.

A final group are high-profile cases, such as diplomats and public figures. When such a person receives asylum (or is denied asylum), there are potential political ramifications. Again, while I imagine it makes sense to review such cases at a higher level, I am not exactly sure what such a review will accomplish. The law of asylum is (supposedly) objective–we should not deny asylum to an individual just because her home government will be offended–so it is unclear what there is to review.

These delays are particularly frustrating given that decisions in asylum cases should generally be made within six months of filing.  According to INA § 208(d)(5)(A)(iii), “in the absence of exceptional circumstances, final administrative adjudication of the asylum application, not including administrative appeal, shall be completed within 180 days after the date an application is filed.” Unfortunately, the “exceptional circumstances” clause is the exception that swallows the rule. These days, everything from backlog to background check to Asylum Office error seems to pass for exceptional circumstances. I know this is not really anyone’s fault–the Asylum Offices are overwhelmingly busy, but it is still quite frustrating.

Indeed, I have had clients waiting for more than two years (two years!) after their interview, and the asylum offices can give us not even a hint about when we will receive a decision. The worst part about these delays is how they affect asylum seekers who are separated from their families. I’ve already had a few clients with strong claims abandon their cases due to the intolerable wait times. The saddest case was an Afghan man who recently left the country, two years after receiving a “recommended approval.” The client had a wife and small children who were waiting in Afghanistan. After he received the recommended approval–in 2012–we were hopeful that he would soon receive his final approval, and then petition for his family. After enduring a two-year wait, during which time first his child and then his wife suffered serious illnesses, the client finally gave up and returned to his family. This is a man who worked closely with the U.S. military in Afghanistan and who has a very legitimate fear of the Taliban. In his case, we would have been better off if the Asylum Office had just denied his claim–at least then he would have known that he was on his own. Instead, he relied on our country for help, we told him we would help, and then we let him down.

Delays after the interviews seem to affect a minority of applicants, and they have not garnered as much attention as the backlog. However, they can be just as frustrating and never-ending as backlogged cases. At the minimum, it would be helpful if the Asylum Offices could provide some type of time frame for these people, particularly when they are separated from family members. As DHS struggles to deal with the backlog, I hope they don’t forget about those who have been interviewed, but who are also stuck waiting.

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Odds are, you’ve never heard of Sture Petrén. But if you are a refugee who has escaped persecution on account of female genital mutilation, domestic violence or sexual orientation, you may owe him your life.

If you've received asylum based on PSG, you should send your thank yous to Sture Petrén.

If you’ve received asylum based on PSG, you should send your thank yous to Sture Petrén.

Sture Petrén—full name: Bror Arvid Sture Petrén—was born in Stockholm, Sweden on October 3, 1908. He studied law and philosophy at Lund University, and then served in various law courts in his home country from 1933 to 1943, when he was appointed as an appellate judge. In 1949, he was recruited by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he served as the Director of the Legal Department for the next 15 years. More significantly from the point of view of history, Judge Petrén was appointed to the Swedish delegation to the United Nations General Assembly, where he served from 1948-61. He went on to other prestigious posts domestically and internationally. He was a member–and eventually President–of the European Commission of Human Rights, he was a member of the International Court of Justice, and he served as a judge on the European Court of Human Rights. In 1972, Judge Petrén was knighted by the Swedish king. He died in Geneva on December 13, 1976.

For all his accomplishments, it seems that Judge Petrén’s most notable achievement is probably one that he himself did not think much about at the time: In November 1951, he added the phrase “particular social group” to Articles 1 and 33 of the United Nations Refugee Convention. 

In the fall of 1951, the Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons held a series of meetings to hash out the Convention on the Status of Refugees. The original Convention listed four protected categories: race, religion, nationality, and political opinion. The Swedish delegation, led by the good Judge, introduced an amendment to Article 1 adding the phrase “particular social group” or PSG. Judge Petrén offered little in the way of explanation for the addition. In the transcript from November 26, he says only that the other protected categories suggest the inclusion of a “reference to persons who might be persecuted owing to their membership of a particular social group.” “Such cases existed,” said the Judge, “and it would be as well to mention them explicitly.” Without further discussion, the amendment was adopted that same day. Fourteen members voted in favor of the amendment, none opposed, and eight abstained (though history apparently does not record how each country voted).

A week later, Judge Petrén introduced the same amendment to Article 33 (non-refoulment), so it would be in conformity with Article 1 (modern-day U.S. immigration law derives the asylum/refugee definition from Article 1 of the Convention; the Withholding of Removal definition comes from Article 33). 

So does the origin of the phrase PSG shed any light on the term’s meaning today? What—if anything—can we learn from the historic record?

First, it seems that Judge Petrén’s addition to the Convention was based on the draft of a planned law in Sweden called the National Alien Act, which went into effect in 1954. The National Alien Act was, in turn, based on the existing Swedish practice of protecting aliens who were members of a PSG, though Swedish law from the 1950s apparently does not define PSG. To the extent that the modern-day Swedish Alien Act is instructive, it seems clear that sexual orientation and gender were not consider particular social groups. The modern law offers protection to people in a PSG, homosexuals, and people who face persecution on account of gender. As one commentator observed, it would be superfluous to separately list PSG, sexual orientation, and gender, if sexual orientation and gender were considered PSGs. 

I could not find a copy of the old Swedish law (upon which the Convention definition of PSG was purportedly based), but it would be very surprising—even for a forward-thinking country like Sweden—if the 1950s law separately protected people based on gender and (especially) sexual orientation. My guess is that the Swedish law listed PSG as a protected category, but left the term undefined. Of course, this does not mean that PSG was meant to encompass sexual minorities and women under Swedish law or under the Convention definition. The Dead White Men who created the Convention may have been progressive for their time (though there are arguments that they were not), but it seems more than unlikely that the idea of specifically protecting gays and women was even on their radar. At least I could find no evidence in the historic record to support such a notion.

A second question is what Judge Petrén understood the term PSG to mean. I am not sure whether his understanding is relevant to anything other than historical curiosity, but it seems almost certain that he had no intention of dramatically (or even modestly) expanding the protected categories. Rather, PSG was meant as a safety net to catch people who did not easily fit into the other categories–people like aristocrats and linguistic minorities, to name a few. Indeed, Judge Petrén’s comments indicate a realist, as well as an idealist. After noting that Sweden was a country of asylum in the past, he states, “but the fact must be taken into account that its capacity for absorbing large numbers [of refugees] was limited and that, particularly in the present serious state of world affairs [post-WWII], considerations of national security must play a certain part.” This does not necessarily sound like someone who wanted to greatly expand the classes of people covered by the refugee definition.

To a large degree, of course, all this is academic. The goings-on in 1951 are a long way from our reality today. Perhaps an Originalist—like a Justice Scalia—might parse Judge Petrén’s words and look back to post-War Swedish law to suss out some meaning that informs our definition of PSG today. However, given that the Convention and mid-20th Century Swedish law are pretty removed from current U.S. asylum law, the Originalist inquiry seems like a stretch.

Moreover, laws and norms change over time. The vagaries of the past are fodder for debate today. To me, such debates are healthy and—hopefully—lead us in the direction of Justice. Although Judge Petrén probably had no intention of altering the refugee definition so dramatically, he certainly planted the seed that led to protection for many thousands of people. Intended or not, that is his extraordinary legacy.  

Special thanks to Ali and Behnam for their help with this article. 

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I recently participated in a panel discussion at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in Washington, DC. The panel was hosted by Congresswoman Yvette Clarke and featured speakers from academia, non-profits, government, and the private bar. The introductory speaker was the Ambassador of Jamaica, who (to my surprise) knew more about asylum law than most immigration attorneys. The focus of the panel was on asylum seekers of African decent (so, generally, people from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America).

Déjà queue - The backlog is back. Or maybe it really never went away.

Déjà queue – The backlog is back. Or maybe it really never went away.

One purpose of the panel was to bring attention to asylum seekers and refugees from Africa and the African diaspora. According to Jana Mason of UNHCR, despite the recent turmoil in the Middle East, the plurality of the world’s refugees and internally displaced people come from Africa. This is significant because in the United States, there is not a strong constituency to support these people (as there is for Cubans, for example). The result is that African and diaspora asylum seekers often receive less attention and less support than asylum seekers from other places. The CBC hopes to improve our government’s policies towards African asylum seekers, and our panel was part of that effort.

Panel speakers also touched on issues that affect asylum seekers in the U.S. more generally. The most important comments in that regard came from John Lafferty, the Chief of the Asylum Division at USCIS, who spoke–among other things–about the backlog (for some background on the backlog, check out my previous post).

The statistics Mr. Lafferty cited were sobering: 55,000 affirmative asylum cases filed in FY 2014, over 50,000 credible fear interviews, and a nationwide backlog of 60,000 cases. USCIS estimates that it might take three to four years to resolve the backlog, and presumably that’s only if unforeseen events don’t cause additional delay.

One piece of good news is that USCIS has been working hard to deal with the situation. In the last year or so, they’ve grown from 273 asylum officers to 425 officers, and they plan to hire additional officers going forward. I must say that my experience with the new officers has been a bit mixed. Most are excellent–professional, courteous, knowledgeable, and fair. A few, though, seem to be unfamiliar with the law or with basic interview techniques. Hopefully, as they gain more experience, these kinks will be worked out (and hopefully not too many legitimate refugees will be denied asylum in the mean time).

Despite USCIS’s efforts, the backlog has continued to grow. At this point, even if no new cases enter the system, it would take over one year to review all 60,000 cases. And of course, new cases continue to enter the system all the time. Given the large number of people stuck in the backlog, I’d like to offer a few suggestions on how to make life easier for those who are waiting:

First, and I think most importantly, USCIS should give priority to applicants with family members who are overseas. This can be done in at least two ways: (1) Review existing I-589 forms, and where there is a spouse or child who is currently not in the U.S., give that case priority; and (2) when a backlogged case is (finally) approved, give priority to any I-730 petition for family members following to join.

Second, and this would probably require a legislative fix so maybe it is pie in the sky, for any case that USCIS knows will enter the backlog, allow the applicant to file immediately for her work permit (under existing law, the asylum applicant must wait 150 days before filing for a work permit).

Third, instead of issuing the work permit (called an employment authorization document or EAD) for one year, issue it for two years (or more). A two-year EAD would make life easier for asylum seekers. Renewing the permit every year is expensive and processing delays sometimes result in people losing their jobs and driver’s licenses (which are tied to the EADs).

Fourth, devote more resources to backlogged cases, even if this means slowing down the process for newly-filed cases (backlogged cases have been skipped; USCIS processes new cases before backlogged cases). Even if only a few backlogged cases were being adjudicated, this would at least give hope to the thousands who are waiting without any sign of progress. Also, it would be helpful for people to have some sense of when their cases will be adjudicated. USCIS should endeavor to release as much information as available about their efforts to resolve the backlog. Given that each Asylum Office has its own website, perhaps the information could be posted there and updated regularly.

I recognize that USCIS’s situation is difficult and unprecedented, and that they have been overwhelmed by the large numbers of new applications and credible fear interviews. But from my view of things, the situation for those who are waiting is pretty rough. These modest suggestions would help to mitigate the difficulty for the most seriously affected, and would give some hope and relief to the others.

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“Miranda Rights” for Asylum Seekers

by Jason Dzubow on September 23, 2014

in Asylum, Asylum Seekers, Legal

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It’s a common scenario in my office: A person who entered the U.S. unlawfully at the Mexican border, and who was detained and released by U.S. immigration authorities, wants to seek asylum, but has missed the one-year deadline to apply.

Dupe process of law at the border: Don’t tell people about their rights, and they won’t exercise them.

Dupe process of law at the border: Don’t tell people about their rights, and they won’t exercise them.

Just the other day, a young man from El Salvador came to me for a consultation. In his country, gang members threatened to kill him. They targeted him partly because of his religion (Evangelical), but mostly because he had a job and (they presumed) money. They also targeted his wife and young child. The man’s family went into hiding and the man came to the United States. He entered without inspection in June 2013 and was apprehended by the Border Patrol. After he passed a credible fear interview (a CFI is essentially an initial evaluation of whether the alien can state a claim for asylum), he was released and ordered to appear before an Immigration Judge. The man attended his first hearing, where the IJ gave him additional time to find a lawyer. That’s when I came into the picture—in September 2014; more than one year after the man entered the United States.

So how to evaluate this man’s case? On the merits, it’s not a great case. He certainly faces grave harm if he returns. But it may be difficult to show that the harm is “on account of” a protected ground: Perhaps he has a claim based on his fear that the gang will persecute him due to his religion, or his particular social group (family; maybe “people with jobs”), but it’s certainly not a slam dunk. Probably the more difficult issue, however, involves the man’s failure to file for asylum during his first year in the United States (in order to qualify for asylum, an alien must file the asylum form–the I-589–within one year of arrival or meet an exception to the one-year deadline). With regard to this filing deadline, the man’s case is pretty typical.

Like most asylum lawyers, I despise the one-year filing deadline (found at INA § 208(a)(2)(B) and 8 C.F.R. § 208.4). It was originally enacted to help prevent fraud. The logic being that if you had a legitimate case, you’d file it within a year. The reality is quite different. People like the Salvador man know that they face harm in their country, but they have no idea about the law, and little incentive (or money) to hire a lawyer until their court date is imminent—often well beyond their first year here. The result is that legitimate refugees are denied asylum for reasons completely unrelated to their claims and, instead of reviewing the merits of a case, the IJ or asylum officer is stuck evaluating the applicant’s excuse for failing to file within one year. For these reasons, it’s hard to find anyone involved in the system who likes the one-year rule. So what can be done?

The obvious solution is to eliminate the one-year bar. But that would require Congressional action, and it’s rare these days to see the words “Congress” and “action” in the same sentence. So I won’t hold my breath on this idea.

A more realistic solution may be to create a Miranda­-style rule for asylum. In other words, the Border Patrol or the Immigration Judge or whoever the alien comes into contact with, would be required to inform the alien that if he wishes to seek asylum, he needs to file the form I-589 within one year of arrival. We could also require that the alien be informed about the one-year rule in a language that he understands, and (since we are wishing) we can even require that they give him a copy of the form and information about where to file it.

I think the 1966 Supreme Court case Miranda v. Arizona provides a good model for how to protect aliens. That case created the famous “Miranda warning” that police read at the time of arrest (You have the right to remain silent; anything you say can be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney…). In reaching its decision, the Court wanted to protect our Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination (no one “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself”). The Court reasoned that in the intimidating environment of police custody, suspects might feel compelled to talk, and so the Court created the Miranda warning to help ensure that people will understand their right against self incrimination. One portion of the case particularly strikes me:

An individual swept from familiar surroundings into police custody, surrounded by antagonistic forces, and subjected to the techniques of persuasion described above cannot be otherwise than under compulsion to speak.

The image of the beleaguered suspect, disoriented and in unfamiliar surroundings, unable to exercise his Fifth Amendment rights, seems to me analogous to the alien, recently arrived in the U.S., who is taken into custody, placed into a system that he does not understand, in a language that he (probably) does not understand, and who then loses substantive rights as a result of his predicament. True, in the case of Miranda, the suspect was momentarily disoriented and vulnerable, whereas with asylum seekers, the person has a whole year to file his case. But just as the Miranda Court examined specific instances where suspects’ rights were violated and reached its conclusion that protection was necessary based on an analysis of how suspects actually behaved in custody, an examination of how many aliens are behaving will reveal that they are not aware of the one-year filing requirement.

For many legitimate refugees–like my potential client from El Salvador–learning about the one-year filing requirement is much more difficult than it might seem. They are in a new country where they do not understand the language or culture, they probably have spent much of their lives living in fear of their government, they often have no support network and few resources, and many times the “advice” they receive from notarios, unscrupulous lawyers, and “friends” is incorrect. In short, unless they are well-educated or well-connected, many asylum seekers have little chance to learn about the one-year filing requirement. The result, of course, is that they miss the deadline and lose their opportunity to claim asylum. 

Aliens have a due process right to file for asylum. However, just like suspects in police custody, unless they are made aware of their rights, many legitimate refugees will continue to miss the one-year deadline and lose their right to seek asylum. It seems easy enough to solve this problem: Create a Miranda-style rule requiring government officials to inform aliens about the one-year deadline.  

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Our guest blogger today is Jonathan Bialosky, an attorney at the George Washington University Law School Immigration Clinic. He recently had an important win in an “other serious harm” asylum case. It also happens that he was a student in Todd Pilcher and my Asylum Law class at GW last semester. Congratulations on the win (and on passing our class – which you could have taught). Enjoy– 

On September 3rd, 16 years after filing his application, and two years after first approaching the GW Immigration Clinic, my client was granted asylum. Sixteen years is a long time, even in the glacially slow world of EOIR, but more significant is that the Immigration Judge granted my client “humanitarian asylum” on a basis that seems to be greatly under-utilized.

Jonathan Bialosky, who claims that taking Todd and my class constitutes "other serious harm."

Jonathan Bialosky, who claims that taking Todd and my class constitutes “other serious harm.”

There are two types of humanitarian asylum. The first is for individuals whose past persecution was so severe that they cannot be expected to return to their home country, even if—typically because of changed country conditions—they no longer have a well-founded fear of return on account of a protected ground. The BIA first addressed this type of humanitarian asylum in 1989 in the precedent decision Matter of Chen, and this type of humanitarian asylum was codified as a regulation in 1990. 

Matter of Chen seems pretty well-known, but a second type of humanitarian asylum is apparently much less common. Pursuant to a regulation that became effective in 2001, under a different type of humanitarian asylum, applicants who suffered past persecution on account of a protected ground but who no longer have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of a protected ground remain eligible for asylum if there is a reasonable possibility that they would suffer “other serious harm” upon removal. The BIA, in the 2012 precedent decision, Matter of L-S-, explained that the “other serious harm” need not be related to the past persecution or even have a nexus to a protected ground.

My client qualified for “other serious harm” asylum because he previously suffered past persecution on account of his imputed political opinion and now, due to serious medical conditions, he would die if he were removed to his home country, where the medical care he needs to survive is not available. My client is from Sierra Leone and he served in a regimental band in the country’s army. In 1998, during the civil war, he was falsely accused of involvement with anti-government rebels. He was detained at a military barracks for two weeks, beaten with sticks and weapons, and burned with cigarettes. He escaped and made his way to the U.S. Sadly, beginning in 2000, when he was diagnosed with HIV, my client suffered a series of medical problems. His kidneys failed, he went into a coma, and then, after finally receiving a kidney transplant, his body rejected the new organ. All the while, his asylum application (first filed in 1998 within six months of his arrival in the U.S.) remained administratively closed by USCIS—for 13 years—hence the long wait for a decision.

Through dialysis and participation in a clinical trial of anti-retroviral drugs with the NIH, my client’s medical condition is more or less stable, but he leads a pretty grim life: He has many dietary restrictions, he’s on dialysis three days a week for four hours at a time, and he’s constantly tired. In addition, he has chronic nightmares about what happened in Sierra Leone. All these problems, combined with the generally poor quality of medical care and the recent Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, made it pretty clear that, even though the civil war has ended, my client would suffer “other serious harm” upon removal. Dialysis is not widely available and is prohibitively expensive in Sierra Leone, and kidney transplants are even more rare. One doctor wrote a letter stating that sending my client to Sierra Leone was a “death sentence,” and that he wouldn’t last more than a few weeks there.

The ICE trial attorney and, more importantly, the Immigration Judge, agreed. After 16 years, my client’s asylum merits hearing lasted just 20 minutes. ICE and the IJ were satisfied with the evidence we submitted before the hearing that my client was deserving of humanitarian asylum.

It wasn’t me who identified the legal theory that ultimately won my client’s asylum. Others far sharper than me identified the legal basis that essentially made my client’s case a shoo-in. I had no idea about humanitarian asylum. When I told an immigration attorney friend that I was working on a humanitarian asylum case, she was only familiar with the Matter of Chen type claim. I was also surprised to see very few judicial opinions discussing “other serious harm asylum” (though admittedly, this made the legal research for my brief much easier).

“Other serious harm” asylum has the potential to help many people, even those who have been in the U.S. for more than one year and never applied for asylum. Actually, “other serious harm” humanitarian asylum may render the one-year filing deadline meaningless for some. Consider those that suffered past persecution on account of a protected ground and now cannot return to their home country for some other reason. As my client’s case demonstrates, the reason could be that the individual has a medical condition that cannot be effectively treated in the home country. In addition, Matter of L-S- states that “civil strife, extreme economic deprivation and new physical or psychological harm” could be the causes of other serious harm. The inquiry is prospective, so changed circumstances matter. A recently diagnosed medical condition or outbreak of violence in the home country could constitute changed circumstances that serve both as an excuse for the late filing of the asylum application and as the basis of “other serious harm.” To my knowledge, this has not been tested, but for individuals who did not comply with the one-year filing deadline, “other serious harm” humanitarian asylum may present a viable option for relief where there otherwise would be none.

My client’s experience seems almost tailored-made for “other serious harm” humanitarian asylum, but maybe there are others out there who could benefit from this basis for asylum. With a little publicity for this relatively obscure regulation, maybe some of them can win asylum too. With any luck, they might even be able to do so in fewer than 16 years.

Jonathan Bialosky, Esq., supervises Immigration Clinic law students and provides legal representation to asylum seekers and respondents facing deportation in Immigration Court.  He previously served as director of the Maxwell Street Legal Clinic in Lexington, Kentucky from January 2011 until July 2013, serving as the sole attorney at a nonprofit immigration law practice. Jonathan is a May 2010 honors graduate of the George Washington University School of Law.

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In a recent decision, Matter of A-R-C-G-, 26 I&N Dec. 388 (BIA 2014), the BIA held that “married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship” can constitute a cognizable particular social group (“PSG”) for purposes of asylum. The decision is significant because it marks the first time that the Board has published a decision essentially endorsing asylum for victims of domestic violence. Applicants who seek asylum under this standard will still need to prove that the level of harm they face constitutes persecution, that they cannot relocate somewhere else within their country, and that their government is unable or unwilling to protect them. 

This decision on PSG has been a long time coming, but–at least in my opinion–it does not go far enough.

Guatemalan Women celebrate their new particular social group.

Guatemalan Women celebrate their new particular social group.

In 2004, in a case called Matter of R-A-, DHS acknowledged that domestic violence could form the basis for an asylum claim. In that case, DHS argued in a brief that R-A- should receive asylum based on domestic violence. In its brief, DHS defined the PSG as “married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship.” Sound familiar? And that was 10 years ago.

Matter of R-A- never resulted in a published BIA decision (though R-A- herself received asylum in 2009). Since the brief was made public in 2004, asylum attorneys have relied on it to advocate for their clients, presumably with some success (since there is no data on the number of cases granted based on domestic violence, it is impossible to know for sure).

To me, the PSG “married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship” is awkward and contrived. Moreover, to receive asylum based on a PSG, the applicant must show that she was persecuted “on account of” her membership in the PSG. In other words, the persecutor harmed the applicant because she is a member of the PSG. I am not convinced that the husband was harming A-R-C-G- because she was a married woman who was unable to leave the relationship. He would have harmed her whether or not she was married and whether or not she was able to leave the relationship. The husband may have had access to A-R-C-G- because he was married to her and because she was unable to leave, but he was not motivated to harm her for those reasons.

It seems to me that there is a simpler, more elegant PSG that would have been appropriate for this case: “Women.” I suspect that I am not alone in this opinion. In amici curiae briefs, counsels for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies argued that gender alone should be enough to constitute a PSG. Also, at least one federal circuit court (you guessed it – the Ninth) has held that “women in Guatemala” might constitute a particular social group.

“Women” makes sense as the PSG in this case. The evidence in the case suggests that the husband would have persecuted any woman who he was with–whether or not she was married or able to leave him. Further, country condition evidence from Guatemala makes clear that women in that country live in dire circumstances. In its decision, the Board notes that Guatemala “has a culture of ‘machismo and family violence,'” including sexual offenses and spousal rape. The victims of this violence are, for the most part, women. And, by the way, they are not just “Guatemalan women.”  I imagine that if a Salvadoran woman, or a Nicaraguan woman, or a Japanese woman lived in Guatemala and integrated into the society, she would face the same problems as a Guatemalan woman. For this reason, the PSG should be “women,” as opposed to “Guatemalan women.”

But the BIA was not willing to go that far. After noting that counsel for Amici argued in favor of gender alone as the PSG, the Board held, “Since the respondent’s membership in a particular social group is established under the aforementioned group, we need not reach this issue.”

Perhaps that is the way of things. It’s best not to push the law too far, even if it makes logical sense, and even where it would protect additional people. A decision granting asylum to women (or men) who face persecution solely because of their gender would likely open the door to many more asylum seekers. Given the current state of affairs in the asylum world–the border crisis, partisan scrutiny from Congress, the backlog–maybe it’s best not to open the door too far. Maybe a relatively limited decision like Matter of A-R-C-G- is the best we could have hoped for.

I don’t mean to minimize the importance of A-R-C-G-. It is obviously a great win for the alien in that case (though the decision does not finally grant her asylum, it seems very likely that that will be the end result), and it will certainly help many women who face harm from domestic abusers. However, the decision codifies a landscape where women–many without the resources available to people like A-R-C-G- and R-A—will be forced to articulate complicated PSGs and demonstrate that they are members of those PSGs. I am not sure how many poor refugee women will actually be able to do all that.

A-R-C-G- was persecuted because she was a woman. Not because she was a Guatemalan woman, not because she was married, and not because she was unable to leave her husband. Matter of A-R-C-G- is an important step towards protecting women victims of domestic violence. Maybe next time, the BIA will take a giant leap.

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If you follow the news from the Executive Office for Immigration Review or EOIR–the office that oversees the Immigration Courts–you are aware of the recent lawsuit filed by Judge Afsaneh Ashley Tabaddor. Judge Tabaddor is an IJ in Los Angeles. She was appointed in 2005 and has been serving ever since. Judge Tabaddor also happens to be Iranian-American.

Judge Tabaddor has been mistreated by the executive branch. We hope she doesn't leave, and we are root-ing for her.

Judge Tabaddor has been mistreated by the executive Branch. We hope she doesn’t Leave. We are Root-ing for her.

According to Judge Tabaddor’s complaint against EOIR, trouble began for her in the summer of 2012 when the White House–considered by some a radical Muslim organization–invited her to attend a “Round Table with Iranian-American Community Leaders.” After some hemming and hawing over the nature of the event, EOIR granted the Judge leave to attend. But afterward, EOIR banned Judge Tabaddor from adjudicating cases involving nationals from Iran. So in other words, an Iranian American Judge who is active in her community is not permitted to hear cases where the alien is from Iran.

On it’s face, EOIR’s decision seems completely ridiculous and indefensible. It would be like forcing members of the National Association of Women Judges to recuse themselves in cases involving women, or stopping members of a Jewish judges association from hearing cases involving Jews, etc., etc. But can EOIR’s decision somehow be justified? Does it make sense to ban an Iranian-American who is involved in her community from hearing cases form Iran? Permit me to try to make that argument (as an asylum lawyer, tilting at windmills is my specialty).

Perhaps EOIR is concerned about the Judge because Iran is considered our enemy (or–on a good day–our rival). Allowing Judge Tabaddor to hear Iranian cases would be like allowing an American originally from the Eastern Block to serve in the White House during the Cold War (Zbigniew Brzezinski) or like allowing a German-American to lead the fight against Germany in WWI (John J. “Black Jack” Pershing) or against the Nazis in WWII (Major General Carl Spaatz). Hmm, maybe that argument doesn’t work so well after all. Let me put it another way. If you are at war with Japan, you’d better imprison all Japanese-Americans. Wait. Maybe that is not such a good argument either. Let’s try this a little differently. 

It could be that EOIR is worried about the appearance of bias. Appearance is very important for judges. If an IJ is perceived as biased, it reduces our confidence in her decisions. It would be as if five Republican-appointed judges voted to end an election recount, giving the victory to the Republican presidential candidate. Oy. Let me give you a better example. Maybe it would be like allowing a Russian figure skating judge who is married to the director of the Russian Figure Skating Association to serve as a judge at the Sochi Olympics. And then the Russian skater miraculously wins. Harrumph. I guess that one doesn’t work too well either. Maybe we should look at the problem another way.

What if we assume that Judge Tabaddor is, in fact, biased in favor (or against) Iranian respondents. If that is the case, why should the recusal order be limited to cases from Iran? Iran and Iraq fought a war recently, so probably the IJ is biased against Iraq and should not hear cases from that country either. Iran also fought a war with Greece back in the day, and if I were Iranian, I’d still be bitter about the Battle of Thermopylae. So the Judge should also be banned from hearing cases involving Greeks, or at least Spartans. Iran has endured invasions by Mongols and Arabs, so Judge Tabaddor obviously should not hear Mongolian or Arab cases, and since Mongolians were mixed in pretty good with the Chinese, we’d better also ban her from Chinese cases–just to be safe. And of course, Iran doesn’t much like Christians, Baha’is or Jews, so the Judge should probably be kept away from cases involving those faiths. In addition, Iran has disputes with Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Saudi Arabia. The Judge would have to be banned from hearing cases involving those nationals as well. And don’t even get me started about cases involving Israelis. So basically, if Judge Tabaddor is biased, as EOIR seems to assume, the only cases she should decide involve people from Guyana or New Zealand. And maybe São Tomé, but I’m not even sure that’s a country.

In the end, I really don’t know whether Judge Tabaddor’s lawsuit will succeed. IJs exist to implement the authority of the Attorney General. If the AG chooses to prevent certain IJs from reviewing cases from certain countries, that may be within his discretion. While the law may not be clear (at least to me), I have no doubt about which side is right. If an IJ behaves in an inappropriately biased manner, she should be removed from her job. But where–as here–there seems to be no question as to the Judge’s integrity, her docket should not be restricted in this insulting and discriminatory way.

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There are, in effect, two definitions of “refugee.” There is the legal definition from the 1951 Refugee Convention (codified in U.S. law at INA § 101(a)(42)), and then there is the lay person’s definition.

The legal definition of refugee includes:

any person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality… and who is unable or unwilling to return to… that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion

The lay person’s definition is much broader and includes basically anyone who has been forced to flee from their home due to war or an environmental or man-made disaster. Many people who have been displaced by conflict or catastrophe are refugees under the lay definition, but not under the legal definition.

Refugees or "refugees"?

Refugees or “refugees”?

The mass movement of people–especially young people–escaping violence and poverty in Central America has gotten me thinking about these definitions. As our country struggles to respond to the influx, I wonder whether we need a new definition of “refugee.”

Under current U.S. law, if a person is physically present in the country and meets the legal definition of refugee, he will receive asylum. This is quite a nice benefit to receive. People who get asylum are able to remain here permanently. They can eventually become residents and later citizens. They can travel, work, and attend school. They can sponsor certain family members to join them in the United States. They are sometimes eligible for government assistance. These generous benefits are a “pull” factor because they encourage refugees to seek asylum here (as opposed to staying put or seeking asylum somewhere else). The benefits also create an incentive for people to file fraudulent asylum claims.  

To guard against fraud, we have created an elaborate bureaucracy to evaluate the veracity of asylum claims. We have Asylum Officers, Immigration Judges, the Board of Immigration Appeals, the various DHS Chief Counsels’ offices (basically, the prosecutors in Immigration Court), the Forensic Document Lab, and an extensive system of security background checks. All this costs money and takes time. But I can imagine an alternative to this system.

We could simply categorize as a “refugee” anyone who says that they are afraid to return home. In other words, if someone requests asylum in the United States, they would automatically be granted asylum. This sounds like a stupid plan, you say? Everyone and their brother would seek asylum here, including terrorists and criminals. Worse, it would put asylum lawyers out of business. Maybe so, but indulge me for a moment.

There are some obvious benefits to this idea. For one thing, it would completely eliminate the bureaucracy associated with adjudicating asylum applications. Second, we would never mistakenly return a legitimate refugee to her country. Third, people who do not meet the legal definition of refugee, but who fear return for some other reason, could find refuge in the U.S.

There are also some obvious drawbacks. First, if everyone who asked for asylum got it, very likely the number of asylum seekers would increase. Second, terrorists and criminals might exploit the asylum system to enter the United States. Third, we would lose the ability to control who and how many people come to our country.

But what if we could reduce the drawbacks and keep the benefits?

The main question is how to deal with the likely increased demand under this new system? The easiest way to reduce the “pull” of asylum would be to reduce the benefits of asylum. Basic economic theory suggests that if it is easier to obtain asylum, more people will come here, but if the benefits are reduced, less people will come here. So in order to offset the increased number of asylum seekers caused by reducing the barriers to asylum, we would need a corresponding reduction in benefits. How much of a reduction will provide this balance, I don’t know. But let’s say we reduce the benefits to the bare minimum: People who come here for asylum will be placed in a refugee camp indefinitely, they will receive only the supplies they need to survive, and they can leave only to return to their home country or to resettle in a third country. This is more-or-less the situation for Syrian and Iraqi refugees in places like Jordan and Turkey. My guess is that if this regime were strictly enforced, the overall effect would be to reduce the number of people seeking asylum in the U.S. In other words, the ease of obtaining asylum would be more than offset by the lack of benefits. If this is correct, it means we could offer something more than the bare minimum benefits without causing a major increase in the number of people seeking asylum here. The difficult question is how to find the equilibrium.

Another important drawback to my system is that it might attract criminals and terrorists. Of course if these people were confined to refugee camps, their ability to harm us would be quite limited.

Finally, my system might cause us to lose control of our border, since anyone claiming asylum would get it. But again, if the asylum seekers were confined to camps, and then resettled by the UN to third countries or to the United States, we might actually end up with a better controlled border since we could admit as many or as few people for resettlement as we choose.

Depending on the number of people arriving at our borders, it may be impossible to offer them the full range of benefits and due process protections that we have previously given to asylum seekers. But I don’t think we’re there yet–although there has been an increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving in the U.S., the numbers are still nothing close to what countries like Jordan and Turkey have been experiencing. However, if we continue seeing large numbers of people arriving in the U.S. to seek asylum, we may need to start considering alternatives to our current system.

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If you talk to people working in the human rights field, many will tell you that they view their work as an expression of their political and moral beliefs. More often than not, those beliefs are grounded in religious faith.

Dare to dream...

Dare to dream…

That is true for me. I am Jewish and I am an asylum lawyer. I view my work as an expression of my Jewish values. These values are derived not just from our sacred texts–which encourage discussion, debate, and self reflection–but also from our experience as a people who lived in exile and faced centuries of persecution. For me, Jewish values include respecting the life and dignity of all people, trying to understand “the other,” trying to understand myself, and sympathizing with the powerless. All this is a good fit with asylum law where I represent foreign people who face harm or death from governments or terrorist groups. But how do these values align with support for Israel?

There was a time when I felt that my values were largely consistent with supporting Israel. After all, it is a small country, created by refugees and surrounded by enemies. But more recently, it has become harder for me to be “pro-Israel,” as that term is generally understood. It’s not that I don’t support Israel and believe it should exist as a Jewish state. I do. But I have found that in recent years, it has become increasingly difficult to reconcile the values that guide my life and career with being “pro-Israel.” There are several reasons for this.

For one, it is difficult to accept the dishonesty of the pro-Israel side. Of course, this is not a problem confined to supporters of Israel. If anything, I see more dishonesty from opponents of Israel. But since I am Jewish and concerned about the behavior of my side, it is difficult to square my Jewish values with the pro-Israel propaganda that I daily see in the news. An example of this is how Israel’s supporters consistently put forth a narrative that exonerates Israel for any blame in the current conflict. It is true that Hamas initiated the recent fighting, but that is hardly the beginning of the story. Israel seems always to have an excuse for failing to make concessions or reign in settlers. As a result, moderate Palestinians are undermined (since they cannot show progress to their constituents) and extremists are empowered. A more honest evaluation would include self criticism–what have Israel and its supporters done wrong? How have their actions contributed to the cycle of violence? How have Israeli policies encouraged Jewish extremism? This type of analysis, I have never heard from the pro-Israel camp.

Also, I have great difficulty accepting the alliance of pro-Israel Jews with Neo-Conservatives and Christian Zionists. I find the Neo-Conservative’s view on the use of force to be immoral and anti-Jewish, not to mention cynical, short-sighted, and ineffective. Exhibit No. 1 in that regard is our war in Iraq. As for the Christian Zionists–people like John Hagee of Christians United for Israel–their purported love of Israel seems a thinly veiled proxy for hating Muslims. If there ever came a time when Israel was actually able to make peace with the Arabs, the Christian Zionists would be opposed: Peace with Muslims is not compatible with their world view. The values of Neo-Conservatives and Christian Zionists are profoundly contrary to my own. And while I understand that the enemy of my enemy is sometimes my friend, for me, certain alliances are beyond the pale. 

I also have trouble with the knee-jerk defensiveness of the pro-Israel camp, which is eager to label any expression of anti-Zionism as Antisemitism. Sometimes anti-Zionism is Antisemitism, and sometimes it is not. But there is a flip side to that coin: For many years, Jews have made the State of Israel an integral part of our religion. Synagogues have Israeli flags and signs supporting Israel, we celebrate Israeli Independence Day, we send our young people to Israel to study, we raise money for Israel. In other words, we have made Judaism and Zionism synonymous. In that case, it is hard to fault our enemies for confusing the two concepts. Frankly, I think our attachment to Israel is a good thing. What I oppose is the assumption that all criticism of Israel is made in bad faith, which allows us to avoid the difficult task of self examination.

Linked to the issue of defensiveness is the on-going effort by Israel supporters to stifle speech that they view as anti-Israel. They threaten funding sources, ban (or attempt to ban) disfavored speakers from Jewish events, label leftist Jewish groups “traitors,” and they rejected the dovish J Street’s attempt to join the Presidents Conference, an umbrella organization of Jewish-American agencies. If the pro-Israel camp sought to counter the ideas they find offensive, that would be one thing. But instead, they seek to eliminate those ideas. I am a believer in free speech and in the (very Jewish) idea of debating issues. To me, these efforts to squelch speech and avoid engagement on difficult issues is offensive.

Finally, I do not appreciate the effort of Israel supporters to deflect attention from Gaza by comparing it to the much more deadly situations in Syria or Iraq. While I think it is legitimate to ask non-Jews and non-Palestinians why they are more concerned about Gaza than Syria, I do not think that question is appropriate for Jews (or–obviously–Palestinians). As Jews, we should be concerned about the behavior of other Jews. We should question Israel’s policies that we disagree with. The fact that others are behaving worse than us does not seem a valid justification for our own actions.

I remember an incident from when I lived in Israel–way back in 1990. I was visiting the Jewish settlers in Hebron, a large Arab town in the West Bank. We went to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, which is considered the burial place of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is a holy place for Jews and Muslims. We were in the Jewish section when the settlers started singing “Jerusalem! Jerusalem!” and dancing. They danced into the Muslim part and interrupted a dozen old Muslim men who were praying. At the moment, I felt I had to choose sides–with the settlers or with the Muslims. I am sorry to say that I chose to dance and sing with my fellow Jews. The old Muslim men stopped their prayers and watched us quietly, humiliated.

I still believe that there is a choice to make, but it is not a choice between Jews and Muslims or Israelis and Palestinians. It is a choice between right and wrong. I am pro-Israel in that I believe Israel should exist as a Jewish democratic state and that it has the right to defend itself from terrorists’ missiles and tunnels. But if “pro-Israel” means persecuting, humiliating, and de-humanizing Palestinians, refusing to make concessions for peace, demonizing opponents, stifling speech, and making alliances with morally bankrupt groups, you can count me out.

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A recent article by Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies posits that even if the unaccompanied minors arriving at our Southern border are refugees, they should be sent back.

Mr. Krikorian's view of Mexico.

Mr. Krikorian’s view of Mexico.

I find that CIS in general and Mr. Krikorian in particular are usually fairly reasonable in their arguments (though there are exceptions; and more exceptions). However, Mr. Krikorian’s recent article is long on insults and short on insights.

First, the insults (they’re more fun to deal with, no?). He refers to the “anti-borders Left,” which I suppose means that to him, anyone who advocates for immigrants opposes all borders. This is kind of like saying that anyone who advocates for a speed limit opposes driving. He also refuses to acknowledge that children arriving at the border are unaccompanied (he refers to them as “unaccompanied” – damning them with quotation marks). What he means by “unaccompanied” is that the children are brought here by smugglers who (and this is a real quote from CIS – check the link if you don’t believe me) “watch over the children until they are taken into custody by U.S. authorities as part of a process that turns the children over to relatives in the United States.” I guess technically, the children are accompanied, though having a smuggler “watch over” my kids is about as desirable as having them spend a night at Neverland Ranch. Finally, here’s a good one:

Asylum is for people willing to go anywhere to get out of where they are; just as a drowning man doesn’t pick and choose among life preservers he sees in the water, a genuine asylum-seeker doesn’t pick and choose among countries.

Au contraire, mon Krikorian: Drowning men who hope to survive are actually quite picky about their life preservers. Think about Leonardo DiCaprio in that movie with the boat. Had he been a bit more choosy, maybe he and Kate Winslet would have floated off together into the happily ever after. In the same way, asylum seekers must be very choosy about where they plan to spend the rest of their lives. Just ask all those poor Eritrean refugees in Sudan, who are subject to exploitation, attacks, and expulsions. Probably they are wishing that they had found a better life preserver.

A Central American refugee's view of Mexico.

A Central American refugee’s view of Mexico.

OK, enough of that. Now to Mr. Krikorian’s “insights” (sorry for the quotes, I was feeling snarky).

Mr. Krikorian’s main point is that even if the children from Central America are refugees, a point that he does not concede, they can be turned away under international law. Why? Because the 1951 Refugee Convention provides:

The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of article 1, enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.

According to Mr. Krikorian, the underlined language means that an alien who flees persecution and passes through one country should not be allowed to apply for asylum in another country because the alien is not “coming directly” from the territory of feared harm. In other words, Central Americans who pass through Mexico cannot seek asylum in the U.S. because they are obliged to seek asylum in Mexico.

There is one teeny tiny problem with Mr. Krikorian’s idea. As he himself notes, United States law “unfortunately” only allows asylum seekers to be turned away if they come from a “safe third country.” U.S. law recognizes only one “safe third country,” Canada. He thus suggest that the statutory fix to the border surge is to “bar outright any asylum claim from someone who passed through a third country where he should have made that claim first.”

While I think this is an idea worth discussing, I don’t see it as the simple solution that Mr. Krikorian does. For one thing, while Mr. Krikorian wants to convince us that Mexico is a “safe” country, there is a lot of evidence that it is not safe. So if such a law were implemented, I would expect the battle would shift from the applicant’s fear of return to her country to why she would not be safe in Mexico (much as the battle in many asylum cases is about the one-year filing deadline, not the fear of return). All this would make Central American cases more–not less–difficult (and time consuming) to adjudicate.

Also, there is the more philosophical question about how we, as a country, want to treat people coming to us for help. While we cannot solve all the worlds problems, we also cannot ignore those problems. Especially when they are in our backyard (remember the Monroe Doctrine). And especially when our policies contributed to those problems (remember the Monroe Doctrine).

Mr. Krikorian and I do, I think, agree on one thing: The influx of asylum seekers at our border needs to be addressed. We need to have a rational policy debate about how to treat such people. In my opinion, that debate should protect the integrity of our asylum system (it should not be used as a way to get around normal immigration procedures) and it should also respect the people coming to us for help and protect bona fide refugees. Even though I generally disagree with them, I believe that groups like CIS–groups that advocate for more restrictive immigration policies–have an important role to play in the debate. That role would be more constructive if they focused more on policy and less on polemics.  

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Another Death in Benghazi

by Jason Dzubow on July 22, 2014

in Human Rights, International

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On June 25, lawyer and human rights activist Salwa Bughaigis was murdered in her home in Benghazi, Libya. Her death is a tragedy for her family and her country, but it also hits home for me for a few reasons.

Salwa Bughaigis

Salwa Bughaigis

Ms. Bughaigis is being remembered for her service on the National Transition Counsel (she resigned because male leaders marginalized the few women on the Counsel), her work for democracy and women’s rights, and her early opposition to the Qaddafi regime. Less well known outside of Libya is her work on behalf of political prisoners (at a time when Qaddafi was hanging dissidents in the street) and her efforts–ultimately unsuccessful–to organize a Libyan national lawyers’ association. At the time of her death, she was trying to help reconcile Libya’s disparate factions and help the country transition to democracy.

Due to death threats in the months leading up to her death, Ms. Bughaigis had sent her children to live abroad and she and her husband had been spending most of their time outside of Libya. She returned with her husband to vote in the election and was murdered shortly after she voted. Her husband Essam al-Ghariani was apparently kidnapped at the same time, and he is still missing.

There are a few reasons that Ms. Bughaigis’s death resonates with me.

One reason is that it reminds me how good we’ve got it here. There is obviously a big difference between being a human rights’ lawyer in post-Qaddafi Libya and an asylum lawyer in the U.S., and though my clients and the people I interact with in government often drive me crazy, no one is trying to kill me. While there are certainly problems with the U.S. asylum system (especially these days), in many ways it is actually quite good, so I am generally working within the system, not trying to create a new system, as was Ms. Bughaigis. In short, I’ve had it a lot easier than Ms. Bughaigis, and her death reminds me that I should appreciate what we have in the United States–a relatively functional system that aspires to justice and that is designed to protect vulnerable people from harm. 

Ms. Bughaigis herself is similar to some of my clients. In fact, almost at the same time that Jihadist militants broke into Ms. Bughaigis’s home to kill her, I was sitting in an asylum office with my client, a woman attorney from Afghanistan who fears harm because of her work representing female victims of domestic abuse, forced marriage, and honor crimes. Other clients have included women who organized and operated girls’ schools and NGOs in Afghanistan, a female judge from Ethiopia, and women’s rights activists from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, and Iran. Like Ms. Bughaigis, these women put themselves at risk to improve conditions for women and girls in their countries. I am thankful that our asylum system recognizes and protects such people.

Also, Ms. Bughaigis’s example demonstrates why asylum seekers should not always be penalized for returning to their home countries. Currently, if an asylee returns to her country, she can lose her asylum status in the U.S. After the Boston Marathon bombing, many politicians called for even greater restrictions on asylees returning to their home countries (because the accused bombers–who had asylum status in the United States–returned to their country before the bombing). The fact is, many people who are working for change in dangerous countries need asylum, but they also need to return sometimes to continue their political missions. Ms. Bughaigis’s case is axiomatic: She and her family left Libya due to death threats, but she returned to encourage others to participate in an election. The fact that she was brave enough and devoted enough to return does not negate the fact that she needed a safe haven outside of Libya.

Finally–and here I must admit to speculating–I can’t help but think that if Ms. Bughaigis had a chance to do it over again, she would do it the same way. She obviously believed so strongly in the future of Libya that she was willing to risk everything. She dreamed a beautiful dream, and she died in pursuit of that dream. This seems to me the definition of a life well lived. May she rest in peace.

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Michelle Malkin Is Right!

by Jason Dzubow on July 15, 2014

in Asylum Seekers, Immigration

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She got us. A recent article by anti-immigrant activist and daughter of immigrant parents, Michelle Malkin lays bare President Obama’s nefarious scheme to enrich immigration lawyers while filing our country with criminals, Muslims, and “Typhoid Marias.” Ms. Malkin states:

Immigration lawyers celebrate the recent influx of child asylum seekers at our Southern border.

Immigration lawyers celebrate the recent influx of child asylum seekers at our Southern border.

[L]eft-wing immigration lawyers and ethnic activists operate a lucrative industry whose sole objective is to help illegal aliens and convicted criminal visa holders evade deportation for as long as possible. Groups such as the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, and the American Friends Service Committee make their livelihoods off administrative bottlenecks.

How does she know about this? It’s almost as if she were a fly on the wall at my country club where she overheard me talking with my friends at AILA, ILRC, and AFSC about all the money we’ve been making since thousands of wealthy Central American children started arriving at the Southern border. Perhaps my friends and I were all speaking a bit too freely after having consumed a few bottles of Vosne-Romanee Permier Cru (1983). We will have to be more guarded in the future.

Frankly, though, as the father of two future Andover academicians with a yacht that won’t pay for itself, I’d like to know who let out our little money-making secret? Ms. Malkin gives us a clue. She writes, “Insiders have told me again and again over the years: ‘It ain’t over ‘til the alien wins.’” Who are these colloquialism-spouting “insiders” that tattled on us? One source seems to be a former law clerk from the Fifth Circuit (hence, ain’t) who, Ms. Malkin tells us, believes that Ms. Malkin is “absolutely correct” in her analysis: “immigration lawyers use the current system of endless appeals to make illegals essentially undeportable.” This clerk was also amazed that “illegal aliens, unlike American citizens, get TWO appeals as of right – one to the BIA and then another to the Circuit Court of Appeals.” I am not sure whether Ms. Malkin or the unnamed clerk emphasized TWO to show how amazed she/he was, but the emphasis was in the original article. I am also not sure how Ms. Malkin (or the clerk) got from “TWO appeals” to “endless appeals” in the same paragraph. Probably I was too busy counting my endless money to follow the logic (I made $2.00 today). Finally, I wonder who these poor Americans are who receive only ONE paltry appeal. My guess is that they are not before an administrative court (immigrants appear before administrative courts—the Immigration Court and the Board of Immigration Appeals or BIA), which usually allow for an administrative or inter-agency appeal and an appeal to a federal court (TWO appeals! Even for U.S. citizens! Ain’t that sumpin’?). 

Ah, but it only gets worse from there. Ms. Malkin even knows how we lawyers operate. She writes that the “legal tricks” for avoiding deportation include scams that would make Professor Harold Hill blush. Scams such as asylum (trouble!), cancellation of removal (Trouble!), and adjustment of status (TROUBLE! TROUBLE! TROUBLE!). Yes, we surely got trouble. I myself am a purveyor of that legal sleight of hand known as “asylum,” where we gather a type of snake oil known as evidence (which of late for my cases has included such gems as death certificates for close family members, medical reports about serious injuries, and letters from U.S. military commanders) and submit it to the Immigration Judge in the hope that our client won’t be deported to his death.

Ms. Malkin even knows about the “fraud-friendly U visa,” which provides a path to citizenship for “virtually anyone who applies.” All you need is to be the victim of a serious crime, the cooperation of law enforcement—who must submit signed documents on your behalf—and about three years of waiting. Then you too will gain residency based on a U visa. Easy peasey.

And then, of course, there are the “young illegal border surgers” who have been arriving along our Southern border like so many crazed teenage Beliebers. They too have a “plethora of litigation bites at the apple that will keep them in our country in perpetuity.” Lucky for them that they have such a plethora of options given that, historically, something like 97% of asylum claims from Central America and Mexico are denied. And lucky for us too—I can almost hear the coins clinking into my cup as these young Rockefellers pay my fellow attorneys and me for each delicious bite at that apple. Ka-ching!

Of course, none of this would be possibly without the complicity of the BIA, a bunch of “meddling activists” who Ms. Malkin tells us, “have the power to overturn deportation orders nationwide.” Never mind that less than 10% of Immigration Court cases are appealed and only about 11% of those are successful, or that—depending on the circuit court—between 5% and 30% of BIA decisions are overturned in federal court. It’s clear that the Mexican-loving hippies on the Board will stop at nothing to keep illegals in our country. And by the way, these endless appeals (ONE!) to the Board are earning big money for us lawyers. Why, my last BIA appeal alone paid for my oldest child’s college (in 15 years, assuming I can find a money market account that earns 88% per year; I’ll let you know).

In the end, I have no regrets. I suppose I could have taken the more honorable, but less lucrative path and worked as a political pundit, serving my country by courageously standing up to powerless immigrants and refugee children. Instead, I have chosen to make the big money by representing those immigrants and refugees. Believe you me, I am laughing all the way to the bank…

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The Jewish community around the world has recently been in mourning for the loss of three young Jewish men, kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank. Their bodies were found on June 30, more than two weeks after they were taken.

They are all our boys.

They are all our boys.

Israel blamed Hamas for the kidnapping and, since the three teens disappeared, has been engaged in a crackdown against the terrorist organization. For its part, Hamas did not claim credit for the crime, but praised the kidnapping. The event has sparked Hamas rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, retaliatory airstrikes, and the revenge killing of an Arab teen by Jewish extremists.

The discovery of the young men’s bodies also led to mass mourning within the Jewish community in Israel, around the world, and here in Washington, DC. Last week, 1,200 mourners attended a memorial service in suburban DC for the slain teens. Most of the attendees were Jews, but representatives of several local Christian communities were also present. All expressed solidarity with the family members and deep sadness at the loss of “our boys.”

Of course in times of tragedy, it is the nature of communities–even fractured ones like the American Jewish community–to come together to mourn and comfort one another. But this recent tragedy in my own community, and our response to it, has gotten me thinking about whether the way we mourn–and what events we choose to mourn–contributes to the problem of violence between communities. 

One area of concern for me is the us/them mentality of the Jewish community’s response (and obviously this is not unique to the Jewish community). The idea that there is an us and a them. Our expression of grief over the loss of “our boys” seems to me symptomatic of the problem. We grieve for “our boys,” but not for “their boys.” Maybe this is a trite point, but I can’t help but think about some of the people I have represented; people who have faced senseless losses as horrible as those suffered by the Israeli teens’ families.

For example, I am representing a Syrian couple whose newborn baby was asphyxiated by dust and poison gas during a battle. I also represented (successfully) an Iraqi mother who watched her son gunned down in front of her and in front of his own wife and young child. We recently attended an asylum interview for an Afghan man who saw dozens of his relatives and friends killed and maimed by a missile strike on a family wedding. There are no public memorials for these victims. No one even knows about their stories. Indeed, maybe because stories like these are so common in places like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, no one pays much attention. But I have met all these people and heard their stories, so when I see the outpouring of grief for the three Israeli boys, it is difficult not to feel that the solitary suffering of my clients (and millions like them) is unfair and that failing to fully validate the humanity of such victims is unjust. Perhaps if we thought of people like my clients as “us” rather than “them,” we would be more willing to take action to help them (and that goes for all the unaccompanied minors arriving at our Southern border–what if we thought of these children as “our boys and girls”? How would our approach to them differ?).

Maybe I am hoping for too much here. How can we acknowledge so many losses? Why shouldn’t we honor and support “our own” before we deal with everyone else? I don’t know, but it seems to me if we could do better about recognizing the humanity and the value of “the other,” we would take a big step towards preventing future harm for everyone.

A second concern I have about my community’s response to the deaths is more about what we didn’t do. We mourned “our boys,” but not the Palestinian boy who was killed in a barbaric revenge attack by Jewish extremists. Israel quickly arrested the culprits and Prime Minister Netanyahu and many others have condemned the killing. These are obviously important steps, but it is a bit different than mourning the loss of the young Palestinian. Mourning the young man’s death is important not only because “our side” is responsible for his death and thus it reflects on us, as Jews, but also because we need to recognize the boy’s value as a human being.

Again, maybe it is asking too much–especially in the heat of conflict–for Israelis and Palestinians to mourn each others’ losses, but I believe that this is what we must do if we hope ever to end the violence. Indeed, family members of one of the Israeli boys and of the Palestinian boy have been in contact with each other, and some Palestinians and Israelis have been crossing the lines to offer condolences to each other. If people so close to these tragedies can see the humanity in each other, perhaps one day the rest of us will too.

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For certain applications with USCIS, the applicant can pay an additional fee of $1,000.00 and receive “premium processing.” For people seeking an H1B visa or a green card based on extraordinary ability, payment of the premium processing fee is the norm, and the result is that USCIS responds to the application (sometimes with an approval, other times with a request for additional evidence) within a few weeks. So should premium processing be available for people seeking asylum?

Waiting in line is a poor man's game.

Waiting in line is a poor man’s game.

There are certainly arguments against such a scheme: Humanitarian benefits should not be for sale, it is unfair to privilege wealthy applicants over poor applicants, asylum is somehow cheapened by making it more expensive. But given the current state of affairs in the asylum world, I think that USCIS should allow premium processing for asylum seekers who want it and can pay for it.

First, the current state of affairs: The asylum system is groaning under the weight of too many applications. Thousands of cases from 2013 are still lost in limbo, and–at least based on my observation of the local office here in Virginia–we seem to be on the verge of another slow down. People separated from family members have no recourse except to wait. And worse, they have no idea how long they will have to wait. The Asylum Offices have created “short lists” where (supposedly) you can put your name on a list, and if a slot opens up, you will be interviewed. So far, at least for my clients, this seems to work not at all. The bottom line is that we are facing very long delays and applicants and their family members are suffering severely.

So how would premium processing help?

Obviously, for those applicants who could pay the fee (whether $1,000.00 or some other amount), their cases would be given priority. This would benefit those applicants who pay the fee, but–if implemented correctly–it would also benefit people who do not pay the fee because the premium processing cases would be removed from the general queue, which would free up interview slots for everyone else.

Quantifying the effect of a premium processing fee is a bit tricky, however. For one thing, it is not easy to find asylum statistics from the government. A good guess is that between 3,500 and 4,000 people per month file affirmative asylum cases. That is approximately 40,000 people per year. If half those people paid a premium processing fee of $1,000.00, an additional $20 million would be pumped into the system. This would be a significant increase in funding. As best as I can tell, the budget for asylum and refugee operations for FY 2014 is about $236 million, so an additional $20 million for asylum operations alone would be a major increase (the asylum and refugee budget is paid for by USCIS application fees from non-asylum cases, so the cost to U.S. tax payers is minimal). With this additional money, the Asylum Offices could hire more officers, provide resources to expedite background checks, set up a system so applicants could track the progress of their cases, and even provide free donuts and coffee to attorneys waiting for their clients’ interviews. In other words, the money could be used to improve the system for everyone, including those who do not pay the fee.

Of course, we don’t know how many asylum applicants would (or could) pay a premium processing fee, but I suspect that many would pay. Remember that asylum applicants differ from refugees in that they have come to the United States on their own. Whether they came legally or illegally, it is likely that they paid for their journey here. Also, many asylum applicants pay attorneys or notarios to prepare their cases. My guess is that many such people would be happy to pay a fee if it meant that their cases would be adjudicated more quickly.

I must admit that I feel a bit uncomfortable about asking asylum applicants to pay the government to adjudicate their cases (which is maybe ironic, since I ask them to pay me). But given the difficulties caused by long delays (separation from family, stress, uncertainty), I feel that the benefits of a premium processing system would far outweigh any disadvantages.

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Gay = Asylum?

by Jason Dzubow on June 19, 2014

in Asylum, Asylum Seekers

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A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (“WSJ”) posits that the number of gay and lesbian people receiving asylum in the United States based on their sexual orientation has surged in recent years and that most such people come from countries in Central America where homosexuality is not criminalized (as opposed to places like Ugandan, where loving the wrong person is a hanging offense). The article, by Joel Millman, concludes that LGBT asylum cases from Mexico and Central America are more likely to be granted than most other types of asylum cases from those countries.

More gay people than ever are fleeing persecution.

More gay people than ever are fleeing persecution.

Heaven forbid that I should agree with the WSJ (Slate certainly didn’t in a piece that pretty clearly misreads the Journal article), but the anecdotal and statistical evidence supports the notion that more people are seeking asylum based on sexual orientation and that those claims are often more likely to succeed than claims by other people from the same countries. But of course, as a certified curmudgeon, I cannot completely agree with the Journal piece, and indeed, I have a few points to take issue with. Then I’d like to pose a question: Is it really easier–as the WSJ claims–for LGBT applicants to obtain asylum in the United States?

First, the issues. To reach his conclusion that more LGBT people are seeking asylum, Mr. Millman relies on two main sources—statistics from the U.S. government and information from Immigration Equality, probably the premier LGBT asylum organization in the country.

As to the statistics, the government does not keep data on the number of people who receive asylum based on sexual orientation. As a rough proxy, the WSJ looked at the percentage of cases granted based on “particular social group” or PSG, the protected category most often used in LGBT asylum cases. The Journal found that as a percentage of total cases, the number of PSG cases has increased over the last several years (from about 12% at the end of the G.W. Bush Administration to 15.7% today).

I am not convinced that this metric tells us a whole lot about the number of gay asylum cases, however. Many people seek asylum based on PSG–gays and lesbians, victims of domestic violence, people fleeing gang persecution, victims of female genital mutilation, to name the most obvious–and so an increase in the percentage of asylum seekers relying on PSG does not necessarily mean that the number of LGBT asylum seekers has gone up. Also, concurrent with our country’s more liberalized approach to LGBT asylum claims, we have expanded protection for other categories of people who fall under PSG. So while the modest increase in asylum seekers relying on PSG supports the notion that LGBT claims are up, I don’t think this data is incredibly significant.

In my opinion, the anecdotal evidence for an increase in the number of LGBT cases is more convincing. According to the WSJ: “Last year, just one New York-based advocacy group, Immigration Equality, helped put 279 LGBT foreigners into the asylum process, a 250% increase from 2009.” That pretty well comports with what I’ve been seeing in DC and what I’ve heard from other lawyers, and so I believe the number of LGBT claimants is up, but by how much, we don’t really know (I have harped on this before, but this lack of reliable data again illustrates the need for better information about asylum seekers).

Another quibble with the article is the WSJ’s comparison of LGBT asylum seekers from Mexico and Central America, where homosexuality is not illegal and—in fact—where laws theoretically protect gay people, with other countries whose governments condemn homosexuality or make it illegal. The article notes that of the top 10 countries with the most PSG grants (where PSG is a proxy for LGBT), only three have laws against homosexuality. This all strikes me as basically meaningless. We receive many more asylum seekers from our own neighborhood, so there is no surprise that most PSG claims come from nearby countries. And while it is interesting that three distant countries (Kenya, Ethiopia, and Guinea) with anti-gay laws produce large numbers of PSG asylees, we have no way of knowing how many of these cases are LGBT; particularly since all three countries have high instances of female genital mutilation, which also falls into the PSG category.

The bottom line for me is that, while the increased number of PSG cases is consistent with an increase in LGBT claims, the statistics don’t really tell us much. But based on the anecdotal evidence and my own experience, it seems clear that more people than before are seeking asylum based on sexual orientation. Whether this constitutes a “surge” in LGBT claims, as the WSJ concludes, is debatable given the lack of data.

Finally, do LGBT claimants have an easier time winning asylum than others?

As the WSJ points out, an LGBT case from Central America is certainly more likely to succeed than the average case from the region. According to the Journal, Immigration Equality’s “success rate for closed cases [is] 98%, roughly quadruple the batting average of the typical asylum-seeker.” (Though I would be curious to know how they define “success” when they came up with this figure). Of course, many cases from Central America are based on gang persecution, which does not easily fit within a protected category for purposes of asylum. Since LGBT asylum seekers fall within a protected category–PSG–it is not surprising that they have a higher success rate than average. I would imagine that other cases where there is an obvious protected ground–like political cases, for example–are also much more likely to succeed than the average case.

Also, as the Journal points out, for LGBT asylum seekers, the likelihood of success is particularly high because country conditions are particularly bad. In our office, we see a decent number of LGBT asylum applicants, and they often have been subject to severe physical and psychological violence. So based on my own experience, the information in the WSJ piece rings true.

In the end, we don’t have the data to make a firm conclusion about how much “easier” it is for LGBT claimants to obtain asylum, but it seems likely that the success rate for such cases is higher than for many other types of cases. Given the threats and violence against gay people around the world, it seems to me that a high asylum grant rate is completely justified.

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