A couple of recent articles got me thinking about how the U.S. handles asylum seekers coming from countries that we view as friends–Western-style democracies that generally respect human rights.
The first is an article from the Jewish Daily Forward (featuring a quote from my esteemed law partner, Todd Pilcher) about asylum seekers from Israel. The article found that 18 Israeli nationals sought asylum in Fiscal Year 2011. The article found that the asylees were a “strange and quirky mix:”
One, an Arab citizen of Israel, is a gay man who convinced authorities he would face violence from his own family and tribe if forced to return to Israel. Lack of adequate action by Israeli police played a role in the approval of the request, his attorney said. Another is an Israeli woman who suffered domestic abuse. She also received asylum after making the case that Israeli authorities were not protecting her. Yet a third is the son of a founder of Hamas who, after spying on the terrorist-designated group for Israeli authorities, felt unsafe under Israeli protection and fled to the United States in fear for his life [I wrote about this case here].
The second article is a follow-up on a homeschooler family that received asylum from Germany. In that case, an Immigration Judge found that the family faced persecution in Germany after they refused for religious reasons to send their children to public school, as required by German law. The Board of Immigration Appeals reversed the IJ’s decision last May, and the homeschoolers filed a petition for review and a brief with the Sixth Circuit. The case is currently pending.
Other “Western” countries listed as source countries for asylum seekers in the U.S. include Argentina (9 people granted asylum in FY 2011), Brazil (20 people), Germany (4), Latvia (6), New Zealand (5), Poland (6), and the United Kingdom (8). These numbers are pretty small given the total of 24,988 people granted asylum in FY 2011, but such cases raise some interesting questions.
First, how do the source countries feel about a decision from the U.S. government that they are persecuting (or, at best, failing to protect from persecution) their own citizens? When asked by the Forward, an Israeli diplomat said that the scarcity of asylum cases in the United States did not require the Israeli government to bring up the issue with Washington. The official added that the few cases in which Israelis were granted asylum in America represented “unusual circumstances” and did not reflect on Israel’s democracy. I’d bet that like the Israelis, most Western democracies see these asylum cases as aberrations and aren’t particularly bothered by them. One country that is annoyed by our State Department’s practice of evaluating the human rights situation in other countries is China. In “retaliation” for our report, China issues its own report, which describes a litany of human rights abuses in the United States.
A related issue is whether–if the number of asylum cases form a particular allied country increased–that country could raise the issue diplomatically in order to curtail asylum grants. Theoretically, asylum should be independent of politics, but the Forward article raises the example of Israeli conscientious objectors who received asylum in Canada. Apparently, “Canada has approved dozens of asylum requests from individuals claiming political persecution by Israel since 2000.” According to the Forward, in 2006, the Israeli government protested Canada’s asylum policies. And in the past two years the number of Israelis receiving asylum in Canada has declined. If this is correct, and the decline in asylum grants is related to the Israeli protest, it raises serious concerns about the integrity of the Canadian asylum system.
Another question raised by these asylum cases is, how the heck do you get granted asylum from a country like New Zealand or the UK? My guess is that these cases involve very special circumstances, like victims of human trafficking who have not received adequate protection, or maybe sexual orientation cases where the person was subject to severe abuse. Another possibility is that the Immigration Judge and the DHS attorney agreed to grant asylum in order to address an otherwise inequitable situation. For example, I once had a case where my client was convicted of an aggravated felony. She had been here for many years, had a family with a special needs child, and it was obvious that the only reason for her conviction was the incompetence of her criminal lawyer (her crime was very minor). Although it was pretty clear that she did not qualify for withholding of removal, the IJ would have granted relief to resolve the situation. Unfortunately, the DHS attorney did not agree. Had the attorney agreed, the client would have received relief, even though she really did not qualify. Maybe something similar is happening in some of the asylum cases at issue here.
Asylum cases from Western democracies are relatively rare. But there are enough such cases to help prove the adage, no country is safe for everyone all the time.