U.S. Embassies Violate Asylum Seeker Confidentiality

by Jason Dzubow on September 4, 2013

in Asylum Seekers, Immigration, International

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Two recent incidents involving my asylum seeker clients have revealed what might be a disturbing trend at the overseas U.S. consulates: A near complete disregard for asylum seeker confidentiality.

Both incidents involved family members of asylum seekers who had applied for visas to enter the United States. One incident occurred in Europe; the other in the Middle East. In each case, family members of asylum applicants applied for non-immigrant visas to the United States. The asylum cases were pending at the time the family members went for their interviews. In each case, the consular officer denied the visa and told the family member that the reason for the denial was because their relative had filed for asylum in the U.S., and that they (the family members) were thus intending immigrants, ineligible for non-immigrant visas.

Some people just can't keep a secret.

Some people just can’t keep a secret.

Asylum cases are supposed to be confidential. Confidentiality is important because some foreign governments will punish people who have “defamed” them by seeking asylum abroad. Indeed, when the U.S. government has violated an asylum seeker’s confidentiality, it may create a new basis for an asylum claim. The most well-known example is President Obama’s aunt, who received asylum after her case was leaked to the press.

I have successfully made such claims on behalf of clients whose confidentiality was violated by U.S. Embassies during overseas investigations. The most egregious case involved the U.S. Embassy in Cameroon (this was some years ago).  The Embassy submitted a letter, stating that they had inquired only whether a certain police officer worked at a certain police station (the officer had signed a warrant against my client). The Embassy letter emphasized that confidentiality had been maintained. In the response letter from the police in Cameroon, it was clear that the U.S. Embassy had revealed much more information about my client–the letter referenced the case number against the client and the date of his arrest. If the Embassy had revealed only what they claimed to have revealed about my client, there is no way that the Cameroonian police would have had this additional information. By revealing identifying information to the police, the U.S. Embassy put my client at additional risk.

The more recent cases from Europe and the Middle East are perhaps less egregious because the information was revealed to family members and not to the home government. Nevertheless, it is a problem. Many people–including many of my clients–have claimed asylum based on persecution by family members. This is true in cases involving domestic violence, forced marriage, and (sometimes) persecution based on sexual orientation, for example. Thus, revealing an asylum application, even to family members, potentially endangers the applicant.

In addition, of course, it is a violation of the law, which requires confidentiality. See 8 C.F.R. §§ 208.6(c) & 1208.6(c). Indeed, government officials who violate this provision can be fired. See Lewis v. Dep’t of Justice, 34 Fed. Appx. 774 (Fed.Cir.2002) (unpublished opinion) (affirming decision of Merit Systems Protection Board concluding that breach of section 208.6 was a firing offense irrespective of whether that breach was harmless).  

So what will become of my clients and their family members? And what about the consular officers who violated my clients’ confidentiality?

I don’t see how the rejection of the family members could affect my clients’ asylum cases. Of course, they will remain separated from their families, which is a severe hardship, but it should not impact their chances to receive asylum (in fact, one of the clients did recently receive asylum). As for the family members, instead of coming here immediately, they will now wait for a “follow to join” petition and they will have to come here as asylees. This may not be what they want, but there is no other option.

As for the consular officers, it is unlikely that my clients will make complaints against them. We do not even know their names (though I suppose we could find out) and it would be the family members’ words against the consular officers, so I doubt anything would come of it.

I do hope that the State Department will be more careful about revealing confidential information in the future. There really was no reason to tell the family members about my clients’ asylum applications. The consular officers could simply have denied the visas without an explanation (as they often do anyway).

Confidentiality of asylum claims is important to the asylum seekers and to the integrity of the asylum system. I hope that consular officers will take their responsibility in this regard more seriously.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Anthony August 14, 2014 at 6:11 pm

Respected Sir,

If someone wants to come to a country and apply for asylum, should they mention it to the visa officer at the time of interview? So that their application can get accepted and they can leave the country?

Reply

Jason Dzubow August 16, 2014 at 10:00 pm

Generally, if the visa officer thinks you plan to seek asylum in the U.S., the visa will be denied.

Reply

Patti Lyman, Esq. September 7, 2013 at 12:06 am

Jason, I agree that the U.S. Embassy personnel had no business revealing to anyone, family or not, that the relative had applied for asylum. That is absolutely egregious. Having said that, I do always advise my asylum clients that, once they apply for asylum, their immediate relatives are likely to be rejected for visit visas because the visa application requires them to disclose the names and whereabouts of their close relatives, and the Embassy can check. However, in those cases the reason for denial should be withheld.

Reply

Jason Dzubow September 8, 2013 at 9:57 am

Thank you mentioning this – of course you are right that we should advise our clients that once they file for asylum, it could affect the cases/visa applications of their family members.

Reply

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