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.
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.