It seems that advocates for “Dreamers”–young foreigners who would benefit from the Dream Act–are trying a new tactic: Leaving the country and then returning to seek asylum. Not long ago, I wrote about the Dream 9, who presented themselves at the U.S./Mexico border and requested asylum. They were released and will have to appear before Immigration Judges, who will decide their cases. Now, we have the Dream 30, who have done pretty much the same thing. This new tactic holds promise and risk, both for themselves and for other asylum seekers.
Asylum, of course, is a legal tool that has been used and expanded by creative lawyers. When the modern asylum system was created by the Refugee Act of 1980, many people who routinely receive protection today–victims of female genital mutilation, LGBT individuals, victims of domestic violence–would likely have been ineligible for asylum. To the extent that their actions are not simply a type of civil disobedience, the Dreamers seem to be seeking to expand the category of protected individuals to include people who grew up in the U.S., and who face threats in their home countries because they are viewed as “American.” This strategy raises two basic questions: (1) Will it work? and (2) How will it affect other asylum seekers?
First, will it work? I think it might, at least in some cases. I’ve represented several asylum seekers who made claims similar to the Dreamers: A lesbian who had not been to her home country of Sudan since she was young, Afghan women (and a few men) who studied in the U.S. and who are viewed by extremists as “Westernized,” an Iraqi woman whose family was associated with the U.S. These applicants were successful (or their cases are still pending), but my guess is that their claims are stronger than most of the Dreamers’ claims. Nonetheless, the principle is the same.
A broader–and more radical–solution for the Dreamers might be if the Obama Administration defined them as a particular social group for asylum purposes. There is precedent for such a move: In 2009, DHS issued a brief in Matter of LR where it stated, “DHS accepts that in some cases, a victim of domestic violence may be a member of a cognizable particular social group…. This does not mean, however, that every victim of domestic violence would be eligible for asylum.” Prior to the end of DOMA, I (clumsily) advocated a similar approach to help LGBT couples.
If DHS agrees that deported Dreamers are a particular social group (defined as “young, Americanized Mexicans,” for example), they would then need to demonstrate that they face persecution in their home country based on their social group. DHS could potentially make a blanket determination that members of this social group would face persecution in Mexico, El Salvador or wherever, and – Voila! – Dreamers get asylum, and you effectively pass the Dream Act without Congressional action (and they could apply for asylum without leaving the U.S.).
Of course, there would be consequences to such an approach, which brings us to the second question: How will it affect other asylum seekers?
For one thing, unless significant resources were re-allocated, giving asylum to the Dreamers would completely overwhelm the asylum system. That system has already been ground to a halt by a few extra thousands arrivals at our border, so it certainly could not handle millions of new cases.
In addition, it would be very expensive. There are no government fees for asylum applications. Presumably, if the Dream Act becomes law, Dreamers will pay a fee to regularize their status. In general, USCIS is operated based on filing fees (that is why it has not been closed by the government shutdown), so these fees would be needed to adjudicate the Dreamers’ cases.
Third–and this for me is the real problem–it will harm (or destroy) the integrity of the asylum system. Asylum, by definition, is an individualized form of relief. While one person from a particular country may have a strong asylum case, another may have no case at all. To view these cases collectively sets a very bad precedent. Worse, to grant asylum to an entire group (i.e., Dreamers), many of whom probably would not otherwise qualify, turns the asylum system into a political tool for avoiding the normal legislative process (i.e., passing the Dream Act). Such a move would do great damage to the asylum system, a system that is supposed to be free from political influence.
Asylum as a blanket solution to the Dreamers’ dilemma is certainly not the best way to solve the problem. It would obviously be much better for Congress (specifically the House of Representatives) to pass the Dream Act and Comprehensive Immigration Reform. But as a strategic approach, perhaps the “threat” of giving asylum to all Dreamers might provide an incentive for the House to take up immigration reform. After all, the language of nihilism, self destruction, and ends-justifies-the-means is the only language that the House of Representatives seems to understand.