I was in court recently for an asylum case where the DHS attorney offered my clients Withholding of Removal as a “courtesy” in lieu of asylum. DHS did not believe that my clients were legally eligible for asylum, but made the offer in order to settle the case. I negotiated as best I could for asylum, and I think the DHS attorney listened carefully, but ultimately, he was unmoved. When the Immigration Judge (“IJ”) learned that DHS would agree to Withholding, he remarked that the offer was “generous,” which I took as a sign that he wanted us to accept it. In the end, my clients did not agree to Withholding of Removal, and so the IJ reserved decision. We shall see what happens.
So what is Withholding of Removal? Why did the IJ view an offer of Withholding as generous? And why did my clients refuse this offer?
Withholding of Removal under INA § 241(b)(3) is a lesser form of relief than asylum. If a person has asylum, he can remain permanently in the U.S., obtain a travel document, petition to bring immediate relatives here, and become a lawful permanent resident and then a U.S. citizen.
A person with Withholding of Removal, on the other hand, has technically been ordered deported, but the deportation is “withheld” vis-à-vis the country of feared persecution. This means that the person cannot be deported to that country, but she could (theoretically) be deported to a third country. A person with Withholding of Removal is eligible for an employment authorization document (“EAD”), which must be renewed each year. However, unlike with asylum, she cannot leave the U.S. and return, she is not eligible to become a resident or citizen, and she cannot petition for family members. In addition, on occasion, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) attempts to deport the person to a third country. Normally, this consists of ICE ordering the person to apply to various countries for residency. This is essentially a futile exercise, and it usually involves hours of wasted time preparing applications and sitting around the ICE office. Maybe it is designed to intimidate the person into leaving, but at a minimum, it is another stressful hassle that the Withholding-of-Removal recipient must endure.
The bottom line for Withholding of Removal is that those who have it are never truly settled here. They risk losing their jobs and drivers’ licenses if their EAD renewal is delayed (which it often is). They cannot qualify for certain jobs or certain government benefits. They usually cannot get in-state tuition for school. They can never travel outside the U.S. to visit relatives or friends, even those who are gravely ill. They are here, but not really here.
For me, Withholding of Removal is more appropriate for some recipients than others: One reason a person gets Withholding instead of asylum is that he has criminal convictions that make him ineligible for asylum. In the case of a convicted criminal, it is easier to justify denying the benefit of asylum, even if we do not want to send the person back to a country where he could be persecuted.
In other cases, it is more difficult to justify Withholding. If a person fails to file for asylum within one year of his arrival in the United States, he generally becomes ineligible for asylum. He remains eligible for Withholding, but downgrading his status from asylum to Withholding because he failed to file on time seems a harsh consequence for a relatively minor infraction. Other people—like my clients mentioned above—might be ineligible for asylum because the government believes they were resettled in a third country before they came to the U.S. “Firm resettlement” is a legal construct and it does not necessarily mean that the person can live in the third country now (my clients cannot).
Despite the limitations of Withholding of Removal, many IJs (and DHS attorneys) seem to view it as a generous benefit, and they encourage asylum applicants to accept Withholding as a way to settle removal cases. They also tend to take a dim view of applicants who refuse an offer of Withholding: If the person is so afraid of persecution in the home country, why won’t she accept Withholding and avoid deportation to the place of feared persecution? I understand their perspective, but I think it fails to account for the very basic desire of people like my clients to make the U.S. their home. They don’t want to live forever unsettled and uncertain. Having escaped danger, they want to live somewhere where they can make a life for themselves and—more importantly—for their children. Withholding does not give them that.
Frankly, I think that most IJs and DHS attorneys underestimate the difficulty of living in the U.S. with Withholding of Removal. And these difficulties are not limited to practical problems related to jobs and driver’s licenses, attending and paying for school, and the indefinite separation from family members. For my clients at least, Withholding of Removal does not alleviate the stress of their situation. They have fled uncertainty only to find more uncertainty. Will they be deported to a third country? Will they lose their job if the EAD renewal is delayed? If their driver’s license expires and they must drive anyway, will they be arrested? Can their children afford college? If they buy property and invest in life here, will they ultimately lose it all? Such uncertainty would be bad enough for the average person, but we are talking here about people who have already had to flee their homelands. Asylum is a balm to this wound; Withholding of Removal, in many cases, is an aggravating factor.
Perhaps if IJs and DHS attorneys knew more about the consequences of Withholding of Removal, they would be more understanding of asylum applicants who are reluctant to accept that form of relief, and they would be more generous about interpreting the law to allow for a grant of asylum whenever possible.