Jesus Christ, Refugee

by Jason Dzubow on December 17, 2015

in Asylees and Refugees, National Security

Refugees–especially Muslim refugees–are big news these days. Are they a threat? Should we ban them from our country? Can they ever integrate into American society?

"A refugee from Palestine with his wife and child? They must be terrorists!"

“A refugee from Palestine with his wife and child? They must be terrorists!”

Despite our collective amnesia on this point, the fact is, we’ve been asking these same questions about refugees for at least a hundred years. And I suspect that people around the world have been asking such questions ever since the first stranger arrived at a door seeking shelter. Since it’s almost Christmas, I thought it might be a good time to look back at one of the world’s oldest refugee stories–of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, who fled from Palestine to Egypt.

Mathew tells us that around the time of Jesus’s birth, three wise men came from the East. They went to King Herod and asked, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?” Herod was “troubled” by the question. Who was this child who was king of the Jews, and thus a threat to Herod’s throne?

Herod consulted his prophets, who predicted that the baby would be found in Bethlehem. The wily king told the three wise men. He also ordered the men to tell him when they found Jesus, so he (Herod) could “worship” the new king. Of course, this was a ploy–Herod wanted to find Jesus in order to kill him and eliminate the threat to his throne. The wise men (being wise) understood Herod’s plan. They found Jesus, but never told the king.

Because the wise men foiled his plan, Herod was unable to locate the newborn Jesus. He still wanted to protect himself from the perceived threat, so he ordered all the babies born in Bethlehem murdered. This event became known as the Massacre of the Innocents.

Luckily for Jesus and his family, an angel came to his father Joseph and warned him about the danger. Joseph took the family and fled to Egypt, where they received asylum. The family remained in Egypt until Herod died a few years later. They then moved to a different part of Palestine (Nazareth), to avoid living under the rule of Herod’s son, who was no better than his father. 

The Book of Mathew contains nothing about Jesus’s time in Egypt, but there are many interesting Coptic traditions associated with this period (the Coptic church originated in Egypt). In many parts of Egypt, it is possible to visit places where Jesus and his family sojourned. There are churches and other holy sites, like healing springs, caves, and sacred trees. One tree was possessed by an evil spirit, but when Jesus approached, the spirit fled.  The tree then bent down to worship him.  

Another ancient story says that as Jesus and his family entered Heliopolis, “the noise of a rushing mighty wind was heard, the earth trembled [and] the idols crashed from their pedestals.”

There is also a legend about how the Holy Family was traveling down the Nile River in a boat. At one point, they were sailing past a mountain when a large boulder appeared ready to fall on their boat. Jesus extended his hand and prevented the boulder from falling. The imprint of his hand appeared on the rock.

Another story tells of two robbers who surprised Jesus’s family on the road and tried to steal Joseph’s donkey. One of the robbers saw the baby Jesus and was astonished by his unusual beauty. He said, “If God were to take upon Himself the flesh of man, He would not be more beautiful than this child!” The robber then ordered his companions to take nothing from the travelers. Filled with gratitude toward this generous robber, Mary told him, “Know that this child will repay you because you protected him today.” Thirty-three years later, this same thief hung on the cross for his crimes, crucified on the right side of Jesus’s cross. His name was Dismas. On the cross, he repented for all the evil of his life and declared that Jesus was innocent and wrongly crucified. The Gospel of Luke records that Dismas was the wise thief. The man who spared Jesus in his childhood was granted entry into paradise.

Coptic tradition holds that “Egyptian conversion to Christianity two thousand years ago can be attributed to the historic visit of the Christ Child” and that “Egypt was chosen by God as a place of refuge; truly the people abiding there were richly blessed.” The people of Egypt were blessed because they offered refuge to Jesus and his family when they fled persecution. Perhaps this should remind us of our moral responsibility to help one another, and that the helper often receives as much (or more) of a benefit than the person who is helped.

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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?

Stop complaining - You're lucky we give you anything to eat at all.

Stop complaining – You’re lucky we give you anything to eat at all.

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.

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The recent attacks in Paris have opened the floodgates of anti-Muslim and anti-refugee sentiment in the U.S. Language that was once the province of white-supremacist screeds has become part of our mainstream dialogue. For me, however, what’s worse than the xenophobia and the hate, are the lies.

The New York Times recently editorialized about Donald Trump’s repeated and vile mendacity: “it’s become a full-time job just running down [his] falsehoods…. It’s no easy task for journalists to interrupt Mr. Trump with the facts, but it’s an important one.”

What if cheating at politics was as dangerous as cheating at poker?

What if cheating at politics was as dangerous as cheating at poker?

Mr. Trump is a presidential contender, and thus subject to some scrutiny. But the internet abounds with lies, and given the atomized nature of social media, it’s easy to immerse yourself in this fictitious and paranoid world. It’s also easy and, in a way, comforting to have your own world view go unchallenged, and to believe that you are among the privileged few who knows The Truth. The Lame-stream media be damned!

There are, of course, websites devoted to correcting inaccurate internet rumors, but how can they possibly keep up with the torrent of falsehoods that daily flood our in-boxes? And even if they could respond to each phony news story, the people who accept such stories are unlikely to read—or believe—the fact-checkers.

Given the futility of the task, there’s probably little point in posting a few internet rumors here and then debunking them. But one of my two favorite fictional heroes is Don Quixote, and so I thought I might tilt at a couple of wind mills (if you must know, my other favorite fictional hero is Rocky Balboa – Yo). Anyway, here are a few “news” stories that arrived in my in-box post-Paris, and some thoughts on their veracity:

– From Brian Hayes at Right Side News: “BREAKING: They’re Here! First Load of 10,000 Syrian Refugees Has Arrived in New Orleans…” Accompanying the article is a photo showing dozens of swarthy young men, looking vaguely dangerous. Have these young jihadists landed in New Orleans? Are 10,000 Muslims invading the Big Easy? No, in fact, the photo of the young men was taken in Hungary in September 2015 and has nothing to do with refugees in New Orleans. Also, while President Obama has committed to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees, very few have arrived in the U.S. What we know is that over the last four years, the U.S. has resettled a total of 2,070 Syrian refugees as part of the regular refugee admissions process. As for New Orleans, it appears that two Syrian families have arrived and one more family is expected. So much for the 10,000 young jihadists.

– From Jeffrey T. Kuhner of the World Tribune: “Obama welcomes an Islamist Trojan horse: Consider who is selecting our refugees.” This article claims that under the President’s plan “millions [of refugees] could be allowed to flood our country” and that “the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees… in coordination with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation… selects which refugees can be settled within our country.” It also states that “Mr. Obama now poses a clear and present danger to America [because of his] stubborn insistence on resettling so-called ‘refugees’ from Syria.” Where to even begin with this nonsense? First, 10,000 ≠ 1,000,000. Mr. Obama has been president for almost seven years. Until the recent announcement about the 10,000 Syrian refugees, he has continued the same refugee policy as President Bush. So don’t try to tell me that all of sudden, in his final year in office, somehow “millions” of refugees will arrive on our shores. Second, while refugees are often referred to the U.S. by UNHCR, the United States (through the State Department, DHS, and the Office of Refugee Resettlement) conducts the background checks and decides which refugees to accept. Neither the Organization of Islamic Cooperation nor the UN decides which refugees will be allowed to resettle in our country. Finally, what the hell is a “so-called” refugee? I suppose the implication is that the people fleeing the Syrian civil war are not really refugees. Maybe the whole “so-called” civil war in Syria is just a farce to send jihadists to the West. They sure put on a good show, those Syrians.

– From Andrew C. McCarthy in the National Review: “Refugee ‘Religious Test’ Is ‘Shameful’ and ‘Not American’ … Except that Federal Law Requires It.” Mr. McCarthy writes–

Under federal law, the executive branch is expressly required to take religion into account in determining who is granted asylum. Under the provision governing asylum (section 1158 of Title 8, U.S. Code), an alien applying for admission must establish that … religion [among other things] … was or will be at least one central reason for persecuting the applicant.

In reality, 8 U.S.C. § 1158 states that, in order to qualify as a refugee, a person must establish that she faces persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, particular social group or political opinion. It is not a religious test at all. If you fear persecution on account of religion (any religion-including Islam), or any other protected ground, you can qualify for asylum. Either Mr. McCarthy has no understanding of the Immigration law or–more likely–he is twisting the language of the law into something it is not. Either way, he has no business writing about this subject.

Professional liars like Mr.Hayes, Mr. Kuhner, and Mr. McCarthy clearly have an agenda–to inflame passions against Muslim refugees. They create an alternate reality where President Obama is “willing to potentially sacrifice countless Americans on the altar of liberal multiculturalism [and] is gambling with our lives.” Well then, it sounds like he must be stopped–by any means necessary.

But of course the “alternate reality” described above is not reality. It is a false story, planted to paint Mr. Obama as a “clear and present danger” to our republic. Had Mssrs. Hayes, Kuhner, and McCarthy bothered with the facts, they would have found a much more nuanced situation, where reasonable people can disagree on policy, and where no one is evil.

The danger of all this should be obvious. When we falsely label other Americans as the enemy, when we use inflammatory and divisive language, and when we forgo efforts at understanding those who disagree with us, we damage our democracy and impoverish our national debate. In the black-and-white world of the fear-mongers, it makes sense to open fire on a Planned Parenthood Clinic. And if “so-called refugees” are actually disguised jihadists, wouldn’t it make sense to subject them to the same treatment?

Reality is complicated and messy. The straw men we create to comfort and enrage ourselves rarely comport with reality. There are legitimate grounds to oppose refugee resettlement, and the more rationale opponents of refugees rely on such arguments. But that is not what we are talking about here. There are far too many liars and charlatans involved in the refugee debate. Their false alarms are designed to turn Americans against each other. And that is a real threat.

 

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Since the vicious attack last week by Muslim extremists in Paris, attention in the U.S. has focused on our country’s refugee policy and President Obama’s decision earlier this year to admit an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees (above the normal refugee ceiling of 70,000). More than half of the nation’s governors have indicated that Syria refugees are unwelcome in their states. Paul Ryan, the new Speaker of the House, is pushing legislation to hinder the admission of Syrian and Iraqi refugees. And most Republican presidential candidates have expressed their opposition to resettling Syrian or Muslim refugees in our country. Senator Ted Cruz has called the plan “absolute lunacy.”

When we say "no" to a refugee, what does it say about us?

When we say “no” to a refugee, what does it say about us?

As an immigration attorney who specializes in political asylum, I represent clients whose lives have been profoundly disrupted by war and terrorism, who have been threatened or harmed by extremists, and who have lost loved ones to terrorist attacks. Many of my clients come from Muslim countries, such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Egypt. These are people who have devoted their lives–and often risked their lives–to promote democracy, women’s rights, and human rights. Many have served shoulder-to-shoulder with soldiers from the U.S. military in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, I suspect that many of my Muslim clients have risked and sacrificed far more in the defense of liberty and in support of U.S. policy than the American commentators who routinely disparage them.

In the face of barbarism from ISIS and other extremists, we as Americans should not abandon our friends or shrink from our humanitarian commitments. As the leader of the Free World, we must lead not only with the sword. We must also lead by demonstrating our values, and by showing the world that we do not abandon those values in difficult times.

During the refugee crisis that followed World War II, the U.S. committed itself to assisting displaced persons. Since then, we’ve absorbed—and been enriched by—tens of thousands of refugees from Western Europe, the Soviet Union, Indochina, Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas. We are, to a great extent, defined by our generosity towards the dispossessed: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Allowing ourselves to be intimidated into compromising these humanitarian values would be a victory for the terrorists. It would mean that we gave in to our fears. Great nations are not bullied by ignorant thugs. We already have strong safeguards in place to identify potential terrorists and criminals, and prevent them from coming to our country. Indeed, our asylum and refugee programs are probably more secure than any other aspect of our immigration system.

Also, many of the Muslims who have sought sanctuary in the U.S. are people who worked with the United States military or government, or who worked for international NGOs and companies in concert with our efforts (however imperfect) at nation-building. Such people risked their lives and trusted us. To abandon them would send a message that America does not stand by its friends. This is a message that we cannot afford to send. If we are not trustworthy, no one will cooperate with us going forward.

Finally, allowing terrorists to drive a wedge between our country and moderate Muslims would make the world more dangerous. There will be fewer bridges, not more. We need to keep strengthening ties between the West and the Muslim World. The terrorists want to cut those ties; we cannot let them.

In the aftermath of the Paris attack and the claim by ISIS that it will send infiltrators to the West disguised as asylum seekers, the desire to re-examine security procedures is understandable. But as we evaluate our humanitarian policies, we should keep in mind people like my clients and the many Muslims who have demonstrated their fealty to us in our fight against extremism.

We should not allow the evil deeds in France to cause us to retreat from our humanitarian obligations, which would compromise our principles, or to weaken our commitment to our Muslim allies, who are crucial in our battle against Islamic terrorists. Many people in the Muslim World want change. We saw that in the Arab Spring. We need to align ourselves with such people and give them our support. We need to stay engaged with the world and not retreat. When considering Muslim refugees and asylum seekers, we should be guided by our highest ideals, not by the dark vision of our enemies.

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When the backlog began in 2013, no one quite knew what was happening. How long would the problem persist? How would the delays affect asylum seekers? How would the delays affect the integrity of the asylum system?

It's that time of year, when annoying relatives and (marginally less) annoying lawyers, give you advice.

It’s that time of year, when annoying relatives and (marginally less) annoying lawyers, give you advice.

Two-and-a-half years later, we have some sense for what is happening, and the Asylum Division has made some adaptations to the new reality. It probably comes as no surprise that asylum seekers–and their representatives–are not satisfied with the current situation. Hence, I offer here my own ideas for improving the system. The only criteria for the below suggestions is that they do not cost anything (or at least, not much). It would be easy to propose expensive solutions (hire lots more asylum officers!) but in the current climate, I don’t think that is realistic. Anyway, without further ado, here are my humble suggestions to save the world:

Don’t Create Unrealistic Expectations: Most Asylum Officers are nice, and nice people do not like to make other people feel bad. And so what we frequently see is Asylum Officers giving a time frame for the decision. More often than not, this time frame under-estimates the wait time; sometimes, by a lot. As a result, asylum applicants have their expectations raised and then dashed. It would be far better to avoid this altogether. Unless they really know for certain, Asylum Officers should refrain from giving a time frame for the decision. If the decision comes quickly, the applicant will be (hopefully) pleasantly surprised; if it comes slowly, at least there will not have been an expectation of a quick decision.

Distribute Workloads More Evenly: Waiting times between Asylum Offices vary widely. Houston is currently interviewing people who filed their cases in May 2014; Los Angeles is interviewing people who filed their cases in August 2011. On it’s face, it appears that people in LA wait about three years longer than people in Houston. It should be possible to assign cases in a way that reduces this disparity. Much of the delay is due to credible fear interviews, which take place remotely (by video conference or phone). Why can’t these be processed in the faster offices, so that the slower offices can focus on their backlogs? In this way, perhaps wait times could be made more equitable.

Prioritize People Separated from Family Members: It is much easier to tolerate a long delay if you are not separated from your spouse and minor children. The asylum form, I-589, requests information about the applicant’s spouse and children. In cases where the spouse and minor children are outside the U.S., the Asylum Offices should prioritize those cases. It is really intolerable to remain separated from small children for 2, 3, and 4 years, or more. By the time you see your child again, she won’t even know you. Not to mention that in many cases, the family members are living in unsafe conditions. This is by far the worst part of the backlog, and the Asylum Division really should address the problem.

Standardize the Process of Expediting Cases, and Make the Process More Transparent: It is possible to expedite an asylum case. One way to do this is through the “short list.” When an applicant adds his name to the short list, he will be called for an interview if a slot opens up. The short list can be faster than the regular queue. However, short lists open and close, and not all offices have short lists. The Asylum Offices should post information about the short lists on their websites. Perhaps the short lists can be limited to people separated from their family members. At the minimum, each Asylum Office could post on their website whether a short list is available, and whether it is open to new applicants.

It is also possible to expedite a case for emergent reasons (health problems, family members overseas in jeopardy, etc.). However, there are no hard and fast rules related to expediting cases. Each Asylum Office should have a set of rules for expediting, and those rules should be posted on their websites: What are the criteria for expediting a case? What evidence is required? How and when will a decision to expedite be made? Currently, we are in the dark about these questions. The result is that applicants are trying again and again to expedite, which wastes Asylum Office time (and attorney time) and which creates unrealistic expectations about whether a case might be expedited.

Make the EAD Valid for Two Years and Have the Receipt Automatically Extend the Old EAD: Employment Authorization Documents–EADs–are currently valid for one year. There are also delays for people applying for and renewing EADs. The result is that many people see their EAD expire before they receive the new card. This causes them to lose their jobs and their driver’s licenses. If EADs were valid for two years (or longer), it would greatly reduce the problem. Also, USCIS should adopt the same policy for EADs as they have for the I-751: The receipt for the EAD should automatically extend the existing EAD until the new card arrives.

Create a FAQ Page: Tens of thousands of asylum applicants are waiting for their interviews or decisions. Waiting is difficult enough, but waiting in the absence of reliable information is even worse. The Asylum Office Scheduling Bulletin was a good start—at least now we know who is being interviewed today. But why don’t the Asylum Office websites have a link to the Scheduling Bulletin? And why don’t the paper asylum receipts include the Asylum Office website addresses? The little information that is actually available should be made more accessible.

In addition, the Asylum Division should create a FAQ page (Frequently Asked Questions). What has caused the delay? Why are there delays after the interview? How do I inquire about the status of my case? How do I request expedited review? What happens if I move? How do I travel outside the United States? These are common questions, and there really are very few places to find reliable answers, especially for those applicants who cannot afford an attorney.

The benefit of providing reliable information to asylum seekers is hard to underestimate. If I might analogize to my own fear of flying. I hate to fly (which is annoying, since I like to be in other places), and it’s especially bad when there’s turbulence. But if the pilot announces,“We’re experiencing some normal turbulence. We should pass through in 10 minutes,” I immediately feel better. The psychological benefit of being informed is a real benefit, and the psychological harm of not knowing, is a real harm. Providing more information to asylum seekers, from a reliable source, would be a big help.

Finally, I will add one “bonus” suggestion, which I’ve made before. USCIS should allow for premium processing of asylum applications. I believe the primary objection to this idea is the appearance of impropriety: It looks bad when an asylum seeker is able to pay money to expedite his case. However, I still believe that the benefits of premium processing outweigh this concern. Those who oppose the asylum system will never be convinced, and there is little point in trying to appease them, especially when the cost of appeasement is further harm to people seeking asylum.

OK, Asylum Division, there you have it. Now, let’s see what you can do.

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In 2014, Immigration Judge John F. Gossart, Jr. retired after more than 30 years on the bench. Judge Gossart sat in Baltimore, where he was well-known and well-liked by attorneys on both side of the aisle (I myself had many cases with him), and his absence is still felt in his Court. Aside from his judicial work, Judge Gossart was (and is) an adjunct professor of law and a legal educator in the wider community. The Asylumist caught up with Judge Gossart to ask about his career, some memorable moments, and his opinions on the issues of the day in Immigration Court:

A photo of the official photo of Judge John F. Gossart, Jr. (it's the best we could do!).

A photo of the official photo of Judge John F. Gossart, Jr. (it’s the best we could do!).

Asylumist: How did you get to be an IJ? And why was this position interesting for you?

John F. Gossart: I came to immigration law totally by accident. I wanted to work for the Department of Justice, in public sector law, and I applied for a position there. While I was waiting, I hung my own shingle and practiced law out of my house. When DOJ hired me to work at INS (the Immigration and Naturalization Service), I couldn’t even spell immigration.

My first position there was as a Naturalization Attorney. At the time, applicants for naturalization had to file their petitions in U.S. District Court and present two character witnesses. I would interview the petitioner and the witnesses, and make recommendations about whether the applicant should be permitted to naturalize. I remember one Judge in the Eastern District of Virginia—“Roarin” Orin Lewis—who roared at all the attorneys. In those days, homosexuals were ineligible to naturalize because they were considered “sexual deviants.” I argued for a grant of naturalization for an admitted homosexual because he abstained from sexual activities. The petition was denied by Judge Lewis. In another case involving two Russian “swingers” who had admitted to adultery, Judge Lewis called me into his chambers and read me the riot act. The two were consenting adults, but that didn’t matter to Judge Lewis. He denied the case. At the time, the statute held that persons who committed adultery lacked good moral character.

Then, after a stint as Deputy Commissioner of Naturalization, I became a trial attorney for INS. Eight years later, I had the opportunity to become an Immigration Judge. On October 30, 1982, I was appointed an IJ by Attorney General William French Smith.

As an IJ, I rode circuit and heard cases in many locations: Baltimore, DC, Philadelphia, Pittsburg, Buffalo, Hartford. I loved the job. I enjoyed the challenge and I loved dealing with people. One concern for me was that the private bar might view me as a prosecutor in a judge’s robe. On the other hand, sometimes when I ruled in favor of the respondent, people at INS complained that I had “crossed over.” In fact, I don’t think I played favorites; I just tried to follow the law. My mantra was to be “Fair, Firm, Decisive.”

Asylumist: Are there any cases that you worked on that were particularly memorable?

JFG: I was the IJ in two Nazi war criminal cases. In the case of George Theodorovich, the trial lasted 3½ weeks. He was a Ukrainian police officer who came to the U.S. under an executive order. He denied all charges and claimed that the case against him was a Russian plot. I went to the Russian embassy to review documents, and at trial, several Survivors testified. I entered a 154-page decision (my longest decision) where he was found deportable. He appealed to the BIA. While the case was on appeal, Theodorovich fled the U.S. and went to Paraguay.

Asylumist: As an IJ, what are some common problems that you see when lawyers present cases?

JFG: Dr. Stanley Sinkford, a renowned doctor and professor at Howard Medical School, always told his medical students, “Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance,” meaning it is usually a lack of preparation that leads to problems. Some lawyers become too comfortable with their role; they think they can come into court and wing it. Also, proper vetting of clients and—more importantly—witnesses is very important. You cannot meet the witnesses 30 minutes before the hearing and hope everything goes well. I’ve also seen instances where the lawyer did not know the applicable law. This was a particular problem among lawyers who dabble in immigration law. A number of attorneys came before me who thought that the IJ has equity powers. They would ask the court to allow the respondent to stay in the U.S. even where there was no basis to allow him to stay. I fear that such lawyers portray this idea to their client—that the IJ can let you stay, even without a legal basis for relief.

Asylumist: How do you handle cases where you feel that the applicant may have relief, but lawyer errors and/or ineffective assistance of counsel might cause the alien to lose?

JFG: As an IJ, you almost never want to admonish an attorney in public; it is better not to be on the record or in the presence of the client. I have talked to lawyers in chambers, however. I’ve told them, “If you are not familiar with law, you need to become familiar. You have a duty to do your best for your client.” Also, if I am aware that the client appears eligible for another form of relief, I will ask why the attorney is not pursuing it. Attorneys appreciate that a Judge is willing to talk to them in private.

Asylumist: Have you had cases where your gut tells you to rule one way, but the evidence requires that you rule the opposite way? How do you deal with that?

JFG: That is when a judge feels stressed, alone, and badly about the decision he must render. Such decisions are difficult; I suppose that’s why we’re paid the big bucks. But we are judicial officers, and we are required to follow the law. It’s been said by the Supreme Court in Knauf v Shaughnessy, “Judicially we must tolerate what personally we regard as a legislative mistake,” but that is our role as an administrative judge. Your gut may tell you one thing, and you may have sympathy for the person in front of you, but unless that person satisfies the requirements for relief under the law, you cannot get to discretion, and you cannot provide equitable relief. As a Judge, we have to make these kinds of difficult decisions. It is what the law requires. Ultimately, to do justice, you have to read, know, and follow the law.

Asylumist: Over the past couple years, we’ve heard reports about the problem of IJ burnout. Was that a factor for you? How did you protect yourself?

JFG: I was constantly assessing myself, and I remained on-guard for burnout. Whenever necessary, I took a recess from court, or I took a day off. My colleagues were very supportive in this regard; it was helpful to have someone to vent to.

EOIR recently held a conference in Washington, DC—the first live conference in five years. Such events are very important. Judges are able to bond with colleagues. They brought a psychologist to discuss stress.

Asylumist: What do you think EOIR could do differently to better support IJs and make the system more efficient?

JFG: First, we need more judges and this should be done promptly. Preferably, we need candidates with a strong immigration or judicial background. More than 50% of the IJ bench is currently eligible for retirement. So we need regulations for phased retirement and we need to implement the Moving Ahead for Progress Act. This Act would permit IJs to work part time, which is something many IJs are interested in.

Also, we should institute senior status for IJs, so retired IJs could return to the bench to help with the workload. I had proposed this idea several years ago, but personnel felt it would be difficult to do. However, in the last year, EOIR has instituted a recall program, which allows Department of Justice attorneys with sufficient experience to fill temporary judgeships. This program seemingly targets BIA staff attorneys and OIL attorneys; it has not been extended to retired IJs. The Immigration Judges’ Association has been advocating for senior status as well, so retired IJs could return to help address the backlog or cover for a Judge who is absent. Imagine how efficient it would be for someone like me to step in and work for a week or a month while another IJ was on detail or leave. We have a number of IJs who are retired. They have decades of experience and are willing and able to do this.

In addition, we need to provide courts with adequate support staff, and IJs need more administrative time to keep up with motions, read case law, and stay on top of the profession. Judges also need more training—one live conference in five years is not adequate.

I would also like to see implementation of the sanction recommendation that was part of the 1996 statutes. This would give IJs more authority to sanction attorneys for misconduct. They could impose fines. Some lawyers need this type of lesson as a wakeup call. If we are to implement a sanction process, it should apply equally to private attorneys and government counsel. DHS had wanted sanctions only against the private bar, but IJs generally oppose that idea—you have to treat both sides the same.

Asylumist: The definition of a particular social group (“PSG”) has expanded pretty significantly in the last 20 years, mostly through litigation. What is your opinion of this? How do “flood gate” arguments influence IJ thinking regarding PSGs?

JFG: Since the 1980 Act came into effect, it has been litigated and litigated. I think this is healthy. PSG is the most difficult provision of the statute; other protected categories are more self-explanatory.

As to the flood gate argument, as an IJ, we cannot have that as a factor for consideration.

One area I struggled with was PSG cases involving domestic violence. We are still waiting for the government to issue regulations to help guide us. Maybe domestic violence cases would be better addressed through legislation instead of trying to fit them into a PSG, especially when we have such little guidance. Such cases are difficult because they are often very sympathetic. Perhaps it might be better to pass legislation to benefit the abused, rather than to try to figure out how to craft this group of abused individuals into a particular social group.

Asylumist: It seems fairly common for cases referred from the Asylum Office to the Court to be granted by IJs. Do you think this is a systematic problem? Might there be some sort of “fix” that could take place between EOIR and the Asylum Offices?

JFG: To do that, you would have to change the administrative asylum process, and this is a question of resources. When an asylum case is presented to the Asylum Office, there are no witnesses, there are time constraints, the applicants must bring their own interpreters (who may be good—or not). It is an imperfect system.

When the case is referred to Court, many applicants get a lawyer—and that makes a big difference. Attorneys know what evidence to include, they present witnesses, they can get a psychological evaluation. This evidence is often not presented at the Asylum Office. The system we have in Court is a more perfect system. But of course, we like the Asylum Office. Every case they grant is one less case on the Court’s docket.

If you don’t want applicants to get two bites at the apple, you can require asylum applicants who are out of status to go directly to Court.

Asylumist: Do you have any thoughts on how to reduce the backlog?

JFG: DHS could better prioritize which cases are prosecuted. We could have more pre-trial hearings. Why have a lengthy hearing if DHS won’t oppose the case in the end? There could also be more stipulations and more administrative closures. Of course, there is always the issue of Monday-morning quarterbacking. What if a person whose case is admin closed commits a crime? The government does not have the resources to prosecute all cases, but how do we know which cases to pursue? I do think if DHS had more time for stipulations, it would ultimately save time for everyone.

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World War II left approximately 75 million people dead and up to 20 million displaced. Many of these displaced persons, or DPs, could not return to their countries. Hundreds of thousands were resettled to new homes in Western Europe and the United States. Two years after the war, there were still 850,000+ people living in DP camps. And as late as 1953–eight years after the War–more than 250,000 people continued to live as refugees. Of course, many DPs during the post-War period were children.

Through Trick-or-Treat UNICEF, the undead can help the living.

Through Trick-or-Treat UNICEF, the undead can help the living.

The civilian response to the DP crisis was led by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, which helped resettle hundreds of thousands of refugees. Private individuals were moved by the humanitarian tragedy as well.

In the Autumn of 1949, Mary Emma Allison was in downtown Philadelphia when she bumped into a children’s Halloween parade. She followed the parade into Wanamaker’s Department Store where she met a cow (yes, a cow). She then followed the kids and the cow to a booth for UNICEF, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund. It turns out, the parade was promoting a campaign to send powdered milk to needy children overseas (hence, the cow).

After her chance encounter, Ms. Allison and her husband, Clyde Allison, a Presbyterian Minister, organized Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF. The idea was that if kids were already going around the neighborhood collecting candy, they might as well do some good while they’re at it.

The venture started modestly enough during Halloween in 1950, when the Allison’s three children collected money from their community. That first year, they raised $17.00 in nickels and dimes, which they donated to UNICEF (although the acronym has remained the same, UNICEF is now the United Nations Children’s Fund). The money went to help children displaced by World War II. In those days, a dime was all it took to buy 50 glasses of milk for needy children in Europe.

The effort grew from there. In 1960, President Kennedy noted “UNICEF has captured the imagination of our people, especially our nation’s children… ” Seven years later, President Johnson signed a proclamation that designated Halloween as National UNICEF Day. By the time Ms. Allison died, a few days before Halloween in 2010, Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF had raised more than $160 million. The program has continued since then, and by last Halloween, it had raised over $175 million. The money buys food, clean water, milk, medicine, and much else for children in more than 150 countries. These days, a $5-donation to UNICEF buys five days of food for a malnourished child; $100, measles protection for 100 kids; $400, a pump to give an entire village water.

Many of the children helped by UNICEF are refugees, and they have special needs. In Syria, for example, UNICEF is trying to prevent millions of children displaced by the war from becoming a lost generation. The agency has been on the ground since the conflict began, working with other organizations to provide education, physical protection, psychological support, and clothing to Syrian refugee children in Iraq, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and other countries. UNICEF also helps immunize children against disease and provides millions of people with access to safe drinking water.

Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF is a great way for kids to help kids. After 65 years, the reasons for the program remain constant: To make Halloween meaningful as well as fun, to protect the lives of the world’s youngest and most vulnerable, and to inspire kids to discover their own ability to help other children like themselves. If you’d like to learn more, please visit the UNICEF website, here.

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These days, all asylum applicants face long waits prior to their interviews. After the interview, some applicants receive a decision in two weeks; others wait months; still others—thankfully, a minority—wait for years without a decision.

A helpful diagram of the U.S. asylum system.

A helpful diagram of the U.S. asylum system.

Why does it sometimes take so long to get a decision? Our dogged reporters at the Asylumist have come into possession of an internal Asylum Office document that sheds light on this question (ok, in truth, the document is publicly available, but it’s not so easy to find). The document is the Quality Assurance Referral Sheet, which lists the categories of cases that must be submitted to headquarters (“HQ”) for further review.

Cases submitted to HQ often face substantial delays. So if your case falls into one of the below categories, you can expect a longer wait for your decision. How long? I have no idea. Some of our cases that go to HQ receive decisions relatively quickly. Others languish for months; sometimes years. There seems to be no way to predict how long such cases might take.

Without further ado, here are the asylum-seeker categories that hopefully you don’t fall into:

Diplomats and Other High Level Officials: Any decision—grant, referral to court or a notice of intent to deny—in the case of a sitting diplomat to the U.S. or United Nations, other high-level government or military officials, high ranking diplomats to other countries, and family members of such people must have their cases reviewed by headquarters. The same is true for any asylum applicant who fraudulently obtained a diplomatic visa.

National Security/Terrorism-Related Inadmissibility Grounds (“TRIG”): Any decision in a case that would be granted but for a TRIG bar, regardless of whether an exemption to the bar is available, must go to HQ. The TRIG bar is quite broad and many people are potentially affected. This includes people who worked for or supported terrorist organizations (or more accurately, organizations that the U.S. government views as terrorists), and even includes people who “supported” terrorists under duress. An example might be someone who paid money as ransom or who was forced on pain of death to provide services to terrorists. TRIG is particularly tricky because some cases (recent numbers are not available, but last year’s numbers are here) are placed on indefinite hold, meaning the applicant will never receive a decision, at least not until the government gets around to enacting new regulations on the subject. If you think your case might be subject to a TRIG hold, you can email USCIS (the email address is here, at the bottom of the page). In my limited experience (two cases), USCIS has been responsive and has informed me whether my cases were being held due to terrorism-related grounds (they were not).

Other National Security: In order to grant a case involving national security concerns, where the concern was not resolved through vetting, the case must go to HQ. Aside from terrorism, national security concerns can include a wide range of activities, including suspected gang membership or involvement in other criminal activities.

Persecutor-related issues: Asylum grants are referred to HQ where the evidence indicates that the applicant may have ordered, incited, assisted or otherwise participated in acts of persecution or human rights violations, and the individual has demonstrated that he should not be barred as a persecutor. Also, before a credible applicant is referred to Immigration Court or issued a Notice of Intent to Deny letter based on the persecutor bar, the case must be reviewed by HQ. You might fall into this category if you served in the police or military of your country, if you were a prison guard or you interrogated prisoners, and if your government has a record of abusing human rights.

Publicized or Likely to be Publicized: High-profile cases that have had or are likely to have national exposure, not just local interest, are subject to HQ review. If your case is getting media attention, or if it could affect relations with your home country, the case will likely be sent to HQ before any decision (good or bad) is issued.

Firm Resettlement: If a person is “firmly resettled” in a third country—meaning, she has the ability to live permanent in a country that is not the U.S. and is not her home country—she is ineligible for asylum. Where the asylum office would have granted the case but for firm resettlement, the case is sent to HQ for review.

Juvenile: Where the asylum applicant is less than 18 years old at the time of filing, the case will be referred to headquarter if the Asylum Office intends to deny.

EOIR- Prior Denials: Where an applicant was previously denied asylum by the Executive Office for Immigration Review (the Immigration Judge and/or the Board of Immigration Appeals), the case must be reviewed by HQ before it can be granted.

Discretionary Denials/Referrals: If the Asylum Office intends to deny a case or refer it to the Immigration Court based solely on “discretion,” the case must be reviewed by HQ. This means that the asylum applicant met the definition of a refugee and is otherwise eligible for asylum, but is being denied or referred due to reasons that are not legal bars to asylum. A discretionary denial might be for a crime that does not bar asylum, like DUI or failure to pay child support, or for some other lack of good moral character.

National of Contiguous Territory/Visa Waiver Country/Safe Third Country: Where the Asylum Office intends to grant the case of an applicant from a contiguous territory (Canada or Mexico) and the case involves a novel legal issues or criminal activity by the applicant in the U.S. or abroad, the case must be referred to HQ. Also, cases of applicants from countries in the Visa Waiver Program must be referred to HQ before they are granted. In addition, grants of applicants who are nationals of countries with which the U.S. has a Safe Third Country agreement must be referred to HQ (the only country with which we currently have such an agreement is Canada).

Safe-Third Country Agreement: All cases in which evidence indicates the STC agreement may apply, irrespective of whether the applicant is eligible for an exception, must be referred to HQ. This means that anyone (regardless of country of origin) who was first in Canada (the only country with which we have a STC agreement) and then came to the United States for asylum, must have her case reviewed by HQ.

Asylum Office Request for HQ Quality Assurance Review: Any case for which the Asylum Office Director requests review from headquarters will be reviewed.

As you can see, there are many reasons why a person’s case might be referred to headquarters for more review (and more delay). It would be helpful if the Asylum Office could publish some data about HQ review—perhaps how long each category of review takes and how many cases are currently under review. I understand why HQ cannot easily predict how long the review will take for an individual case, but if more information were made public, it would help ease the wait for asylum applicants.

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Many of my clients were activists and leaders in their home countries. For me, one of the perks of my job is to hear their perspectives on the issues of the day. In this post, my former client Ali Anisi Tehrani, who is now a political asylee from Iran, gives his opinion of the recently-signed Iran Deal:

In the summer of 1988, the Islamic Republic of Iran drank what then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini referred to as a “chalice of poison” when it accepted the terms of United Nations Security Council Resolution 598, which marked the end of the Iran-Iraq War. Despite eight years of brutal fighting between the two neighbors, Khomeini vowed that an end to the war would not be possible unless Saddam Hussein was removed from power. Anyone who lived in Tehran during this time would remember this quote–the message had been plastered across Tehran’s walls–as well as the constant onslaught of Saddam’s missiles. To the Iranian people, defeat was not an option. Khomeini finally relented, but only after military commanders convinced him that victory in the next five years was impossible.

Ali Tehrani: Author, Activist, Starship Captain.

Ali Tehrani: Author, Activist, Starship Captain.

Khomeini justified signing the UN-brokered ceasefire by framing it not as a concession of defeat, but as a necessity to preserve the Islamic Republic and protect the best interests of Islam. Still, it was a stunning and humiliating failure for the regime, which had come into existence only 10 years earlier as a result of the 1979 revolution. Having spent the majority of its young life embroiled in this war, a significant portion of the Islamic Republic’s national identity had developed around the war and opposition to Saddam’s Ba’athist Iraq. Furthermore, given the active support provided to Iraq by U.S. and other Western powers, as well as the West’s long failure to condemn Iraq for its use of chemical weapons, the Islamic Republic’s anti-Western–and particularly anti-American–stance was also strengthened by its opposition to Iraq.

Clearly, the Islamic Republic’s acceptance of the ceasefire was a major blow to the regime’s identity as well as to the authority of Khomeini, its charismatic leader and founder.

The nuclear deal: Another “poisoned chalice”?

Since Iran and the P5+1 signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“JCPOA”) on July 14, the nuclear deal has occupied much of the world’s attention. Politicians and pundits speculate and opine constantly about the deal. Is it a good deal or a bad deal? Who will truly benefit, Iran or the West? Does it represent the best possible diplomatic move or a huge political mistake? Will it help to stabilize the region or instead enable Iran’s increased meddling in other countries’ affairs? Instead of weighing in on these debates, which deal largely with the politics of current affairs, I would like to analyze the deal from a different perspective, one that takes into account the complex power dynamics within Iran’s totalitarian society and the indirect repercussions that the deal may have for Iranian civil society.

Many in Iran compare the current nuclear deal to the 1988 ceasefire, particularly with respect to the Islamic Republic’s capitulation on a number of its long-held positions. I believe that this comparison can be extended to the ways in which the state has and will maneuver to reclaim legitimacy and authority in the eyes of its citizens in the wake of its many international political compromises.

What to expect next?

Oops, here is the real Ali Tehrani: Author and Activist; not a Starship Captain (at least not yet).

Oops, here is the real Ali Tehrani: Author and Activist; not a Starship Captain (at least not yet).

In the months surrounding the signing of the ceasefire with Iraq in 1988, Iran executed thousands of prisoners, almost all of whom had no death sentence, nor even lifetime imprisonment, when they were lined up on death row at the Ayatollah’s order. Amnesty International recorded the names of over 4,482 disappeared prisoners during this time. The mass executions compelled some top-ranking clergy to protest. Even Ayatollah Montazeri, Khomeini’s designated successor, challenged the executions to the point that Montazeri was removed.

In what I would argue is no coincidence, the number of executions in Iran has skyrocketed this year. The growth in rate of executions in 2015 is comparable to the years following the 2009 Green Movement, which saw massive protests in response to the fraudulent election that returned incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. The Green Movement itself, as well as the massive repression unleashed on protesters by the state, received widespread international attention, and served as a major blow to the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy both inside and outside the country.

There are many ways for a state to assert authority, including by exercising power over the very bodies of its citizens or “subjects.” In Iran, this manifests through the deployment of hijab police to enforce laws around women’s dress; through severe punishments for minor crimes; or, through publicly visible executions. In the eyes of the state, this level of control over the bodies of its citizenry is necessary to reestablish the authority and legitimacy that is lost following a compromise on something so critical to the regime’s identity.

For the Islamic Republic, the two dominant narratives underpinning the regime have been confronting the West–namely the United States–and the pursuit of nuclear activities. Iran has adhered to the latter so strongly as to unite much of the world against it. The nuclear deal represents a major blow to both of these narratives, which have long defined the Islamic Republic. The weakening of this dominant ideology fundamentally hurts the legitimacy and authority of the ruler, who must act to mitigate damage to his image. By exercising power over the bodies of its subjects, the totalitarian regime attempts to reclaim power.

It is important to note that such attempts to reclaim power are not necessarily the product of conscious decisions by individuals within the government. Rather they are part of a systemic approach that is inherent to any totalitarian rule, which oversees not only what is visible, but also the feelings and minds of its subjects.

By observing the actions taken by the regime in the wake of the nuclear deal and comparing them to those surrounding the 1988 ceasefire, it may be possible to assess the evolution of the Iranian state and whether it has become more or less totalitarian.

Ali Anisi Tehrani is an Iranian journalist based in Washington, DC. His research is mainly around the theme of civil resistance and political power dynamics. Ali left Iran after the controversial Presidential election in 2009 and studied Digital Media in Sweden and the U.S. He has been living in the United States since 2012.

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It’s Autumn, which means that it’s time again for the Diversity Visa Lottery. The Lottery was created by Congress to increase immigration from countries that have traditionally sent us few immigrants. Every year, 50,000 people “win” the lottery and are then (probably) able to immigrate to the U.S.

The only problem with winning the DV Lottery is that it's hard to fit the green card in your wallet.

The only problem with winning the DV Lottery is that it’s hard to fit the green card in your wallet.

Given the current state of affairs in the asylum world (delay, delay, delay), some people with asylum cases pending are wondering whether they can use the Lottery as an alternative to asylum. The answer: It depends.

First, not all countries are eligible for the Lottery. Countries that have sent us large numbers of immigrants in the past are not included in the Lottery. If you are from one of the following countries, you are not eligible for the DV Lottery:

Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, China (mainland-born), Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, South Korea, United Kingdom (except Northern Ireland) and its dependent territories, and Vietnam.

For China, please note that persons born in Hong Kong SAR, Macau SAR, and Taiwan are eligible.

Even if you were born in one of the above-listed countries, you might be eligible for the Lottery if your spouse’s country does not appear on the list, if your parents were not born in one of the countries on the list, or if your parents were not lawful residents of a listed country at the time you were born. You can lean more about these somewhat annoying requirements here.

Besides country-of-origin restrictions, the other requirement for eligibility is that applicants must have a high-school degree or the equivalent, or have “two years of work experience within the past five years in an occupation requiring at least two years of training or experience to perform.”

If you meet these two requirements, you can apply for the DV Lottery. This is free and actually pretty easy. Video instructions are here and you can apply here. You must apply before November 3, 2015. Winners are selected starting in May 2016.

There are also a number (probably a large number) of websites that will “help” you apply for the Lottery, for a fee. In the best case, this is a waste of money (it is just as easy to apply yourself). In the worst case, it is a complete fraud. You can learn more about these fraudsters and report scams to the U.S. government here.

Unlike most applications, I recommend that people do not use a lawyer for the Lottery and do not use a service. It is best to do it yourself.

However, if you win the Lottery, it is very wise to hire a lawyer to guide you through the green card process. Winning the Lottery does not guarantee that you will get a green card, and whether you can successfully take advantage of winning the Lottery depends on many factors and can be complicated–especially for people with asylum cases pending.

So let’s say you have an asylum case pending, should  you try the Lottery? The easy answer here is “yes,” there is no harm in trying the Lottery. If you happen to win, then things get complicated (the odds of winning are hard to come by, but appear to be less than 1%).

If you win the Lottery while your asylum cased is pending, you can potentially obtain your lawful permanent residency (your green card) and close out your asylum case. Your spouse and minor children can also get their green cards as your dependents. The problem is that not all asylum applicants will be eligible to “adjust status” and become residents of the United States, and this is where it gets tricky.

A DV Lottery winner who filed for asylum while she was still “in status,” meaning she was lawfully present in the U.S. at the time of filing, and who is still lawfully present here, can “adjust status.” “Adjusting status” means changing from a non-immigrant status to a lawful permanent resident without leaving the U.S.

Most asylum applicants will not be “in status” for long enough to take advantage of the Lottery. For example, if you came here on a B visa and filed for asylum, the B visa was probably valid for only six months, which means that you will be out of status after the six month period ends. The fact that you filed for asylum does not change the expiration date of your visa (the expiration date of your stay is not written on the visa itself; you can look it up on-line here). Since the Lottery process takes much more than six months, you will be out of status by the time your green card is available, which means you cannot “adjust status.” Instead, you would have to leave the United States and get the green card overseas.

Certain asylum applicants–those with long term visas, like F-1 students or H1B workers, who do not violate the conditions of their visas–might be able to remain in status long enough to adjust status and become lawful permanent residents without leaving the United States.

So if you are an asylum seeker who is out of status, can you leave the U.S. and collect your residency overseas? Maybe.

The key here is something called “unlawful presence.” Once your lawful stay in the U.S. expires, each day here is considered one day of unlawful presence. If you accrue more than 180 days of unlawful presence and then leave the U.S., you are barred from returning here for three years. If you accrue one year or more of unlawful presence and you leave, you cannot return for 10 years. This is known as the 3/10 year bar. A person who has an asylum case pending does not accrue unlawful presence. So for example, if you came on a B visa that was valid for six months, you overstayed your visa, and you filed for asylum four months after the visa expired (10 months after you arrived in the United States), you will have four months of unlawful presence. Once you file for asylum, you stop accruing unlawful presence, so even if your case takes two more years, you will still only have four months of unlawful presence, and you will not be subject to the 3/10 year bar if you leave (though you might be subject to other bars).

Assuming you are not subject to the 3/10 year bar, it may be possible to leave the U.S. and obtain your residency overseas based on the DV Lottery. However, for asylum seekers, this might mean returning to the country of feared persecution, which can be dangerous and might also raise suspicion at the U.S. consulate that your asylum case was not legitimate (if you can return to your country for the Lottery, maybe you never really feared persecution there). For asylum seekers (and others), it may be possible to leave the U.S. and pick up the green card in a third country, which would be the safer option.

If you are an asylum seeker who is subject to the 3/10 year bar and you leave to collect your residency, you will then need special permission to return (this is called a waiver). Such permission will be difficult–if not impossible–to obtain for most asylum seekers, and so people subject to the bar will most likely be unable to obtain their residency based on the DV Lottery.

Finally, asylum seekers who entered the United States without inspection are ineligible to adjust status and thus cannot take advantage of the DV Lottery (there may be a very narrow exception to this rule for people who meet certain conditions, including having been present in the U.S. since December 2000).

The bottom line here is that if you win the Lottery, you need to consult with a competent attorney. For asylum seekers, the ability to adjust status–or possibly leave the U.S. and return with residency–is crucial. It is very difficult to navigate these waters without the advice of someone who knows what he is doing. It makes sense to apply for the Lottery on your own, but if you win, it’s time to hire a lawyer.

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The U.S. government recently announced that we will be raising the refugee cap and accepting thousands of additional refugees from Syria. We’re hearing the usual angry voices decrying the “invaders” and the “jihadists,” but that is not what I want to discuss today (I’ve already written about Muslim refugees here). Instead, I want to cover two topics: First, I want to discuss the process of how refugees get selected and screened to come to the U.S., and second, I want to discuss whether the additional resources necessary to process these new refugee cases will impact people seeking asylum in the United States.

For refugees, waiting is a way of life.

For refugees, waiting is a way of life.

So how does the U.S. government decide who gets resettled in our country? What is done to prevent terrorists and criminals (not to mention phony refugees who are simply economic migrants) from taking advantage of our generosity?

First, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (“USRAP”) is an interagency effort led by three government agencies: the U.S. State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Refugee Resettlement. The process also involves the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (“UNHCR”), the International Organization for Migration, and a number of nongovernmental organizations that assist during various stages of the process.

A refugee case begins either through a referral or a direct application. Most cases (about 75%) are referred by UNHCR. Another 25% of cases come through direct applications under various programs. For example, there are programs for U.S.-affiliated Iraqis and for religious minorities from Iran and the former Soviet Union. There is also a program for certain Cubans. The newest program is for Central American minors who have a lawfully-present parent in the United States. In addition, a few cases are referred to the program by U.S. embassies and certain NGOs.

Each applicant must complete a series of mandatory steps before she can be resettled in the U.S. These include an in-person DHS interview, a security background check, and a medical exam. The process is labor-intensive and generally takes 18 to 24 months from referral to arrival in the United States. It’s not cheap either. Last year, the USRAP cost the U.S. government over $1.1 billion.

After the refugee is selected, she must be interviewed. The interviews are conducted by DHS officers, and take place at more than 70 locations worldwide. Before the interviews, the applicants are assisted by different NGOs, such as the International Rescue Committee and the International Organization for Migration, which collect biographic and other information that is forwarded to DHS for adjudication.

Next, all refugees undergo multiple security checks before they can be approved for resettlement in the United States. Refugees are subject to the highest level of security checks of any category of traveler to the U.S. The screenings are conducted by several agencies, including the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, DHS, and the Department of Defense. Details of the security checks are classified, and so we do not know a whole lot about the process.

Finally, refugees undergo a health screening, TB testing, and three days of cultural orientation (where, presumably, they learn about McDonald’s, Taylor Swift, and hot pockets).

Travel to the U.S. is arranged by the International Organization for Migration. The U.S. government pays IOM for the cost of air travel, but before departing for the United States, refugees sign a promissory note agreeing to repay the cost of their travel (whether they actually repay the loan, I have no idea).

Nine domestic agencies in about 180 communities throughout the United States work to resettle the refugees. Every week, representatives from the agencies review biographic and other information to determine where to resettle each refugee. The agencies welcome refugees at the airport and begin the process of helping them settle into their new communities. The agencies also provide reception and placement services in the first 30 to 90 days after arrival. This includes finding safe and affordable housing and providing services to promote self-sufficiency and cultural adjustment. The Office of Refugee Resettlement continues to offer support to the refugees for up to five years after arrival.

So that’s the basic process that each refugee—including the additional Syrian refugees—will go through to get to the United States. It is not a fast process because of the vetting, but it is designed to minimize the risk of terrorists and criminals infiltrating the resettlement system.

One concern for asylum seekers is whether increasing the number of people admitted under the refugee program will impact the asylum system.

The asylum office is funded by USCIS customer fees. If you have ever applied for an immigration benefit, you know that filing fees can be expensive. A small portion of the fee covers the cost of operating our asylum system. So if resources are shifted around to resettle additional refugees, the asylum offices should not be affected. They have a different, independent source of funding. That’s the good news.

The possible bad news is this: All the new refugees must undergo security background checks. This process is quite opaque, and therefore we know little about it. Whether the resources used for refugee background checks will impact the background checks for asylum seekers, we don’t know. It seems that refugees and asylum seekers are subject to many of the same security checks. If so, additional background checks for refugees might further slow the background check process for asylum seekers.

Thus, while the additional refugees probably will not slow down the asylum interview schedule, they might cause more delay for asylum seekers’ background checks. Whether and how much of an impact there might be, we will know soon enough.

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The BIA’s Tepid Response to Asylum Fraud

by Jason Dzubow on September 11, 2015

in Asylum, Asylum Seekers, BIA

A recent Board of Immigration Appeals (“BIA”) decision upheld an Immigration Judge’s adverse credibility finding where the respondent’s affidavit was “substantially similar, and in some regards identical, to an asylum application previously filed by respondent’s brother in a different proceeding.” Matter of R-K-K-, 26 I&N Dec. 658 (BIA 2015).

The BIA should think of more creative ways to prevent cheating.

The BIA should think of more creative ways to prevent cheating.

In this case, the first brother came to the U.S., filed for asylum, and was granted. In his asylum application, brother # 1 stated that he was arrested two times–in 2004 and 2006–and he described what happened during those arrests. Later, the second brother (respondent or R-K-K-) came to America and filed for asylum. He also claimed to have been arrested two times–in April and May 2010. R-K-K- described his arrests in terms remarkably similar to his brother’s case, including the time of day when he was arrested, the abuse endured, conversations with abusers, and psychological harm. R-K-K- even included in his affidavit the same spelling and grammar mistakes as his brother.

After informing R-K-K- of the problem, the Immigration Judge (“IJ”) gave him time to gather evidence and explain himself. R-K-K- claimed that the similarities were the result of the brothers’ “common backgrounds and experience,” and because they were assisted by the same transcriber. The IJ asked R-K-K- to locate the transcriber, but R-K-K- was unable to do so.

The IJ did not accept R-K-K-‘s explanation. He found R-K-K- not credible and denied the application for asylum. R-K-K- appealed.

The BIA affirmed the IJ’s decision and issued a published decision in order to set forth a “procedural framework under which an Immigration Judge should address… inter-proceeding similarities.” The short answer here is that (1) the IJ must give the respondent notice that her case has been found substantially similar to another case; (2) allow her an opportunity to explain what happened; and (3) determine the respondent’s credibility based on the totality of the circumstances. The shorter answer is, Who cares?

I do not know how often “inter-proceeding similarities” are an issue, but I imagine it happens now and again. When I was a Judicial Law Clerk at the end of the last century, I worked on a Somali case that was essentially identical to an unrelated person’s case. The affidavits and events were word-for-word the same. Only a few names had been changed to personalize the story a bit. So I suppose there is nothing wrong with establishing a framework for analyzing the problem.

But to me, it seems that the Board in R-K-K- is missing the larger issue. Yes, it appears that R-K-K- committed a fraud, and yes, under the applicable legal standard, he should probably be deported. And fine, it’s nice to have a framework to assess credibility when this issue comes up. But what about the missing “transcriber”? Where is the person who prepared this fraudulent case? He is nowhere to be found. And the BIA does not seem to care.

Frankly, the BIA’s decision here makes me angry. Everyone in this business knows that asylum fraud is a problem. We also know that there are (hopefully) a small number of attorneys and notarios (or transcribers) who are responsible for much of this fraud. These people damage the asylum system and make life more difficult for legitimate asylum seekers.

Some–perhaps most–of the fraudsters’ clients are active participants in the fraud. But at least in my experience cleaning up their messes, many of these “clients” are naïve victims of unscrupulous attorneys who find it all too easy to manipulate frightened people who do not speak English, who are predisposed to mistrust authority (because they were harmed by the authorities in the home country), who do not understand “the system,” and who have no support network in the United States.

So is R-K-K- a victim or a villain? We don’t know, and given the BIA’s “framework” for analyzing similar cases, I guess we never will.

How could this decision have been better? It seems a crime was committed here, so why not involve law enforcement? When a possible fraud has been detected, the Board could require the IJ to inform the applicant about the possible fraud, advise him that if he cannot overcome the finding of fraud, he faces criminal and immigration penalties, and give him an opportunity to switch attorneys and/or work with law enforcement to expose and prosecute the guilty party. He should also be made aware of the benefits of cooperation. The alien can refuse to go along, of course, in which case he will face the consequences. But if he does cooperate, he should be rewarded, particularly if it turns out that he was more of a victim than a co-conspirator.

There is precedent for this type of coercion in immigration proceedings. In Matter of Lozada, the BIA basically held that if an alien has been denied relief due to the ineffective assistance of her attorney, she can reopen her case, but to do so, she generally must file a bar complaint against the ineffective attorney. This requirement forces attorneys to police their own by possibly having their colleagues disbarred. I don’t like it, but I’ll file a complaint when it’s justified. And–so the reasoning goes–if the offending attorney is barred from practice, his future clients/victims will be protected.

The problem addressed by R-K-K- is worse than the one described in Lozada. In Lozada, we are talking about ineffective assistance of counsel–this ranges from a benign screw-up (which can–and does–happen even to the best attorneys) to dereliction of duty. In R-K-K-, on the other hand, the Board is addressing outright fraud: The attorney or notario (or applicant) has appropriated someone else’s case as her own in the hope of outwitting the fact-finder. This is malicious and dangerous behavior that requires punishment. The regime created by R-K-K- allows the little fish to fry and the big fish to keep swimming. It addresses a symptom of the fraud without reaching the source. I hope that the BIA will one day revisit this issue and that it will take a stronger stance against asylum fraud.

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History is filled with people who think that their ignorance should trump your life.

History is filled with people who think that their ignorance should trump your life.

It’s September, and for most of us, it’s a time to remember a beautiful, clear morning in 2001 when the world turned upside down.

Since then, we’ve witnessed wars and terrorist atrocities, which seem only to get worse with each passing day. I interact daily with asylum-seeker clients whose lives have been disrupted by such events, and whose friends and loved ones have died (or more accurately, been murdered). The recent destruction of an ancient temple in Palmyra, Syria and the murder of the 81-year old chief archeologist there strikes home for me, as I visited those magnificent ruins when I was a young man.

Members of Al Qaida, ISIS, and the Taliban deliberately kill innocent and defenseless people. They rape children. They destroy history. There really are no words strong enough to condemn their actions.

But one word that I have often heard used to describe terrorists is “cowardly.” I for one, do not think the terrorists are cowards in the normal sense of the word. Maybe killing innocent people is a cowardly act, but voluntarily going to fight in Syria or Iraq, or flying a plane into a building are not the actions of cowards. They are evil and misguided, but–at least to me–not cowardly.

There is another, perhaps more profound, application of the label “coward” when it comes to such terrorists, however. It is the moral cowardice of harming another person without making the effort to understand that person’s humanity. It takes courage–sometimes great courage–to understand people we view as different from ourselves. When the 9-11 hijackers flew their planes into the twin towers and the Pentagon, they were cowards in the sense that they had failed to consider the individual human beings who were their victims. This type of cowardice allows people to do terrible things. America has harmed “us;” therefore we are justified to harm “them.” But this fails to account for the fact that there is no “them”–there are only people, living their lives day to day.

Perhaps the terrorist can justify their actions to themselves: No one in the U.S. is innocent; they are all complicit in their country’s systematic attack on Islam; God demands the destruction of the non-believer. And while the terrorists planned and prepared for their attack, I’d wager that none inquired into the lives they hoped to destroy. Did they spend time with the loving husband and father of a new baby girl? Did they visit and get to know two young daughters of a Georgetown professor who were on their way to Australia? Did they bother to meet the hard-working firefighter and father of eight who had devoted his life to serving his community? Of course they didn’t. To meet and come to know your “enemy” destroys the very notion of us-versus-them. While it’s easy to project your hate and anger and fear onto “the other,” it is a whole lot more difficult to depersonalize and extinguish an actual human being when you have come to know her (you can learn about those who died on 9-11 at Legacy.com).

For me, this is the greatest form of cowardice of our time. Though we live in a world that is more integrated than ever, we still manage to deny the humanity of our fellow human beings. Moral cowardice.

Which brings me to Donald Trump. I am not saying that Mr. Trump is a terrorist, but he has something in common with terrorists. You guessed it: Moral cowardice.

Mr. Trump–and the bevvy of Republican contenders racing to keep up with him–want to detain, deport, and deter many potential immigrants, including “illegals,” refugees, asylum seekers, and H1B workers. Of course it’s a whole lot easier to deport people you’ve labeled illegals, “rapists” and “killers.” It’s harder when you have to contend with actual human beings and their stories.

Take the case of R-H-, a young man from Honduras. A gang member tried to date his sister, and when the parents refused, the gang murdered his mother, father, and sister. R-H- escaped and came illegally to the U.S., where he was detained. R-H- did not have a lawyer, and the Immigration Judge denied his asylum application and ordered him deported. He appealed pro se. I participate in the BIA Pro Bono Project–where we screen unrepresented cases and refer them to pro bono attorneys–and I read his case and recommended it for referral. Ultimately, R-H- was granted asylum (and finally released from detention).

Now maybe you believe that all “illegals” like R-H- should be deported. But before you reach that conclusion, you have a moral (and intellectual) obligation to understand exactly what you are advocating. R-H- was the victim of horrific gang violence. If he were deported, he likely would have been murdered. It’s a reasonable (though in my opinion, wrong) policy position to state that people like R-H- should be deported–our country has limited resources, we have to help “our own” before we help others, etc. But to create a straw man–an “illegal”–without knowing anything about the real person, and then to call for his deportation, is moral cowardice. Before you say, “Deport them all,” you better know who it is that you are deporting and exactly what that means.

The funny (or ironic) thing is, even the most anti-immigration people often have compassion for the immigrants they know. My friend was a fundraiser for Pat Buchanan, who is certainly no friend of immigrants. But when my friend’s friend landed in removal proceedings (for assaulting a cop, no less), my friend referred him to me for help. After we won the case, my friend sent me a wonderful note: “You did the most important thing a person can do–you made me look good for recommending you.” I love that, but the point is, even my friend who supports Pat Buchanan recognized the humanity in the immigrant he knew and wanted him to remain in the U.S. To look at an abstract group of “illegals” is one thing. To know the individual is quite another.

Indeed, when Mr. Trump met with Dream Act activists two years ago, he told them, “You convinced me.” In the face of hearing their stories, even The Donald wanted to help.

To some degree, all of us are guilty of dehumanizing “the other.” It’s impossible not to. But when we advocate for positions that harm others without understanding–or even trying to understand–the potential harm, we fail as moral beings. Hopefully, our nation expects better than that from itself and from its presidential candidates.

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In November 2012, we received a “recommended approval” from the Asylum Office for one of my Afghan clients–we’ll call him Dave, though as you might guess, that is not his real name.

Grant or grant not. There is no try.

Grant or grant not. There is no try.

We were pleased with the news. Dave had worked for the United Nations and as a contractor for USAID- and NATO-funded agencies in Afghanistan. The Taliban became aware of his work and threatened him. They contacted him by phone. They said he was an infidel and an American spy. They told him, “We are watching you. We know everything about you and your family. We know where you are.” A bearded stranger approached his children after school and tried to lure them away from their classmates. The threats escalated and so Dave decided to seek asylum in the U.S.

Dave had a United States visa, but his wife and children did not, so he came alone, in the hope that this would end the threats and that his family members could follow him later.

In those days–before the asylum backlog–cases moved more quickly. We filed the case in September 2012. Dave was interviewed the next month and received his recommended approval in November. So far, so good (but as Megadeth might say, “so what?”).

But what does it mean, this “recommended approval?” A person receives a recommended approval if the Asylum Office has determined that she is eligible for asylum, but for some reason the decision cannot yet be issued. The Asylum Office generally won’t give the reason why they cannot issue the decision, but in most cases, it seems to be because the security background check is not complete.

So what is the “security background check,” you ask. Every asylum applicant has their biometric and biographic data checked against several government data bases to determine if they might be terrorists or criminals. While these checks never seem to cause delay in Immigration Court cases (defensive asylum cases), they can take a long time for Asylum Office cases (affirmative asylum cases). Why is that? I don’t know. I asked once at a USCIS meeting, and they said it was because there are different checks at the Court and at the Asylum Office. I’ve never found anyone who could explain why the two agencies (DOJ and DHS) use different background checks, and because security issues are hush-hush, I doubt I’ll ever get a good answer on this point.

So Dave’s case was delayed while we waited for the final approval. In those pre-backlog days, the one benefit of a recommended approval was that the applicant could immediately apply for an EAD–an employment authorization document. In general, if an asylum applicant does not have a decision within 150 days of filing, he can apply for an EAD. With the current backlog, nobody gets a decision in 150 days and so everyone applies for the EAD. Prior to the backlog, many people received decisions in less than five months; others–like Dave–received a recommended approval in less than 150 days. Such people could immediately apply for the EAD. Dave applied for his EAD.

For asylum applicants with a recommended approval, the worst part about waiting is the uncertainty. When will the Asylum Office issue the final approval? Might something change so that the case is denied? For people separated from family members, the uncertainty and loneliness is extremely stressful.

As the months passed, our initial happiness with Dave’s recommended approval began to fade. When would the final decision come? I periodically made inquiries to the Asylum Office. We never received a substantive reply.

Then Dave’s wife got sick. He was worried about her, and worried about his children, but he decided to stay in the U.S. and hopefully get a decision soon. More time passed.

A year after we received the recommended approval, one of Dave’s children became seriously ill. We notified the Asylum Office and again requested a decision. We got no response. But Dave continued to wait and hope that he would receive his final approval so he could bring his family to safety.

The days and weeks and months continued to pass. Finally, as we reached the two-year anniversary of Dave’s recommended approval, he called me and told me that he had decided to return to Afghanistan. His children were suffering from health issues and he had not seen them (except via Skype) for more than two years. He was giving up on his asylum case and returning to his family, and to the danger.

So what can we learn from Dave’s story? My feeling about the whole fiasco is that Dave would have been far better off if the Asylum Office had simply denied his case in November 2012 rather than issue a recommended approval. Under U.S. law, a person does not have a duty to rescue another who is in danger. However, if a person undertakes a rescue, he is obligated not to act negligently. The U.S. has created a system for asylum. People like Dave rely on that system. In this case, the system failed Dave, and–at least for him–the lure of asylum and of safety created by the asylum system cost him and his family dearly: Two-plus years with his wife and children lost, other options for safety missed, savings exhausted.

There is an ironic denouement to the story. A few months after Dave left the U.S. and 2.5 years after the recommended approval, the Asylum Office sent a notice to get fingerprinted: “Please process the fingerprints as quickly as possible,” the note advised. Was this a cruel joke? I tried to have the fingerprints done at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, but they could not (or would not) do it. We have still not heard from the Asylum Office about Dave’s case. I suppose it remains pending, but who knows? When last I emailed Dave (about the fingerprints), he replied, “I still have hope and… I am hopeful.”

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What Is “Persecution”?

by Jason Dzubow on August 18, 2015

in Federal Courts

Language is intensely personal. When I say the word “house,” I have one image in mind, and when you hear it, you have your own image in mind. Indeed, every person on Earth who hears the word “house” will have his own mental image of what that means. Despite all this, we manage to communicate.

The "comfy chair" constitutes persecution only in the Ninth Circuit.

The “comfy chair” constitutes persecution only in the Ninth Circuit.

But when we move from interpersonal communication to the more precise language of the courts, the problem becomes more acute. Perhaps it was best summed up by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who famously declined to define the term “pornography.” Instead, he stated, “I know it when I see it” (less well-known was his next line: “And I enjoy seeing it at least twice a day”).

In asylum law, we have a similar problem–not with pornography, heaven forbid–but with another “p” word: “persecution.”

“Persecution” is not defined by statute, and the Board of Immigration Appeals–the agency tasked with interpreting the immigration law–has failed to provide much useful guidance (as usual). And so the buck has been passed to the various federal circuit courts.

A recent article by Scott Rempell, an Associate Professor at South Texas College of Law/Houston, surveys the landscape with regards to definitions of “persecution.” Prof. Rempell finds that while certain conduct is universally viewed as persecution, there exists “staggering inconsistencies” between the various federal appeals courts: “eleven different appellate courts independently pass judgment on EOIR’s assessments of whether harm rises to the level of persecution—a significant number of spoons stirring the persecution pot.” The study revealed what Prof. Rempell calls an “unequivocal chasm” in the consistency of persecution decisions:

For example, the results [of the study] illustrate how a one-day detention involving electric shock compelled a finding of persecution, while a ten-day detention involving electric shock did not. Similarly, while several weeks of psychological suffering necessarily established persecution, several years of even greater psychological suffering failed to cross the persecution threshold.

To those of us who have litigated these cases in the federal courts, Prof. Rempell’s observation rings all-too true. But quantifying the problem is quite difficult because, as Prof. Rempell notes, the cases are so fact-specific:

Courts… compare and contrast to previous persecution cases. And due to differing opinions on what the harm threshold should be, panels are free to emphasize or deemphasize any factual nuance they choose between the cases that they are reviewing and previous cases they have decided.

Despite this problem, the article attempts to categorize the different types of harm and discern areas of consistency and inconsistency. Prof. Rempell finds five broad areas of consistency–conduct that all courts consider persecution:

(1) Brutal and systematic abuse, where the applicant has sustained harm on a consistent basis over a prolonged period of time; (2) Sufficiently Recurrent Combination of Cumulatively Severe Harms, where there is an ongoing pattern of physical, psychological, and other types of harm, as long as the harms cumulatively establish a sufficiently high level of severity; (3) Recurrent Injury Preceding a Harm Crescendo, where there are multiple incidents of relatively severe harm that culminates in particularly egregious harm; (4) Sufficient Harm Preceding a Substantiated Flight Precipitator, where a series of harmful events culminates in a credible and substantial threat of harm, causing the applicant to flee; and (5) Sufficiently Severe or Recurring Sexual Abuse.

The problem with this list (aside from the fact that I did not give you all the details of the Professor’s analysis) is pretty obvious–we are stuck using words to describe harm, and this is difficult. One person’s idea of “brutal and systematic abuse” may not be the same as the next person’s. Nevertheless, the list gives us the broad parameters of what constitutes persecution in all federal courts.

When the persecution is less severe–as it is in most contested cases–things become even more tricky. Prof. Rempell identifies four areas where the appellate courts produce inconsistent decisions:

(1) A single instance of physical abuse and detention; (2) Psychological harm where there is a single fear-inducing incident; (3) Psychological harm where there are continuous fear-inducing incidents; and (4) “Other Harm Inconsistencies,” where courts looked at similar incidents and reached opposite conclusions concerning persecution.

The disparities between judges and circuits when it comes to determining persecution are stark. For example, the First Circuit (New England) reversed the BIA’s persecution finding in just 5% of cases. The Ninth Circuit (California, et al) reversed the BIA’s findings in 65% of cases.

Prof. Rempell attributes much of the disparity to “the way courts interpret the meaning of persecution, and how they characterize and measure harm.” “The fact that decades of adjudications involving over a million asylum claims have failed to yield a consistent approach on the systematic harm question is nothing short of astounding.” So what’s to be done? 

The article suggests some preliminary reforms, but the bottom line is this: Immigration agencies–and specifically the Board of Immigration Appeals–need to provide “guiding principles” on what constitutes persecution. Of course these inquiries are fact specific, and of course it is difficult to quantify physical or psychological harm, but as Prof. Rempell says, the “fact-intensive nature of persecution inquiries… should not act as a shield to prevent the creation of general severity principles, by means of regulation or adjudication.”

As a lawyer who frequently encounters the question “What is persecution?,” I believe Prof. Rempell’s article is important. He has quantified a problem that we have all experienced in our practice. Now it’s time for the BIA to do something about it.

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