Delays in the U.S. affirmative asylum system have just about reached a breaking point. In our office, the longest-waiting applicant recently passed the three-year anniversary of his asylum interview, with no decision in sight. And of course, it’s not just post-interview delays (usually due to security background checks) that are the problem. Anyone interested in asylum knows about the long wait times–anywhere from two to five years–before an applicant even receives her interview.

"At least we're all together."

“At least we’re all together.”

Perhaps these wait times are tolerable for a single person or a family that is together here in the U.S. After all, such applicants (eventually) receive a work permit, which allows them to work, attend school, obtain a driver’s license, and live a relatively normal life (though it is a life overshadowed by the uncertainty and stress of not knowing whether they can remain here).

But what about an asylum seeker who is here, but separated from his spouse and children? Can a person wait for three, four, five years or more to reunite with family members? Will a young child even know her parent, if the only contact she’s had with the parent over the last several years has been via Skype? And won’t such long delays make the process of integration that much more difficult for family members who are “following to join” the principal asylum applicant?

For all these reasons, I believe USCIS should be prioritizing cases of applicants who are separated from their families. Unfortunately, USCIS does prioritize such cases.

There is a possible alternative to waiting for years separated from family: Arrive at a port of entry without a visa and ask for asylum. There are different ways to arrange such an arrival. It can be done legally or illegally. It can be very dangerous or relatively safe. My question here is, what obligation do attorneys have to advise our clients about the different options?

First, though, I want to briefly discuss the various options, starting from the worst and working up to the best (or, more accurately, the least bad).

The most illegal, and most dangerous way to come to the U.S. is by hiring a smuggler and paying him to bring you to the United States. There are all sorts of smugglers, and all sorts of smuggling routes. Some routes are relatively direct; others are circuitous. People die along these smuggling routes. Many others are robbed or raped. The majority seem to get detained in various countries for various periods of time. Some get stranded for months or years. And some are lucky and arrive with few difficulties. The cost of such trips varies widely. I have heard about people paying anywhere from $10,000 to $80,000; South Asian and Chinese migrants tend to pay more than Africans. This route almost always brings the alien to the Southern border, where she can try to enter the U.S. illegally (this has become increasingly difficult and dangerous) or where she can present herself to a U.S. Customs Officer and ask for asylum (this seems to be the more popular path these days).

Another illegal way to come here is to travel by air using a fake visa and/or passport, or the passport and visa of another person. Such documents can be difficult and expensive to obtain for an individual. For a family, the cost and trouble of getting fake documents is probably much greater. Once the alien arrives at the airport, he can present the documents and try to enter the U.S. or he can ask the Customs Officer for asylum.

A final option is to travel legally to Mexico, travel legally to the U.S. border, and inform the Customs Officer that you wish to apply for asylum.

In each case, assuming that she does not manage to pass inspection and enter the United States, the asylum seeker will be detained–maybe for a few hours and maybe for many months. Many asylum seekers who make it that far are ultimately denied asylum and deported (and some remain detained during the entire Immigration Court process).

Given all these risks, it’s clear that the best alternative is to come to the United States with a visa and then seek asylum after you enter the country. The problem, of course, is that it is very difficult to obtain a U.S. visa, especially for nationals of countries that tend to send asylum seekers to the United States, and especially especially for such nationals who want to come here with their spouse and children.

As lawyers, though, we have an ethical obligation to inform our clients of the options and to let them make their own decision. So when a father comes to my office and I explain the delays in the asylum system, and I tell him that he probably won’t see his children again for two, three or more years, and then he asks whether there is any way to bring his children here sooner, what am I to say? I suppose I can tell him about the process to expedite cases, but that process barely works and, at best, it is very unpredictable. I can also advise him to try to get visas for his family members, but we both know that this probably won’t work (and it’s also ethically questionable, since I would be advising the family members to come here on a non-immigrant visa when I know they plan to remain here permanently). But what about the “Mexico option”? Do I have an obligation to suggest that his family members apply for Mexican visas, which may be easier to get than U.S. visas, and then come to the Southern border for asylum?

The more I have considered this path, the more I think I am obligated to tell my clients about it. For one thing, it is entirely legal (yes, the title of this article says that it is “illegal,” but let’s call that a literary flourish to make the subject of the article more clear). If they arrive legally in Mexico, they can travel to the U.S. border and–even though they do not have permission to enter the United States–they can request asylum at the border. Despite misperceptions to the contrary, requesting asylum at border is legal. See INA § 208(a)(1).

Under U.S. law, the “circumvention of orderly refugee procedures” generally does not block a person from obtaining asylum. See Matter of Pula, 19 I&N Dec. 467 (BIA 1987). In other words, if a person does not wait for resettlement as a refugee, but instead travels to the U.S. to seek protection, he is not blocked from receiving asylum. Indeed, in my office, we have represented many people who arrived without a visa at the Southern border, and none of them was denied asylum due to the “illegal” entry.

So if a client is here in the U.S., stuck in asylum purgatory, and asks what she can do to bring her spouse and children to the U.S., I suppose I must mention the “Mexico option.” I can’t say I would recommend this option—the spouse and children will likely end up detained—but I do not think this is a decision for me to make. Maybe they are better off in detention, with a chance of release to join their asylum-seeker family member, than in the home country indefinitely separated from that family member and possibly in danger themselves.

As a lawyer, I have an ethical obligation to inform my clients about all the lawful options available to them—even the options I personally do not prefer. The path through Mexico may be an option for some, and asylum seekers have a right to know about it, so that they can make the best decisions for their families.

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This piece is by our intrepid associate, Ruth Dickey, who is well-known for her love of Canada.

Given the current mess that is the U.S. asylum system, it’s not surprising that many asylum seekers who first land in the United States have been heading North to make their claims in Canada. Perhaps they are lured there by faster asylum processing times and a more generous attitude towards refugees. While it may sound idyllic to roll out of your igloo in the morning, pick up your Tim Horton’s coffee, and commute to work on a polar bear, obtaining asylum in Canada after you’ve been in the United States may not be so easy.

Ruth Dickey: On assignment in Canada to research the Safe Third Country Agreement.

Ruth Dickey: On assignment in Canada to research the Safe Third Country Agreement.

The main problem in Canada for asylum seekers who have passed through the United States is something called the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement (“STCA”). This treaty requires applicants to make their asylum claims in the first safe country they enter. Thus, if you first enter the United States, you have to make your asylum claim here. If you first enter Canada, you have to make your claim in that country.

The STCA has four exceptions: (1) The applicant has family members with lawful status in Canada; (2) The applicant is a minor travelling without a parent; (3) The applicant has a document that allows him to enter Canada; and (4) The applicant faces the death penalty. More details about these exceptions can be found here.

The most common exception is probably the family member exception; it may also be the exception that creates the most confusion, so let’s take a closer look. Under the STCA, the term “family member” is broadly defined, to include:

  • spouse
  • legal guardian
  • child
  • father and/or mother
  • sister and/or brother
  • grandfather and/or grandmother
  • grandchild
  • uncle and/or aunt
  • nephew and/or niece
  • common-law partner
  • same-sex spouse

You can see that Canada allows people to meet the family-based exception with a wide range of relatives. Cousins are not on the list, but virtually all other categories of relatives are.

In our office, we currently represent several people who left the U.S. to seek asylum in Canada, only to be turned back at the border. One client hired us in 2014, after he attempted to enter Canada from the U.S. He had qualifying Canadian relatives who were naturalized citizens of Canada. However, he had no documentation to prove the relationships, and so Canadian border officials rejected his request for entry and quickly returned him to the United States.

Unlike many people who filed for asylum in 2014, our client was lucky enough to get a prompt interview. However, like many applicants, his decision was delayed. Only recently—a year and a half after his first interview—he was called for a second asylum interview where he was questioned about his trip to Canada. Unfortunately, a well-meaning, but not-so-well-informed relative in Canada tried to help our client while he was in Canadian custody, and made some contradictory statements to Canadian officials. The Asylum Officer had the records from Canada, and asked our client about the relative’s statements. Our client explained the situation as well as he could, and we are still waiting for a final decision.

There are some lessons to be drawn from this client’s ordeal. First, going from the U.S. to Canada can do more harm than good. Even if you don’t have some well-intentioned relative meddling in your case, it takes time for the Asylum Office to get Canadian immigration records and review them. That means more delay (on top of already long delays), and no one wants that. Also, if you already tried to seek asylum in Canada and were rejected, tell your lawyer and try to remember any communication that you or your relatives had with the Canadian authorities—the Asylum Officer will likely have access to your records, so plan accordingly.

Another lesson is that, if you are seeking a family exception–through your uncle, for example–you should bring civil records (and translations) demonstrating that you and your uncle are related. Our client’s experience shows that Canadian border officials will not necessarily wait around for you to collect these documents once you reach Canada. You need to have the documents with you before your trip.

Finally, if you do plan to seek asylum in Canada, and you are in the U.S., you would be wise to consult with a Canadian immigration lawyer before traveling. Maybe you qualify for an exception to the STCA and maybe you don’t. A Canadian lawyer familiar with that country’s immigration laws should be able to advise you before you take on the risk and expense of going to Canada for asylum.

There are certain advantages to asylum in Canada, and some people who pass through the U.S. are eligible to seek refuge in that country. But unless you plan ahead for your trip, you may end up back in the United States and worse off than when you started.

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As Donald Trump marches (goose steps?) toward the Republican nomination, there’s been much hand wringing about the reasons for his rise. But if you listen to his supporters, there are a few themes that stand out.

Mr. Trump's real estate empire and his political campaign were both built using immigrants.

Mr. Trump’s real estate empire and his political campaign were both built using immigrants.

One big issue is immigration. Last June, Mr. Trump called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and he has advocated banning all Muslims from entering the United States. Indeed, for a time, the only issue on the Trump campaign website was immigration (or maybe more accurately, anti-immigration).

There are many explanations for why Mr. Trump’s xenophobia has resonated with his supporters: Fear of terrorists and criminals, economic and cultural concerns, racism and white supremacism. In a way, these are not new. For most of our country’s history, U.S. immigration policies have reflected such sentiments, and at various times, all sorts of people have been blocked from entering the United States.

Here, however, I am interested in a different question: Whether the work of immigration advocates to help asylum seekers has contributed to the climate that produced Donald Trump.

Now wait just one gosh-darned second here, you say. Isn’t this like blaming Jews for the Holocaust or blaming African Americans for the KKK? I think there’s a difference. Allow me to explain–

Over the last 20 or so years, we’ve seen a marked expansion in the types of people who qualify for asylum. Some of this was Congressionally sanctioned–protecting victims of forced abortion, for example–but mostly, it was the result of creative lawyers pushing the boundaries of the law to protect their clients. Litigation has resulted in protection for victims of female genital mutilation, domestic violence, and forced marriage. To a more limited extent, victims of criminal gangs can also qualify for protection (sometimes), and many talented attorneys are working hard to improve asylum-case outcomes for such people, whose lives often are at risk.

Until about 2012 or 2013, the effort to broaden the categories of protection was somewhat theoretical. More people were eligible, but the number of asylum seekers actually applying remained relatively stable. But then things changed.

Between 2009 and 2012, increasing numbers of people–mostly Central American–began arriving at the Southern border to seek asylum (in FY 2009, there were about 5,500 such asylum seekers; in FY 2012, there were over 13,600). Since 2013, the numbers have skyrocketed. The most recent data shows that well over 6,000 people per month are requesting asylum at the border.

Most of the Central American applicants don’t easily fit within the traditional protected categories of asylum. They are fleeing criminal gangs and domestic violence, but given the expanded range of people who can qualify for protection, they now have a realistic possibility of receiving asylum.

As the number of migrants from Central America was on the upswing, activists for the DREAM Act began seeking asylum in order to highlight their own plight (the DREAM Act, which has been stalled in Congress, would grant residency to certain undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children and who have lived their lives in the United States, but who currently have no lawful immigration status). The DREAM activists received a lot of attention in the media, and they demonstrated in a public way that asylum seekers could arrive at the Southern border, request protection, and be paroled into the country to pursue their cases.

It seems likely that these two events–changes in the law wrought by litigation and wide-spread publicity about asylum seekers gaining entry into the U.S. at the border–helped lead to the current spike in migration. This is not to say that people coming here for asylum are not also fleeing severe violence in their home countries–they are: Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are three of the most dangerous places on Earth. But when you look at data about violent crime in those countries, there is little evidence correlating increased violence with increased migration. In other words, these countries had previously been very violent; something else seems to have spurred the current wave of migration. Quite possibly, that “something else” includes an improved legal climate and publicity about asylum.

Added to all this is the Obama Administration’s decision to allow an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees to resettle in the U.S. at a time when fear of terrorism seems to be at an all-time high. This decision was not made in consultation with Congress; the President has the power to make such a decision and he did. A slew of Republicans weighed in against the move.

We now return to Donald Trump.

The idea that “liberal elites” are making decisions to encourage more immigration, and that ordinary Americans (i.e., Trump supporters) have no say in these decisions, fits neatly into Mr. Trump’s narrative. This world view is not unrelated to reality. Indeed, as we’ve seen, recent changes related to asylum and refugee policies likely have brought more immigrants to the United States, and these changes were not reached by consensus, or even by a democratic process. Rather, they were achieved through litigation and civil disobedience, or via executive action–all methods of choice for the “liberal elite.”

Should we–the liberal elite–have done things differently? I’m not sure, but I certainly won’t apologize for the work of advocates and activists to represent our clients and to expand the law. That is our job and our duty. The President’s decision to bring more Syrian refugees here was also the right choice, and–to me at least–represents a fairly tepid response to a massive crisis.

But obviously there is a problem. Many people feel left out of the decision-making process, and that is wrong. Immigration profoundly affects who we are as a country, and Americans–all Americans–have a right to participate in the policy debate on that topic. In taking action to protect our clients and save lives, we “elites” have, to a certain extent, trampled over the democratic process.

Perhaps this is all dust in the wind: People who support xenophobes like Mr. Trump aren’t likely to have their minds changed by refugee sob stories or even by evidence that immigration actually helps the country. The sad state of our national discourse has prevented the type of rational policy debate that we need to move towards a broader consensus. Against mounting evidence, the optimist in me still believes that democracy works. I’d like to see a little more of it in our national conversation about immigration.

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Ali Anisi Tehrani is an asylee from Iran. He raised some of these issue in a conversation we had one day over lunch, and I asked whether he might put his thoughts into a blog post. He was kind enough to do so–

“I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people,” Senator Sanders says. He’s not alone. Many Americans envy the Nordic countries, with their affordable education, health care for all, and subsidized child care.

Feeling the Spurn? Ali Tehrani worries about social democracy and immigrants.

Feeling the Spurn? Ali Tehrani worries about social democracy and immigrants.

While these countries are wonderful places to visit, as a political refugee who has spent time in Sweden, I fear that maybe this Nordic Valhalla would not be so heavenly for immigrants after all. Whatever it means for politicians like Bernie Sanders and his supporters, my experience tells me that in the long run, the Scandinavian model would be a disaster for immigrants and for people who plan to immigrate to the United States.

I have spent almost equal time in Sweden and the U.S. I enjoyed Swedish collective generosity and I studied there for free. The Swedes were even kind enough to send me to the U.S. as an exchange student with full medical insurance! An immigrant friend of mine had three surgeries there and spent weeks in hospitals. He paid very little. In fact, everyone in Sweden has health care and the deductible for medical expenses and medicine was only about $100. In a way, everything was perfect!

So what the heck am I doing in Washington, DC? Why did I leave the Nordic utopia and move to a country with no social benefits (even after receiving asylum, I was not eligible for short-term medical insurance in Virginia because I earned more than $150 per month)? Perhaps things in Sweden are not as they seem.

I lived in a small town in Sweden, not super immigrant-friendly. Everyone was nice and polite, and I never had any encounter that could be called explicitly racist or hateful. But I always had the sense that I was unwelcome. That I was a sort-of black sheep (or perhaps a brown one). I can’t say I would feel any different if I were in their shoes: Why should I work in order to pay for some foreigner’s education and benefits? Maybe as a result of this sentiment, the law in Sweden changed in 2011, and free education for foreign students was abolished.

The current situation in Sweden (and across Europe) is now quite disturbing. We are in the midst of the worst human catastrophe since World War II, and Sweden plans to reject up to 80,000 people who applied for asylum in the country last year; as many as half will be forced to leave against their will. Denmark, Sweden’s neighbor to the south, recently passed laws allowing the authorities to seize any assets exceeding $1,450 from asylum-seekers in order to help pay for the migrants’ subsistence (items of “sentimental value,” such as wedding rings, are exempt).

Many Swedes, even people who knew me personally and knew that I could not return to my native Iran, had a naive and sincere question: “So… when do you go back?” I never took it personally because I knew they did not ask me to be mean; they asked because they were really interested in the answer. During my three years in the U.S., no one has asked me this question. Literally, not one person! I have been welcomed here by many people; I don’t recall being welcomed in Sweden in this way. Maybe it’s just a lucky coincidence. Maybe.

If we take a look at some numbers, we might see one reason why immigrants are (or are not) wanted.

In 2014, the unemployment rate for native-born Swedes was about 5.1%; the foreign-born unemployment rate was 15.5%. It was about the same in Denmark: 5.4% for native-born Danes and almost 12% for immigrants. In Finland, the unemployment rates were 7.5% and 16.3% for native and non-native born people. That makes sense: Foreign-born workers may not know the language or culture, they have limited networks, and they may not have the education or skills required to succeed.

There’s a different story in the U.S. In 2014, there were 25.7 million foreign-born people in the labor force, comprising 16.5% of all workers. The unemployment rate for foreign-born persons in the United States was 5.6%, while the jobless rate for native-born Americans was 6.3%. What!? The unemployment rate for foreigners is lower than for native-born citizens? How can this be?

To me, the difference is that no one in the United States sees me as an extra person taking their social welfare benefits. Instead, they see me as another taxpayer pulling my own weight. There is opportunity here that does not exist in other countries. Of course, social and cultural norms are different in homogeneous societies like Sweden and Denmark, but I still believe that the most influential factor explaining how immigrants in different societies are treated is economic. Because of this, I worry that a Bernie Sander-style social democracy might make life in the United States more difficult, and less welcoming, for foreign-born residents like me.

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Among lawyers, there’s a certain skittishness when it comes to discussing fees. Speaking for myself, I don’t much care for the money-side of the business. We’re not trained to deal with client payments in law school, and the guidance we receive afterwards—from the bar association, for example—is related more to complying with lawyer-trust-account rules than to determining how much to charge.

If the lawyer spends more time counting your money than working on your case, you probably paid too much.

If the lawyer spends more time counting your money than working on your case, you probably paid too much.

In the field of asylum law, attorney fees vary widely. Within my little community, for an affirmative asylum case, I’ve heard about lawyers charging anywhere from $900 to $10,000 (or more). For defensive asylum cases (in court), prices are usually higher. Sometimes these fees are flat fees, meaning you pay a set fee for the entire case. Other times, fees are hourly, meaning you pay for the lawyer’s time–the more time the lawyer spends on your case, the more you pay.

In my office, we charge a flat fee of $3,000 for most affirmative cases, which is fairly competitive with those few attorneys in Washington, DC whose main practice area is asylum. Our fee for defensive cases is usually $4,000. What’s ironic here is that lawyers who do not specialize in asylum—and who consequently have less experience in this area of practice—are actually able to charge more for each case (I remember telling one such lawyer about my fee and she burst out laughing; I took that as a sign that I should raise my rates – maybe one day). In our firm, the bread-and-butter cases are asylum, and so we need to do a lot of such cases. Thus, we have to keep the prices down. If our main practice area was business immigration, for example, we could charge more for each asylum case, since we would not need to do a large number of such cases to make a living.

So how do you know what is a fair fee for an asylum case? And what exactly do you get in exchange for giving money to an attorney?

The first question is difficult to answer. Hiring an attorney is not like buying a new car. Whether you buy the car from one dealership or another, it’s the same car. With a lawyer, you are paying for his work. Some lawyers are brilliant, honest, and hard working; others are poorly trained, lazy, and dishonest. Paying more money for a lawyer does not mean that you are hiring a better advocate. In fact, I find that there is little relationship between the amount of the fee and the quality of the service. Indeed, lawyers who charge higher fees for asylum are sometimes more interested in earning money than in helping their clients.

I suppose the first thing you’d have to know in deciding whether an attorney’s fee is fair is the quality of the service she provides. There are certain things a good attorney should do. For example, a good attorney will listen to your story and try to evaluate the strengths and weakness of your case; she won’t sugarcoat the case in an effort to get your business. A good attorney will make sure you understand the asylum process, the problem of delay, and the possible results in your case. She should also explore any alternatives to asylum that might be available to you. A good attorney will help you put together your case, write your affidavit with you, and advise you about what supporting evidence you should obtain. This point is crucial: The affidavit (or declaration) is the heart of your case, and an asylum applicant may not know what information is legally relevant to include in that document. If the attorney does not spend significant time helping you prepare the affidavit, she is not doing her job. Without a properly prepared affidavit, the odds of success go way down.

Also, a good attorney should prepare you for your interview by discussing possible questions and answers, and by helping you think through answers to problematic portions of your story. A good attorney should be relatively easy to reach; if you call and leave a message, she should call you back (pet peeve alert: If you call and don’t leave a message–like some of my clients–the attorney likely will not call you back, as she won’t know that you’ve called her – so leave a message!). If your lawyer is not providing these services, she is not doing her job, and whether her price is a lot or a little, it is too high.

A final point, and this is key: A good attorney will never encourage you to lie or agree to represent you if you tell him that you want to lie to the U.S. government. Any attorney who does that is untrustworthy and dangerous. If they are willing to lie to the government, you can bet that they will lie to you.

If your attorney is providing all the essential services, if you feel comfortable with the attorney, and if you can afford the fee, whatever it is, you are probably getting a fair deal. Maybe that is a cop-out answer, but as I’ve said, it is quite difficult to place a monetary value on a lawyer’s services.

I truly believe that there is little relationship between price and quality among asylum lawyers. If you find an attorney that you like, but his price is too high, then look for another attorney who is more affordable. Good, reasonably-priced lawyers are out there. But remember too that these cases are a lot of work. Most asylum lawyers who are dedicated to the field don’t expect to get rich, but we do need to make a living. And you do need to pay a fair price for their work. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to earn the big money… or not.

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If you want to maximize your chances for winning asylum, where is the best place in the U.S. to apply?

It’s unfortunate that we even need to ask this question. In a perfect world, the approval rates for each Asylum Office would be about the same. But in the real world, approval rates vary–by quite a lot, it turns out.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics: Which are these?

Lies, damned lies, and statistics: Which are these?

Our team of mathematicians here at the Asylumist have been working hard to analyze the most recent data from the Asylum Office, and we’ve summarized our findings in the attached chart. You can see that the approval rate for the San Francisco office (76.5%) is significantly higher than for the other Asylum Offices. The next best offices are Arlington (51.8%) and Los Angeles (50.7%), followed by Chicago (38.3%), Miami (37.7%), and Newark (35.8%). The worst offices are Houston (27.6%) and New York (22.6%).

First, a word about methodology: We used monthly statistical information from the Asylum Division Quarterly Stakeholder Meeting to calculate the percentages. USCIS posts this information four times per year, and you can see the latest posting here. We looked at the numbers from the most recently available six month period: April to September 2015. To determine the approval rate, we removed from the mix (technically, from the denominator) asylum denials based on no-shows–in other words, where the applicant herself never attended the interview.

Just for fun, we added another column listing the length of delay before the interview at each office (as of February 2016 – one day, I will do an article about why the posted wait times are not good predictors of how long a new asylum applicant will wait for an interview). You can see that the Asylum Offices with the lowest grant rates (New York and Houston) also currently have the shortest waits for an interview (20 months and 21 months respectively). Perhaps there is a connection between grant rates and waiting periods, but I doubt it–the office with the highest grant rate (San Francisco) has the third shortest waiting time (25 months).

Based on the above analysis, the savvy asylum seeker might conclude that the best way to maximize his chance for a grant is to live within the jurisdiction of the San Francisco Asylum Office, or as a second choice, the Arlington, Virginia or Los Angeles Asylum Offices (to see which Asylum Office has jurisdiction over your case, check the Asylum Office Locator). But I think such a conclusion assumes too much. I also think there are other factors worth considering besides grant rates and wait times. Let me explain.

First, it’s difficult to know what’s behind the above numbers and how applicable they are to an individual case. Who is seeking asylum at each office? From which countries and for what reasons? Are applicants more likely to be represented by a lawyer (which increases the likelihood of a grant) at certain offices? Some types of cases are more difficult to win than others, and this might be reflected in the statistics. For example, supposedly the Houston office has a higher percentage of applicants fleeing persecution from criminal gangs in Central America. In general, such cases are difficult to win since applicants don’t easily fit into a protected category under the asylum law. If we could eliminate Central American cases from the mix, perhaps the Houston office would have a higher grant rate. So does this mean that if you have a different type of asylum case (say, an Iraqi fleeing religious persecution), Houston might not be a bad place to apply? Maybe. At least it probably is not as bad as the overall approval rate suggests.

Second, while USCIS provides limited information about why cases are denied, they do give us some information–most importantly, they provide the number of cases denied due to missed filing deadlines (asylum applicants are required to submit their applications within one year of arrival in the U.S. or meet an exception to this rule; otherwise, the Asylum Office will automatically deny the case and refer it to an Immigration Judge). For some reason, the New York office has a high percentage of “Filing Deadline Referrals.” Roughly 35% of all referrals in NY are due to the filing deadline. In most other offices, less than 20% of cases are referred on this basis. If you remove such cases from the calculus, the overall grant rate in NY goes from 22% to over 30%. So does this mean that more people are filing late in New York, or does it mean that New York is less likely to find an exception to the one-year filing requirement? While I suspect it’s the latter, we really don’t know. But if you are filing your application in a timely manner, the New York office may not be as bad as the chart above indicates.

The bottom line is, we don’t know a whole lot about what’s behind the Asylum Division’s statistics, and without a better understanding of the situation, it is difficult to make predictions in an individual case.

There’s another unknown factor at play here as well: These cases are taking a long time, and given the relatively short tenure of each asylum officer (two or three years, I’ve heard), the approval rate at a given office may change by the time the interview date arrives. So a good office today may be less good tomorrow (or vice versa).

Finally–and for me, this is the best argument against forum shopping–given the years-long waiting period before the interview, asylum seekers have got to live their lives. I often advise new clients that they should live as though they are going to win their cases. Why? Because it’s impossible not to–how can you put your entire life on hold for two, three or more years while you wait for an asylum decision? In some things (reunification with family, certain job opportunities), you may have no choice, but to the extent possible, you need to live your life while you are waiting for a decision. This means you need to live where you have a job or go to school, or where you have the support of family members and friends. If you choose where to live based on the local Asylum Office approval rate, you may have a hard time surviving the wait.

On the other hand, if all else is equal (or maybe if you just have a hankerin’ for some Rice-A-Roni), San Francisco is probably not a bad place to apply.

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When Lawyers Lie

by Jason Dzubow on February 17, 2016

in Immigration, Immigration Court

The case of Detroit-area immigration lawyer David Wenger has been in the news lately. Mr. Wenger was recently sentenced to 18 months in prison for counseling his client to lie to the Immigration Court.

"I didn't do it!" Why lie about something that you can't get away with?

“I didn’t do it!” Why lie about something that you can’t get away with?

Mr. Wenger’s client is a 45-year-old Albanian citizen who has lived in the U.S. since he was six months old. The client’s family, including his daughter, live in the United States as well. Apparently, the client landed in removal proceedings due to a 2013 controlled-substance conviction, but the source of Mr. Wenger’s troubles stem from the client’s decades-old conviction for criminal sexual misconduct.

It seems that Mr. Wenger feared that if the Immigration Judge became aware of the sexual misconduct conviction, the client would have been deported. Having witnessed the tragedy of deportation many times, and particularly the pain it causes to the children of the deported, Mr. Wenger took matters into his own hands and tried to cover up the old conviction. It didn’t work.

Now, Mr. Wenger is going to jail and the client–while still in the United States–faces an uncertain future.

Mr. Wenger’s tale has caused some buzz among my fellow immigration lawyers. Mostly, it is described as “sad,” and certainly there is an undercurrent of sympathy for a man whose advocacy crossed a line that we, as lawyers, are trained to approach. I’ve known criminal defense lawyers, for example, who say that if you don’t go to jail for contempt once in a while, you’re not doing your job. And certainly there is an element of truth to this: When you are advocating for an individual against The Man, you have to use all the tools at your disposal and push the limits of the law to protect your client. That is our job–and our duty–as lawyers. But such zealous advocacy has inherent risks, as Mr. Wenger’s story reminds us.

So I suppose I understand Mr. Wenger’s motivation to lie. But I do not understand how he thought he might get away with it in this particular case. The U.S. government keeps records of criminal convictions, and the DHS attorney in the case would likely have known about the old conviction. So even if you are not morally opposed to lying, I don’t see the point of lying about something that the government knows already.

The temptations faced by Mr. Wenger are amplified in my practice area–asylum–where the U.S. government rarely has independent evidence about the problems faced by asylum seekers overseas, and significant portions of most such cases depend on the client’s own testimony. I’ve encountered this myself a few times when clients have asked me to help them lie (“Would my case be stronger if I said X?”). How to handle such a request?

The easy answer, I suppose, is to tell the client to take a hike. That is not my approach. I am sympathetic to people fleeing persecution who do not understand the asylum system, and who think that lying is the only way to find safety (and who often come from places where lying to the government is necessary for survival). In many cases, such people need to be educated about the U.S. asylum system. When a client asks me to lie, I explain that as an attorney, I cannot misrepresent the truth. I also explain why lying will likely not help achieve the client’s goal, and how we can present the actual case in a way that will succeed. Hopefully this is enough to convince the client to tell the truth.

For individual clients, of course, this type of honesty sometimes has its drawbacks: Cases may be lost, people may be deported–possibly to their deaths, and families will be separated. Some lawyers find this price too high. If you believe your client will be deported to his death and you can save him by lying, perhaps the lie is justified. Mr. Wegner, no doubt, felt that he was doing the right thing for his Albanian client (though a review of Mr. Wegner’s disciplinary record reveals that he has not always served the best interests of his clients). And there are certainly attorneys who believe that the ends justify the means. But I am not one of them.

When all is said and done, I will not lie for a client. I don’t think it is effective, and even if we get away with it in one case, I fear that it would hurt my credibility as a lawyer–and thus my ability to be an effective advocate–in all my other cases. I also feel that it damages the system, which hurts honest applicants.

In the final analysis, even if we ignore his other disciplinary issues, it is difficult for me to feel too sorry for Mr. Wegner. While a lawyer’s zealous representation of his client is admirable, the willingness to cheat corrodes our immigration system and ultimately harms the very people that lawyers like Mr. Wegner purport to help. For me, even the argument that lying is a necessary form of civil disobedience in an unjust system falls flat. Civil disobedience is about sitting at the lunch counter; not stealing the food.

Despite all the imperfections of the immigration system, our primary job as lawyers is to work within that system to assist our clients. We also have a role to play in criticizing and improving the system. But when lawyers lie, we fail as both advocates and as reformers.

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Nayla Rush, a Senior Researcher at the anti-immigration Center for Immigration Studies, has apparently been spying on the USCIS Asylum Division – and lying about what she has overheard.

I couldn't find a photo of Nayla Rush infiltrating the asylum meeting, but I assume it would look something like this.

I couldn’t find a photo of Nayla Rush infiltrating the asylum meeting, but I assume it would look something like this.

First, a bit of background: As you may know, the Center for Immigration Studies or CIS (not to be confused with USCIS – the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) is a group that wants to restrict immigration to the United States. Their writers are usually intellectually honest, though not always. I often disagree with their policy positions, and I have written about them a few times (here, here, and here). They also occasionally write about me.

Last week, I visited the CIS website and discovered Nayla Rush’s post about attending the USCIS Asylum Division Quarterly Stakeholder Meeting on December 11, 2015. The meeting was for “Stakeholders” in the asylum system: Advocacy groups, lawyers, even–I suppose–people who want to restrict the asylum process. But the meeting is specifically not for the media. The invitation reads, “Note to media: This engagement is not for press purposes. Please contact USCIS Press Office… for any media inquiries.”

It just so happens that I also attended the meeting in question, which was led by the Asylum Division Director, John Lafferty. About 50 people were present, including USCIS staff, private lawyers (like me), and representatives of various organizations involved with asylum law.

During the first part of the meeting, each person introduced himself and stated the name of his organization. If Ms. Rush introduced herself, I do not remember. But certainly she did not reveal that she was representing CIS – everyone there knows the anti-immigration group and her presence at the meeting would have raised some eyebrows.

Ms. Rush also did not reveal that she was attending in her capacity as a journalist. Perhaps she hoped to discover some dirt or some secret conspiracy between USCIS and asylum advocates. Maybe she covertly recorded the meeting, Planned Parenthood-style, with the hope of exposing something nefarious. Apparently, she did not find anything too damning, but fear not–in the absence of evidence, you can always make stuff up.

From the meeting, Ms. Rush claims to have learned that “Officers interview asylum seekers by phone in 60 percent of the cases (except for families who are already in detention centers).” In her piece, “Most Asylum Applicants Are Interviewed by Telephone. Feel Safer?“, Ms. Rush notes that it’s hard enough to assess an applicant’s credibility, but if the officers cannot even look the applicant in the eye, fraudulent asylum seekers–including potentially dangerous people–can scam their way through the system. “Call me skeptical,” she writes, “but I don’t see how this subjective assessment [of asylum seeker credibility] can be obtained through a telephone conversation.”

So the premise of Ms. Rush’s article is that 60% of asylum seekers are interviewed by phone. If this were true, it would be cause for concern. However, the actual number of asylum seekers interviewed by phone is more like 0%. That’s zero. Zilch. Nada. None. In fact, every asylum applicant interviews in-person, face-to-face, with an Asylum Officer. So what is Ms. Rush talking about?

My best guess is that she has confused (or deliberately conflated) asylum interviews and credible fear interviews (“CFI”). The purpose of an asylum interview is to determine whether an applicant may be granted asylum, and thus the legal ability to remain permanently in the U.S. The purpose of a CFI is to determine whether an applicant presents a prima facia case for asylum. If the applicant meets this minimal standard, she will then be sent to an Immigration Judge (or in the case of a minor, an Asylum Officer) to determine whether asylum should be granted. If the applicant fails the credible fear interview, she will be deported. Many credible fear applicants are interviewed by phone, but since this is only an initial evaluation of the case, and since the only purpose is to assess whether the person has articulated a fear of return to her country, credibility is not really a consideration. If the person “passes” the CFI and then presents her asylum case, she will have an in-person interview (or a trial) where credibility is carefully considered.

From all this, it seems that Ms. Rush is either so unfamiliar with the asylum process that she confused two basic concepts (asylum and CFI), or she understands the asylum process and she is a big liar. My guess is that it’s the latter. Why? Because the article is not the only instance of Ms. Rush’s dishonesty when it comes to refugees.

Take, for example, Ms. Rush’s recent report on the UN’s Role in U.S. Refugee Resettlement, where she claims that the “United States is entrusting the staff of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) with the entire selection and pre-screening process of Syrian refugees eligible for resettlement in the United States” (the emphasis is mine). The implication is that the UN determines who comes to the U.S. as a refugee. This is completely false. The UN refers refugees to the U.S. government, which then independently screens them and performs background checks (I’ve written about this process here). Ms. Rush’s fear-mongering and dishonesty about Syrian refugees suggests that her motivation is to score political points, regardless of the facts.

Frankly, I am not particularly bothered by Ms. Rush attending the Asylum Division meeting under false pretenses and then writing about it. I happen to believe (like her, I think) that the system should be more transparent. What bothers me is that she would attend the meeting and then deliberately distort what she heard.

As I have written before, there are legitimate arguments for limiting the number of refugees and asylum seekers we admit into the United States. We as a country should be discussing these issues, and organizations like CIS have an important role to play in that conversation. But when CIS distorts the facts in order to advance its argument, it impoverishes the debate and damages its own credibility. Hopefully, in the future, CIS and Ms. Rush will be more responsible and more honest as we continue to discuss this important topic.

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It’s rare these days that I actually have good news to report from the Asylum Office, but recently there have been a few small improvements that are worth noting. These are not earth-shattering changes, to be sure, so don’t get too excited, but they do represent movement in the right direction.

There are plenty of things you can do without an EAD.

There are plenty of things you can do without an EAD.

First, as you may know, there are now long delays applying for and renewing the Employment Authorization Document (“EAD”) – the work permit. As the law now stands, you  must wait 150 days after filing the asylum application before you can apply for an EAD. During this period, it is often impossible to get a driver’s license or a job, or to attend school, so the sooner the EAD arrives, the better.

We used to see clients get the EAD in a month or two after filing, but recently, it is more like four months. Combined with the 150-day waiting period, this means that asylum applicants are waiting about nine months from the time they file for asylum until the time they receive their EAD. That’s a long time to be without the ability to get a driver’s license or a job, and it is one of the hardest parts of the application process.

After the EAD is received, it must be renewed every year. The earliest a renewal can be submitted is 120 days before the current EAD expires. But the renewals also take about four months, so even if you remember to file the renewal at the earliest possible date, you may end up with a gap between the old work permit and the new. This could cause you to lose your driver’s license or your job, and it is quite stressful for many people.

Fortunately, there is some relief in sight. Under new proposed rules, USCIS would automatically extend the EAD at the time the application for renewal is filed. In other words, when you submit the form I-765 to renew your EAD, you will receive a receipt after a few weeks, and this receipt will automatically extend the validity of your existing EAD. This rule also applies to EAD applications for refugees and asylees (people granted asylum), and a few others.

The rule has not gone into effect yet, and I am not 100% sure it is a done deal (though I do not see why they would change their mind). Perhaps if you are an asylum seeker who would like to see this rule implemented, you can tell USCIS about the hardship you’ve experienced due to EAD delays. Anyone is allowed to comment on the new rule by emailing [email protected] If you email them your story, you need to include the reference number of the rule in the subject line of your email, as follows: “DHS Docket No. USCIS-2015-0008”.

Perhaps coincidentally, I made this exact proposal for EADs a few months back. I presume that USCIS listened to me and they will be sending me a fruit basket to thank me for the good idea. Maybe they missed the other part of my proposal, where I suggested that EADs should remain valid for two years instead of one, but the automatic extension is a good start, and it will be a welcome relief for thousands of asylum seekers.

The second bit of good news is more minor, but it is still a positive development. It used to be that when submitting the asylum application (form I-589) and supporting documents, we were required to submit the original and two copies. The new rule is that we submit the original and one copy. OK, perhaps this is only something a true asylum geek can get excited about (and maybe “excited” is too strong a word), but it does save some money and some trees, so that is all good.

For me, these changes (particularly the change related to EADs) are a sign that USCIS recognizes the new reality created by the backlog: People are going to wait for a long time, and this is a hardship that needs to be addressed. If USCIS is willing to help out with EADs, I would hope that even more changes are coming. As I discussed previously, a few low-cost improvements might include prioritizing people separated from family members, making the Advance Parole process easier, and making the asylum application and waiting process more transparent. But that is a discussion for another day. For now, we can be happy that the burden on asylum seekers will be made a little lighter.

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Some observers believe that one of the root causes for the war in Syria is climate change. Starting in the first decade of the current century, drought and warmer temperatures in Syria pushed about 1.5 million people to move from their farms into cities. This more volatile atmosphere helped lead to war.

Aquapalypse Now: Rising sea levels may create millions of new refugees

Aquapalypse Now: Rising sea levels may create millions of new refugees

So one effect of climate change may be to increase competition for scarce resources. Increased competition = more wars = more refugees.

Another source of climate refugees is rising sea levels. As the water rises, certain areas and certain countries might become uninhabitable. People will have to be relocated. Many will be able to move within their own countries, but others will be forced to leave their homelands.

The potential for mass movements of people across national borders is very real, and some experts predict that the new flow of climate refugees will dwarf anything we’ve seen thus far. That’s a scary thought, and for those of us involved in refugee resettlement, it represents an existential challenge: If tens or hundreds of millions of people are on the move, how do we accommodate them?

And what about the current international legal regime? By definition, a refugee is a person who cannot return to his country owing to persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or particular social group. Many people fleeing Syria can meet this definition (some of our cases, for example, are shoe-horned in by presenting the claim as one based on imputed political opinion—even if they are not politically active, the Syrian government believes they are political opponents and that is enough for a grant). However, people who flee because their homes are flooded or because their crops have failed are not “refugees” as that term has been defined in international and U.S. domestic law. They are not being “persecuted” by anyone, except perhaps Mother Nature, but I don’t think that counts. So what do we do with them?

As we’ve seen with the exodus from the Middle East to Europe and, on a smaller scale, from Central America to the U.S., the mass movement of people creates many challenges—social, economic, political, and moral. There is also great resistance by many segments of the community to accepting large numbers of foreigners. If that is the case, what will become of the new climate refugees? Will they be confined to UN-supported camps in the countries of first arrival? Will they remain in such places indefinitely? What is the end game for people who can never return home? How will the world order be affected by millions of stateless refugees, who live without hope and who may become a destabilizing influence on the host countries?

Of course, I have no answers to any of these questions. Given the state of the problem today (over 59 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide, including about 19 million refugees) and the number of people who are annually resettled (about 626,000 were recognized as refugees or received some form of protection), I am not optimistic that we will accommodate millions more refugees in some dystopian (but probably not distant) future. One thing is true, if we see much larger numbers refugees in the world, we will have to deal with them in some way.

One solution is to close our doors and try to keep the problem as far away from home as possible. This is essentially the path favored by several main-steam restrictionists groups. Indeed, the Center for Immigration Studies (“CIS”) and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (“FAIR”) both originated from concerns about immigration and the environment. The leading founder of these groups, John Tanton, viewed the mass movement of people as a threat to the environment, and favored restricting immigration as a way to protect the environment. It also happens that he was a bit of a white supremacist, but I suppose that is not particularly relevant to the environmental argument.

As you might guess, I am not a fan of the environmental argument (or the white supremacist argument, for that matter). People who move from poor countries to rich ones probably use more resources in their new homes than if they’d stayed put, but they also have a better quality of life and they generally enrich the societies they move into (in 2014, for example, immigrants made up 12.9% of the U.S. population, but started 28.5% of new businesses). I am not sure how to balance this with the environmental impact, but when you add in the fact that many people are fleeing persecution or environmental disaster, the balance for me tips in favor of protecting people by allowing more migration.

That said, I’m also not convinced that the U.S. and Western Europe can or should absorb millions of new refugees. There is a limit to how many people we can resettle and still maintain our social cohesion. I am not sure what that limit is, though it seems clear that we can do more than we are doing now. But the West cannot do it alone–if we see mass migrations due to climate change, the task of assisting and resettling people will need to be distributed across the globe.

As a father and an uncle (and a person who is generally rooting for the human race), I hope that the world’s leaders will make genuine efforts to curb global warming. As someone concerned about refugees and migration, I hope that we will respond to climate refugees with compassion. Climate change is a great challenge to mankind. I hope that we can meet that challenge and retain our humanity.

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Asylum Seekers Gone Wild

by Jason Dzubow on January 13, 2016

in Asylum Seekers, International, National Security

Police officials in Cologne, German have received over 500 criminal complaints about attacks that occurred this past New Year’s Eve. Forty percent of the attacks involved a sexual offense, and a large majority of the victims were women. Most of the culprits “were said to have been of a North African or Middle Eastern appearance,” and so far, 22 of the 32 identified suspects are asylum seekers. Similar assaults were reported in other European countries.

Perhaps in this case, the solution is worse than the problem.

Perhaps in this case, the solution is worse than the problem.

Not surprisingly, those who oppose refugee resettlement have seized on the attacks to denounce Germany’s generous asylum policy. There were also several xenophobic assaults on refugees, supposedly in retaliation for the New Year’s Eve incidents.

The whole situation seems a bit strange to me: What exactly did these asylum seekers (and others) do? Why did this happen now? Have there been previous attacks that we have not heard about? What explains this behavior?

First, based on the reports I have seen, I am really not sure what happened. Was this Spring-Break type debauchery exaggerated by anti-refugee hysteria, or something much worse (there is at least one report of Syrian nationals raping two girls at a New Year’s Eve party, but the suspects are not asylum seekers and the incident seems unconnected to the other attacks)?

I must admit that I am of two minds about this question. On the one hand, if scores of young women are reporting sexual assaults, that is deadly serious and must be addressed forcefully. On the other hand, I am wary of the old trope where the swarthy foreigner violates the innocent white female. This same story has been used many times to justify violence against “the other.” For example, last year a young man entered an African-American church in South Carolina and murdered nine people, yelling at them: “You rape our women… You have to go!” Jews have long dealt with this issue in Europe, where for many centuries, we were “the other” (until Hitler eliminated that problem). In those days (and unfortunately still today in some places), Jews were accused of killing Christian babies in order to use their blood for ritual purposes. These “blood libels” were notorious lies, but they were used as an excuse to harm Jews. There’s a tragic/comic joke about the blood libels that I’ve always appreciated:

In a small village in the Ukraine, a terrifying rumor was spreading: A Christian girl had been found murdered. Realizing the dire consequences of such an event, and fearing a pogrom [a murderous anti-Jewish riot], the Jewish community gathered in the synagogue to plan whatever defensive actions were possible under the circumstances. Just as the emergency meeting was being called to order, in ran the president of the synagogue, out of breath and all excited. “Brothers!” he cried, “I have wonderful news! The murdered girl is Jewish!”

You get the point. Obviously, this does not mean that the attacks in Cologne did not happen the way they have been portrayed, but it does urge us to be cautious in drawing conclusions, especially since there is so little publicly-available detail about those attacks.

Assuming that the initial reports are correct and the attackers are asylum seekers, what is going on here? Maybe one explanation is that the asylum seekers in question are young men from sexually repressive countries who have been living in instability for many months. Now that they are in safe, open societies, where men and women mix freely, they cannot handle the adjustment. Not to let them off the hook—if they are guilty of assault or other crimes, they should be punished—but when refugees behave badly, there are often underlying pathologies that need to be examined. Maybe it is too late for these particular refugees (who might be deported), but at least this highlights an issue that can be addressed for other asylum seekers with similar backgrounds.

Another explanation–the one favored by opponents of refugee resettlement–is that asylum seekers are a danger to the receiving communities, and that their values are incompatible with Western society. The New Year’s Eve attacks, under this theory, are just one iteration of the problem. I think this view is incorrect. Refugees are not perfect, but the evidence suggests that they are no more likely to commit crimes than anyone else.

But of course, many refugees are damaged people who have suffered trauma. They come from societies that are much more repressive and conservative than those in the West. While these factors may help explain criminal behavior among refugees, in my opinion, they do not in any way excuse it. Nevertheless, we need to keep this in mind when considering refugee resettlement. We need to help refugees deal with their trauma. We also need to help them understand and integrate into their new communities. This is easier said than done, especially in a situation like Germany’s, where tens of thousands of people are arriving each month.

In the U.S., our refugee numbers are much lower, and we are more able to help people adjust to their new lives. As a result, the overall crime rate for non-citizens seems to be the same as, or lower than that for native-born Americans. Vetting refugees and helping them integrate is the best way to protect ourselves, while at the same time meeting our humanitarian obligations and ideals.

The doors to Europe appear to be closing, and the New Year’s Eve attacks will only make things more difficult for all refugees. My hope is that we in the West will learn from this experience. Receiving countries should step up their efforts to recognize and pro-actively address the psycho-social needs of refugees, so that they will better acculturate to their new homes. This, to me, is the best way forward for everyone.

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“If I am granted asylum, can I return to my home country?” I hear this question a lot.

The skeptic would argue that no legitimate asylum seeker should ever return home. Indeed, they might argue, asylum is reserved for people who cannot return due to the danger of persecution, and anyone willing to go back did not need asylum in the first place. I think this is wrong.

Your mother's bunt cake is probably not a compelling reason to return home (tempting though it may be).

Your mother’s bunt cake is probably not a compelling reason to return home (tempting though it may be).

Many of my clients face long-term threats in their countries. For instance, I have clients from Afghanistan who have been threatened by the Taliban. These clients could return briefly to Afghanistan and remain relatively safe. However, to live there for any length of time would be extremely dangerous. Even where the threat comes from the government itself, clients can sometimes safely visit home for short periods of time. I’ve had Ethiopian clients who were wanted by their government, but who were able to return for a few weeks before the government realized that they were in the country. Ethiopia—like many developing countries—is not as adept at tracking people as the United States, and so it is possible to keep a low profile and avoid trouble, at least for a time.

And of course, there are valid reasons to return home. Most of my clients have left family members behind. Others have businesses or properties. Still others are political activists who wish to return home to promote democracy and human rights. There are all sorts of reasons people want to go to their home countries—when balanced against the danger, some reasons are better than others (and some people are more willing than others to take risks).

But what are the legal implications of a return trip for people with asylum? And does the calculus change if the person has a green card or is a U.S. citizen?

For an asylee (a person granted asylum), the U.S. government can terminate asylum status if it determines that the person has “voluntarily availed himself or herself of the protection of the country of nationality or last habitual residence by returning to such country.” This means that asylum can be terminated if the person placed herself under the protection of her home government by returning to her country (or even by using the passport from her home country to travel to a third country). USCIS can also terminate asylum status if it determines that the person is no longer a refugee (for example, if country conditions have changed and it is now safe to return home) or if it determines that asylum was obtained fraudulently (there are other reasons for terminating asylum, as well). A return trip to the home country could trigger one (or more) of these bases for termination.

Even with a green card, USCIS can terminate asylum for the reasons listed above.

If you don’t run into trouble when you return to the U.S. from your trip, you could have problems at the time you file for your citizenship. When you complete the naturalization form (the N-400), you need to list all the countries you visited, and so the government will know whether you went home (and if you omit your travels from the form, you run the risk that the government will know about them from its own sources).

For U.S. citizens who originally obtained their status based on asylum, the risk of a return trip is much less—but it is not zero. If the return trip causes the U.S. government to believe that asylum was obtained fraudulently, it could institute de-naturalization proceedings. I have heard of the U.S. government de-naturalizing citizens based on fraud, so it can happen, but all the case I know about involved aggravating factors, like criminal convictions or human rights abuses. Nevertheless, if USCIS knows about a fraud, it certainly could take action.

So how do you protect yourself if you have to travel back to your home country?

First, it is worthwhile to consult an attorney before you go. Don’t go unless there is a very important reason for the trip. Also, keep the trip as short as possible. The less time you are in your country, the better. In addition, you should collect and save evidence about the return trip. If you went to visit a sick relative, get a letter from the doctor. If you returned home for only a short time, keep evidence about the length of your trip—passport stamps and plane tickets, for example. If you hid in your house and never went out, get some letters from family members who can attest to this. In other words, try to obtain evidence that you did not re-avail yourself of the protection of your home government and that you had a compelling reason to return home. That way, if USCIS ever asks for such evidence, you will be ready.

The safest course of action is to never return home after a grant of asylum. However, in life, this is not always possible. If you do have to go back, you should consult a lawyer and take steps to minimize the likelihood that your trip will impact your immigration status in the U.S.

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Some Good News from Asylum-Land

by Jason Dzubow on December 29, 2015

in Asylees and Refugees, Asylum Seekers

For those of us involved with refugees, 2015 was not a great year. Never-ending turmoil in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan have resulted in unprecedented numbers of people fleeing their homelands. The flow of asylum seekers arriving at the Southern border of the U.S. from Central American and Mexico has not let up. Our Asylum Offices and Immigration Courts are increasingly backlogged, and it’s reached a point where the basic integrity of our humanitarian systems seem in jeopardy.

If you're on a sinking ship, you should celebrate when you can.

If you’re on a sinking ship, you should celebrate when you can.

Sometimes I think that in order to continue working in this field, you have to be either freakishly optimistic or pathologically disassociated from reality. I’m not sure I fall into either category, yet I’m somehow still in the game.

In any event, one thing that helps is to remind ourselves of our successes. In that vein, I thought I’d look back at a few pieces of good news we’ve had in my office during the past year:

Particular Social Group (Sexual Orientation)/Rwanda – I’ve always had an interest in folklore and magic, and so when there is crossover with an asylum case, it peaks my interest. This year I worked on the case of a young gay man from Rwanda, who was kidnapped by his family members and subjected to a bizarre and terrifying exorcism ritual. Rwanda is not a safe place for LGBT people in the best cases, and when your family is out to get you, it’s even worse. The asylum office recognized that my client suffered past persecution and granted him asylum.

Political Opinion/Haiti – My client was a political activist who had worked closely with Paul Farmer, a world-renown physician who founded Partners in Health and who is the subject of an award-winning biography, Mountains Beyond Mountains. Dr. Farmer wrote a two-page single-spaced letter describing my client’s persecution. I figured that the letter–and a ton of other evidence, including photos with the former president of Haiti–would have been enough for a grant at the Asylum Office. But unfortunately, our Asylum Officer failed to question my client about his past persecution, and when we asked whether the client should discuss it, she told us that it was not necessary, as she read about it in the written statement. She then denied the case because we failed to demonstrate past persecution. Needless to say, I was not pleased. But earlier this year, we went to court where the DHS Trial Attorney did not understand why the case had been referred to the Immigration Judge. She and the Judge agreed that my client should get asylum, which he did. The court hearing took all of three minutes.

Refugee Waiver/Cameroon – My client had come to the U.S. and received asylum due to political persecution in Cameroon. Unfortunately, he fell in with the wrong crowd and got involved in a fraudulent check cashing scheme. As a result, he went to jail for two years and was then put into ICE custody for deportation. Fortunately for my client, there is a waiver available for refugees under INA § 209(c), which is very effective (a waiver is a legal mechanism for requesting forgiveness from the U.S. government in order to avoid deportation). The Immigration Judge granted relief, and after almost three year in detention, my client walked free that afternoon.

Political Opinion/Nepal – My client had been a local activist with his political party. As a result, Maoists guerrillas attacked him in his home and sent him to the hospital. He came to the U.S., but did not seek asylum within one year (as is required). After having spent half-a-dozen years in the U.S., the Maoists resurfaced and threatened his wife. We applied for asylum and claimed that the new threat constituted “changed circumstances,” which is an exception to the one-year filing rule. Luckily for us, the Trial Attorney agreed that my client was entitled to an exception and asylum was granted.

Imputed Political Opinion/Syria – My client was affiliated with a man who the Syrian government deemed an enemy, and this was enough to cause him to fear return to his country. The problem was, he had to leave his wife and young child in a Gulf country because they could not get visas to the United States. After a long ordeal (thanks to the backlog) during which the child could not attend school or get medical treatment (thanks to the inhumane policies of the Gulf countries), we were finally able to get his case expedited. He was granted asylum and–after three years–he finally reunited with his family earlier this month.

Particular Social Group (Family)/El Salvador – My client was a young girl whose mother had testified against her former boyfriend, a member of the MS-13 gang. The ex-boyfriend and other gang members had been threatening the mother and my client from jail. My client’s family feared that she would be harmed once the ex-boyfriend was free, and so they sent her North. Because she was a minor, the Asylum Office (rather than the court) had jurisdiction over her case, and she was granted asylum. Now we’re waiting for her mother’s case, but since the daughter already received asylum on the same facts, we’re optimistic about the mother’s chances.

Religion/Afghanistan – My client was a well-known singer in his country. But since the Taliban are not fans of music and believe musicians are infidels, he ran into trouble. The Taliban threatened to kill him, and so he came to the U.S. for asylum. After a long delay, and a difficult separation from his family, the case was granted. We are now waiting for his family members to join him in the United States.

I rarely take time (or have time) to look back on completed cases, and it is encouraging to think about the people who have succeeded. I’ll try to keep some of these happy thoughts in mind as we move on to new challenges in 2016. Happy New Year!

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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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