Raoul Wallenberg Lives! Maybe.

by Jason Dzubow on April 1, 2014

in Asylum Seekers, Human Rights

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Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat assigned to his country’s mission in Nazi-occupied Hungary. He arrived at his station in 1944, when tens of thousands of Jews were being deported to death camps.

Sometimes, to do the right thing, you have to break the rules.  And follow the Raouls.

Sometimes, to do the right thing, you have to break the rules. And follow the Raouls.

Using his cover as a diplomat, Mr. Wallenberg saved thousands of Jews from deportation. He gave them Swedish identity documents (of questionable legality), which protected them from deportation. He also rented various properties that became part of the Swedish mission, and which were thus protected by diplomatic immunity. The buildings ultimately housed (and protected) almost 10,000 people. Mr. Wallenberg used all the means at his disposal–legal and illegal–to save lives. All told, he is credited with saving over 100,000 men, women, and children.

I was reminded of Raoul Wallenberg when I heard the story of how my newest client came to the United States. 

The client is a young man from Syria. A pro-government militia arrested him and his friends. They were accused of involvement in anti-regime activities and taken to prison. My client was lucky enough to recognize one of the guards, who intervened and had him released. My client’s friends were not so lucky. They were ultimately released, but not before suffering severe torture.

My client made his way to another country and applied for a U.S. visitor visa. As my client related the story, it was clear that the consular officer thought the client might seek asylum in the United States, and he questioned the client about whether he faced any threats in Syria. Although he obviously had suspicions, the officer issued the visa, and now the client is seeking asylum.

Consular officers are supposed to deny visitor visas to applicants that they think have an immigration intent (an intent to seek asylum is considered an immigration intent). My suspicion here is that the consular officer correctly surmised that the client had immigration intent, but he issued the visa anyway. Was this, perhaps, a Wallenberg-esque move? Did the officer issue the visa precisely because he knew the endangered client could (and would likely) seek asylum in the U.S. and thus escape the danger in Syria?

Obviously, I have no idea what was in the consular officer’s mind, but it is interesting to consider his situation. When a Syrian or an Iraqi or an Afghan applies for a visitor visa, there is a decent chance that the visa applicant will travel to the U.S. and seek asylum. The consular officer’s job is to prevent that from happening; to anticipate who is an immigration risk and to deny a visa to that person. But what if denying the visa might result in the person’s death?

It is easy to say that the consular officer should just do his job and deny the visa, but at the end of the day, the officer has to live with himself and his decision. For me at least, it would be difficult to meet a person who is likely fleeing for his life, and to then deny him a path to safety. Also, if it were me, I would feel that I could accomplish something positive and life-affirming by issuing the visa and helping the person come to the United States.

But of course, the visa system is designed to do more than just block intending immigrants from gaining entry into the U.S. It is also designed to block terrorists and criminals. This is not an issue that Raoul Wallenberg had to deal with. In Mr. Wallenberg’s case, he was not giving out valid travel documents. He was just giving out passes that the German and Hungarian authorities generally respected. This prevented the Nazis from murdering the people who held the passes, but no one was traveling to Sweden (or anywhere else) on Mr. Wallenberg’s passes. There was no danger that Nazi agents would use the passes to infiltrate other countries or cause other harm.

In the case of a (hypothetically) modern-day Raoul Wallenberg who gives out visas to people fleeing persecution, the danger of helping a terrorist or criminal would have to be balanced with the desire to save lives. I don’t envy the consular officers who–whether they like it or not–have to make life or death decisions where their desire to help must be tempered by their duty to protect the United States and follow the law.

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Last time, I discussed the asylum case backlog from 2013: Why it happened, what (little) can be done to help, and DHS’s justification for processing new cases before old cases. Today, I want to make some suggestions about how DHS might better handle this situation.

DHS has created a new, less humorous version of the old NPR gameshow.

First and foremost, DHS should provide better information about what is happening. While I imagine that DHS does not always know what is happening (after all, the backlog is unprecedented), it could be providing better information to the backlogged applicants. Some info that would be helpful: (1) An estimate of when the backlogged cases will be heard. Maybe DHS has no idea, but at least tell us something. Apparently, many new officers and support staff have been hired. Will some of these people be dedicated to backlogged cases (I’ve heard that at the San Francisco office one or two officers will be assigned to backlogged cases). Is there any sort of plan to deal with the backlog? Leaving applicants completely in the dark is the worst possible way to handle the situation; (2) If a particular Asylum Office has an “expedite list,” it would be helpful to know the applicant’s place in line and how many people are on the list. Is she the third person or the 200th person? This would at least give some idea of the wait time, especially if DHS updated each person’s place in line as they move forward; and (3) It would be very helpful if the Asylum Offices explained why the backlog exists, what they are doing about it (hiring new officers), and what the applicants can do (apply for work permits, criteria to have a case expedited). While people like me can try to tell applicants what we know (and hopefully our information is more right than wrong), it is far better to hear it from the source. Each Asylum Offices has its own website, so it should be easy enough to publish this information.

Another thing the Asylum Offices could do to ease the pain of the backlog is to give priority to backlogged cases based on family reunification. As I noted last time, one justification for the backlog is that applicants can get their work permits while their cases are in limbo. Of course, the work permit is helpful (even crucial) for many applicants, but for people separated from spouses and children, reunification is the number one issue. This is especially true where the family members are in unsafe situations. I know that in a large bureaucracy, nothing is as simple as it seems, but why can’t DHS prioritize expedite requests where the applicant has a spouse or child overseas?

A third possibility is to dedicate one or more Asylum Officers in each office to work on backlogged cases. As I mentioned, San Francisco will assign one or two Officers to deal with the backlog. What about the other offices? At least if we could see some progress–even a little–with the old cases, it would give hope to the people who are waiting.

Finally, once a backlogged case is decided, DHS should give priority to any I-730 (following to join) petition filed by a granted applicant. Family separation is a terrible hardship. At least DHS (and the Embassies) can make up for some of the delay already suffered by moving I-730s for these cases to the front of the line. These applicants and their families have already waited long enough.

In a perfect world, asylum cases would be processed in the order received. However, I understand DHS’s concerns and the reasons for adjudicating new cases before old cases. By providing more information to backlogged applicants and by giving priority to people separated from their families, DHS can ease the pain caused by delay without implicating the policy concerns that brought us the backlog in the first place.

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If you are an asylum seeker who filed an affirmative asylum case between about January 2013 and October 2013, you probably have not yet been interviewed, and your case has–seemingly–disappeared into a black hole. Meanwhile, other asylum seekers who filed after you are being interviewed and receiving decisions. So what gives?

The storage room for backlogged asylum cases.

The storage room for backlogged asylum cases.

As best as I can tell, in early 2013, the asylum offices nationwide essentially stopped hearing cases. The reason is because there was an influx of asylum seekers at the US/Mexico border. People who arrive without a visa at the border, and who request asylum, are detained. They then have a “credible fear interview” to determine whether they might qualify for asylum. If they pass the interview, they are generally released and told to return later to present their asylum case to an Immigration Judge.

Because of the large increase in the number of people arriving at the US/Mexico border (and being detained), the Department of Homeland Security shifted Asylum Officers from across the country to the border. DHS prioritized the border cases because those people were detained. Of course, detaining so many people is very expensive; it is also not so nice for the people who are detained. Assuming that no additional resources were available, I suppose it is difficult to argue with DHS’s decision to give priority to the border cases.

To deal with the increased demand, DHS also began hiring new Asylum Officers. The word on the street was that they planned to hire 90 to 100 new officers nationwide (which is quite significant) and that they would be trained and ready before the new year. Sure enough, we started to receive interview notices for our clients sometime in October (most of our clients interview at the Arlington, Virginia Asylum Office). Since October, our clients generally wait from one to three months from the time we submit the application to the date of the interview. That’s the good news.

But since they started hearing cases again, the Asylum Offices have been scheduling people on a last-in, first-out basis. In other words, cases filed after October 2013 are being heard, while cases filed between January 2013 and October 2013 are stuck in the “backlog.” There are two issues I want to discuss about the backlogged cases: (1) Whether there is anything that can be done if your case is backlogged; and (2) Why isn’t DHS doing the cases in the order received?

First, there are a few things you can try if your case is backlogged. For one thing, if 150 days have passed since you filed your asylum application, you can file for a work permit.

If you want to expedite your case, there is a procedure (at least in Arlington) to request an expedited interview. However, there are a number of problems with this procedure. The most serious problem is that it does not seem to work. When you request an expedited interview, your name is placed on a list. If another asylum applicant cancels her interview, you (theoretically) will be given her time slot. The problem is that not many people cancel their interviews, and many people are on the expedited list. Also, if you happen to get an expedited interview, you will have very little notice, and so there may be insufficient time to prepare.

Another possibility to expedite a case is to contact the USCIS Ombudsman. This is the government office that tries to assist immigrants and asylum seekers with their cases, and I have used it successfully a few times (though not for asylum cases). While I have a very high opinion of this office, its ability to expedite cases seems quite limited. One example of where it might be effective is if you have requested an expedited date due to a serious health problem (of you or a family member). After you have made the expedite request with the Asylum Office, and if that office does not expedite the case, the Ombudsman might be able to assist. In short, while the Ombudsman might be helpful for certain situations, it will probably not be able to assist in most cases.

I suppose you could also try contacting a Congressperson, holding a sit-in or going on a hunger strike. I doubt any of these methods will be effective, but it you have luck, please let me know.

The second issue I want to discuss is the logic behind DHS’s decision to hear new cases before backlogged cases. I have the impression (from talking to several people on the inside) that there was a heated debate within the government about how to deal with this issue. It seems there are several reasons why DHS decided to hear new cases before backlogged cases.

The main reason for hearing new cases first seems to be that DHS fears an influx of fraudulent cases. The logic goes like this: If cases are heard in order, delays will ripple through the system, and the average processing time for a case will dramatically increase. Cases will take much longer, but applicants will continue to receive their employment document six months after filing. This will create an incentive for aliens to submit fraudulent applications, which will further clog the system. By hearing new cases first, processing times are faster (except for the people left behind), and the incentive to file a fraudulent case and obtain a work permit is reduced.

Tied to this fear of more fraudulent cases is a fear of Congress. The House recently held hearings on asylum, and there is a general (and probably accurate) belief that the ultimate aim of these hearings is to restrict asylum. DHS believes that increased delays (and thus increased incentives for fraud) in the asylum system will make it easier for the Congress to pass more restrictive laws related to asylum. In other words, DHS does not want to play into the hands of the restrictionists by increasing processing times for asylum cases.

Finally, there is a general belief at DHS that delays are not all that damaging to applicants stuck in the backlog because such people at least have their work permits. If you forget about the stress and uncertainty, it is true that single applicants without children can work and live in the U.S. while their cases are pending. But for people who are waiting to be reunited with family members–especially when those family members are in dangerous or precarious situations–the delays can be deadly.

So that is the basic situation, at least as far as I can tell. Next time, I will discuss some possible solutions to the problem.

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I’ve created a new invention. It’s called the “No-Hypocrisy Time Machine.” It enables us to travel back into the past to apply today’s laws and policies to historical events so we can see what impact they would have. In the process, we might just uncover some inconsistent or–dare I say it–hypocritical thinking. 

Before we begin our journey, let’s look at the laws and policies that we will be sending back in time. 

Barred from asylum: A Jewish boy provides "material support" to the Nazis.

Barred from asylum: A Jewish boy provides “material support” to the Nazis.

After the 9-11 attack, Congress passed the USA PATRIOT Act (2001) and the REAL ID Act (2005). Both laws strengthened and expanded terrorism bars contained in the Immigration and Nationality Act. The “terrorism bars” were designed to prevent terrorists and their supporters from obtaining immigration benefits in the United States. The problem was that these laws were over-broad. So even a person who was coerced into providing minimal support to a terrorist–for example, giving a glass of water to a guerrilla fighter on pain of death–might be barred from receiving asylum in the U.S.

Indeed, even the Bush Administration recognized that the terrorism bars were over-broad, and in 2007, DHS established some exceptions for coercion.

Fast forward to February 2014. The Obama Administration issued regulations exempting an alien from the terrorism bar where the alien provided limited material support–such as engaging in a commercial transaction,providing humanitarian assistance or acting under duress–to a terrorist organization. Importantly, the exception to the terrorism bar does not apply unless the alien has (1) passed all security background checks; (2) explained the circumstances that led to the provision of material support; (3) “has not provided the material support with any intent or desire to assist any terrorist organization or terrorist activity;” (4) has not provided support that the alien knew or reasonably should have known could be used to engage in terrorist or violent activity, or to target non-combatants; (5) poses no danger to the United States; and (6) warrants an exemption under the totality of the circumstances. One DHS official offered some examples of how the change might help otherwise innocent refugees: a restaurant owner who served food to an opposition group; a farmer who paid a toll to such a group in order to cross a bridge or sell his food; or a Syrian refugee who paid an opposition group to get out of the country.

Conservative commentators have characterized the exemptions differently. One wrote: “If you’re only sort of a terrorist, you can come to the US.” Fox News opined that the “Obama administration has unilaterally eased restrictions on asylum seekers with loose or incidental ties to terror and insurgent groups.” I suppose this isn’t much of a surprise since it is the business of Fox News and similar outlets to take the most mundane events, extrapolate them to the Nth degree, and then work themselves (and their viewers) into an outraged fury.

But how does Fox News’s position play out when we place it into our No-Hypocrisy Time Machine? Let’s travel back in time to World War II and the Holocaust to see what happens when today’s laws are applied to those dark times. Without the rule change, who might be barred from asylum in the United States–and thus deported into the hands of the Nazis?

The Schindler’s List Jews – These Jews–men, women, and children–would be barred from asylum for working in Oskar Schindler’s factory, which made cookware for the German Army. Deport them all. And by the way, that goes double for Mr. Schindler himself, who owned the factory and thus directly support the Wehrmacht.

Eli Wiesel – The Nobel Peace Prize winner worked for the Nazis in a slave labor camp. His labor would certainly constitute “material support.” His request for asylum is denied.

Tom Lantos – The California Congressman and human rights advocate spent time in a Nazi labor camp. Barred.

Simon Wiesenthal – The famed Nazi hunter was in Poland during the German invasion. He bribed an official to avoid deportation, registered to do forced labor, and later worked repairing railways. Barred, barred, and barred.

In fact, I’d guess that many–if not most–Jews (and others) who survived the Holocaust had to pay bribes, engage in forced labor or give other “material support” to the Nazis. So why does Fox News support policies that would bar these people from safety in the United States?

Obviously Fox News does not hate Holocaust survivors or Jews. But they do seem to hate the President, and to oppose anything his Administration does, even when his policies make perfect sense. Just as it would have been wrong to deny asylum to Eli Wiesel, Tom Lantos, and the others, it is wrong to deny asylum to innocent people who “supported” terrorist because they were coerced, they were unknowing or they had no choice. Modifying the rules related to the terrorism bar was the right thing to do. The claims to the contrary are–at best–inconsistent with universally-held values like protecting victims of fascism and terrorism. At worst, those claims are hypocrisy, pure and simple.

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Hurry Up and Lose My Case

by Jason Dzubow on February 19, 2014

in Asylum Seekers, Legal Relief

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If you asked my clients their number one complaint about me, it’s that they think I take too long to prepare and file their affirmative asylum cases. Conversely, if you asked me my number one complaint about my clients, it’s that they are always pushing me to file their cases as quickly as possible. Since this blog is written by me, and not by my clients, I can tell you unequivocally that I am right and they are wrong. Here’s why–

Going fast does not always get you the result you want.

Going fast does not always get you the result you want.

First and foremost, it takes time to properly prepare and file an asylum case. Even in a very strong case–and especially in a case with a lot of evidence–it is important to make sure that all the letters and documents are consistent. That translations are correct. That dates, which often use a different calendar, are properly converted to the Western calendar. That the dates in the asylum form match the dates in the affidavit, and that passports, visas, and other documents make sense with the client’s chronology as she remembers it. You would be surprised how often there are problems with dates, chronologies, and translations. In fact, it is the rare case that does not involve my staff or me finding major mistakes in the documents. While this is usually the result of carelessness on the part of the client or a witness, such errors can be fatal to an asylum case, where inconsistencies are often seen as evidence of fraud. There is simply no way around it, it takes time to review all this and put together a consistent and well-crafted application.

Second, any asylum attorney who is any good will probably be busy, especially if his prices are reasonable. Indeed, the only way to keep prices reasonable is to do these cases in bulk. Therefore, if you expect to pay a reasonable price for your case, you can probably expect to wait a bit to have it filed. In our office, it typically takes one to two months to prepare and file an affirmative asylum case. Although the cases do not need to be completely finished when we file (because we can submit supplemental material a week prior to the interview), they need to be mostly done. Why? Because the timing of interviews is unpredictable. The interview may not occur for two months (or more) after we file the application, but it might occur in four weeks. So if the case is not near completion at the time we file, we may not have time to properly finish it and review everything before the interview.

Finally, attorneys–you may be shocked to learn–are human. And humans make mistakes. When we rush, we tend to make more mistakes, and mistakes sometimes cause clients to lose their cases. When we have time to prepare a case, think about the facts and the law, strategize about how to resolve problems (and most cases have problems of one sort or another), research country conditions, and carefully review all the evidence, we minimize the chances for mistakes and maximize the odds of winning.

There are, of course, very legitimate reasons for wanting to file a case quickly–separation from family, stress, uncertainty, fear of being out of status, inability to work. Probably the most legitimate reason to file quickly is to meet the one-year asylum filing deadline (asylum applicants are required to file for asylum within one year of arrival in the United States; people who file after one year risk being ineligible for asylum). But as long as there is not a one-year issue, it is far better to take a few extra weeks to file a case correctly than to rush. In my humble (and correct) opinion, if you prioritize speed over winning, you are misplacing your priorities. If you lose your case, it will likely be referred to an Immigration Judge, which can easily take several years to resolve.

So take a breath. Relax. And take the time to do your case right. Going a bit slower at the beginning may save you a lot of time in the end.

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The U.S. Department of Justice recently gave notice that it would be seeking the death penalty in the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston Marathon bomber. Mr. Tsarnaev and his brother allegedly killed three people in the bombing and one more person during their flight. Over 260 people were maimed or injured.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

The DOJ determined that the death penalty is appropriate in the case because of the “heinous, cruel and depraved manner” that the murders were committed, that there was “substantial planning and premeditation,” multiple victims, and a “vulnerable victim” (a reference to Martin Richard, an eight year old boy killed in the attack). The notice also mentions several “non-statutory aggravating factors,” including the fact that Mr. Tsaenaev–

received asylum from the United States; obtained citizenship and enjoyed the freedoms of a United States citizen; and then betrayed his allegiance to the United States by killing and maiming people in the United States.

Other “non-statutory aggravating factors” are that Mr. Tsarnaev targeted the “iconic” Boston Marathon and that he showed a lack of remorse for his crimes.

I must admit that I have mixed feelings about the death penalty. I don’t believe it serves as a deterrent, and I do think there are serious racial and class disparities in its application. In addition, there is a real danger that innocent people or people with mental disabilities will be put to death. On the other hand, if the death of the murderer brings comfort or closure or a sense of safety to the victim’s friends and family, I believe those feelings are legitimate and should be given considerable weight.

In some ways, the Tsarnaev case is less complicated than the average death penalty case. There are no issues (at least I don’t see any) regarding race, class or mental health, and there seems to be no doubt that Mr. Tsarvaev is guilty. But what about the fact that Mr. Tsarnaev is a refugee?

In its death penalty notice, the DOJ mentions Mr. Tsarnaev’s asylum status as an aggravating factor–We helped him by granting him asylum, and then he betrayed us by bombing the marathon. Mr. Tsarnaev’s attorneys will, no doubt, view his asylum status quite differently, and could try to use that status as a mitigating factor. The relevant U.S. Code section (18 U.S.C. § 3592) lists several possible mitigating factors, including the following:

Impaired capacity.— The defendant’s capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of the defendant’s conduct or to conform conduct to the requirements of law was significantly impaired, regardless of whether the capacity was so impaired as to constitute a defense to the charge.

Duress.— The defendant was under unusual and substantial duress, regardless of whether the duress was of such a degree as to constitute a defense to the charge.

Disturbance.— The defendant committed the offense under severe mental or emotional disturbance.

Other factors.— Other factors in the defendant’s background, record, or character or any other circumstance of the offense that mitigate against imposition of the death sentence.

The first three factors seem like a bit of a stretch, but you can imagine some type of argument tying Mr. Tsarnaev’s mental state to the trauma of being a refugee. Indeed, I would guess that there are at least two types of trauma that refugees suffer: The trauma of the events that led them to flee their country, and the trauma of the refugee/resettlement process itself. There are certainly examples of refugees who engage in self-destructive behavior (I’ve written about that issue here), but without something more–such as a diagnosed mental illness–I doubt refugee status alone would qualify Mr. Tsarnaev for mitigation under one of the first three factors listed above.

The fourth factor–the catch all–provides the most likely opportunity for Mr. Tsarnaev to demonstrate how his status as a refugee might mitigate his punishment. He could argue that he was young, isolated in a new country, heavily reliant on his older brother (who participated in the bombing and was later killed), and influenced by terrible events in his homeland. While I can believe that Mr. Tsarnaev’s refugee status helped shape, and perhaps distort, his worldview, I have a much harder time accepting these problems as a mitigating factor here.

Had his crime been substance abuse, or even some type of impulsive, violent act, I could see how refugee status might be viewed as a mitigating factor and how there might be opportunities for positive intervention in his life. But in this case, Mr. Tsarnaev and his brother planned, prepared, and carried out a terrorist attack. This is not the type of crime that results from a traumatic past. It is the type of crime that comes from having a distorted world view and a total disregard for human life.

I have known many refugees, and many people who have suffered severe trauma–much more severe than anything I have heard about in the Tsarnaev case. While most such people work hard to overcome their past difficulties, some turn to drugs or alcohol; others commit crimes. But none are like the Tsarnaevs. Their’s was a carefully planned and orchestrated act. To allow Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to use his refugee status as a mitigating factor would be an insult to the many refugees who have overcome their terrible past. While there may be other factors that allow Mr. Tsaenaev to avoid the death penalty, his status as a refugee should not be one of them.

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If imitation is the highest form of flattery in art, immigration is the highest form of flattery in politics. The decision to move to a particular country demonstrates the belief that that country is worth living in. So as the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia approaches, it will be interesting to compare the number of athletes who seek asylum in Russia to the number who sought asylum during the 2012 Games in Great Britain.

Sochi-o-path

Sochi-o-path

To make this comparison, we first have to determine how many athletes sought asylum in 2012. I have not seen a concrete count of the number of athletes who “defected” during the 2012 Games. This is because asylum is confidential, and so the British government has not published any figures on Olympic asylum seekers. However, one source estimates that at least 20 athletes and coaches defected during the Games. Cameroon had the most defections: Seven of its 37 athletes did not return home.

When athletes (or anyone) seeks asylum, we can assume that there is a “push” and a “pull.” The “push” is the bad conditions in the home country that lead the person to flee, and the “pull” is the good conditions in the country where the person seeks refuge. The “pull” of the UK is obvious: It is  a developed, liberal democracy that generally respects human rights and offers opportunities (educational, professional) for its residents. People fleeing persecution (or economic deprivation) would generally be lucky to start a new life there.

The “pull” of Russia is less obvious. For one thing, Russia is not known as a welcoming destination for non-Russians. Racism and xenophobia are problems, and many minorities have been targeted and killed. Homophobia is also rampant, and institutionalized (though the mayor of Sochi claims that there are no gays in his city). In terms of its economy, Russia is not as an attractive destination as Western Europe or the U.S., but it is better than many places. Finally, the Russian language is not spoken by nearly as many people as English, and so this might create some disincentive for potential asylum seekers. For all these reasons, I doubt we will see many athletes defecting to start new lives in Russia.

To be fair, many of the source countries for asylum seekers do not send athletes to the Winter Olympics. But even if they did, I doubt many of them would desire to resettle in Russia. Conditions there are simply not conducive to starting a new life, particularly for people who come from Africa or Central Asia.

There have, of course, been a few high profile asylum seekers in Russia. Edward Snowden is one, but I don’t think he deliberately chose Russia as his destination country. Instead, it seems he got stuck there on the way to somewhere else. So the Russians really can’t claim him as someone who had a burning desire to resettle in their country.

Another immigrant to Russia is Gerard Depardieu, a “tax refugee” from France who (sort-of) left his homeland due to high taxes and (kind-of) settled in Russia. I suppose in Mr. Depardieu’s case, there was a “pull” from Russia, but that seems more to do with his friendship with President Putin (who summarily granted him citizenship last year) than with his desire to seek a better life there. Indeed, though Mr. Depardieu has citizenship and an address in Russia, it is unclear how much time he actually spends there.

The bottom line is, I don’t think Russia is seen by many as a desirable place to resettle, and I expect that we won’t see many athletes defecting during the upcoming Games. Perhaps the Russians will be pleased by this (Russia for the Russians!). But maybe upon reflection, they will find that it demonstrates a darker truth about the culture and society that they have created.

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The Ancient Origins of Asylum: Part II

by Jason Dzubow on January 29, 2014

in Asylum Seekers

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In the last post, I wrote about the mythical origins of asylum and about the cities of refugee of the ancient Israelites.

The Classical Greeks had a different concept of asylum than the Israelites. The Greeks recognized holy places—temples, alters, statues—as protected. To rob from a sacred place was to rob from the gods. This protection included the property of the sacred place and also people—including fugitives—who were found in that place. Runaway slaves, debtors, warriors vanquished in battle, and criminals would not be harmed in the sanctuaries and could find refuge there. The most well-known place of asylum was the Temple of Theseus in Athens (this temple is still standing; today, it is usually called the Temple of Hephaestus). Runaway slaves who fled their abusive masters could find refuge in the temple, and then compel their masters to sell them to someone else.

You do NOT want to make this guy angry.

You do NOT want to make this guy angry.

Places of asylum were generally respected in the ancient Greek world, but sometimes the respect accorded to the sacred space was interpreted narrowly. For example, the historian Thucydides writes about the case of the Spartan general Pausanias, who had defeated the Persians at the Battle of Platea in 479 BC. In the years following the battle, Pausanias came under increasing suspicion as a traitor to the Persian side. Finally, at the moment when he was about to be arrested, Pausanias ran away to the Temple of Athena in Sparta, where he sought sanctuary. The leaders of Sparta who had sought Pausanias’s arrest barricaded him inside the temple and starved him out. Rather than violate the sanctity of the temple, they removed Pausanias from the place in the moments before his death. Thucydides writes that as soon as he was removed from the temple, Pausanias died. It’s hard to see how the temple offered him much protection, but the concept of the inviolability of the holy place was—technically—maintained.

Echoing a much more modern complaint, the concept of asylum in ancient Greece was often abused by people seeking protection. Nevertheless, throughout the Greek period, asylum was generally respected, if only because violators feared divine wrath.

The concept of asylum was also important to the Romans, albeit for a different reason. Legend has it that Rome was founded by twin brothers, Romulus and Remus.  After a dispute about where to establish the city, Romulus killed his brother and named the city after himself. Roman historians date the founding of their city to the seventh century BC.

Romulus wanted to increase the population of his new city, and so he designated one area as a sacred “Asylum.” This is where newcomers entered the city. According to the Roman historian Livy (59 BC – 17 AD), the Asylum was crucial to Rome’s advancement and eventual greatness because it symbolized the Empire’s ability to enfranchise people of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds.

During the second and first centuries BC, Rome asserted control over Macedonia and eventually (in 27 BC) all of Greece. Rome was heavily influenced by Greek culture (the Roman poet Horace said, “Greece, though captive, has taken its wild conqueror captive”), including in the area of asylum. However, the idea of asylum as a “right” soon became inconvenient for the Romans. How could they allow rebels and criminals to avoid the power of the Empire by hiding in temples?

To mitigate this problem and assert their authority, the Romans severely restricted asylum in the Greek temples. Temples in the non-Greek areas of the Roman Empire fared little better. Throughout the Empire, Roman Law superseded religious sentiment. The places of asylum tended to be statues of the Caesars, not temples, and the sanctuary was only temporary. Those fleeing Roman “Justice” (such as it was) could not escape for long by claiming asylum.

As the power of Rome declined, the power of the new Christian Church began to grow. Like its predecessors, the Church had its own version of asylum, but that’s a story for another day…

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Immigration Judge Apocalypse 2014

by Jason Dzubow on January 22, 2014

in Immigration Court

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Nearly half of the nation’s Immigration Judges are eligible to retire this year.

Last week, I attended the retirement luncheon for one of them: Judge Wayne Iskra. For the past 10 years, I practiced before Judge Iskra at the Arlington, Virginia Immigration Court. I also clerked for him back in 1998-99. He is a wonderful person who was a great inspiration to me and many others. He was also a great judge–he was devoted to ensuring that justice was done, and he had little patience for attorneys (private attorneys or DHS attorneys) who failed to fulfill their duties.

Immigration Judges today...

Immigration Judges today…

The MC at the lunch, Judge Thomas Snow, noted that before his retirement, the Chief Judge repeatedly described Judge Iskra as “irreplaceable.” Finally, Judge Snow realized that when the Chief said that Judge Iskra was irreplaceable, it meant that he would not be replaced.

So the Arlington Immigration Court, which is already very busy and where cases are currently being scheduled into late 2016, will now go from five judges to four. The same thing happened in Baltimore last summer, when another excellent and long-serving IJ, Judge John Gossart, retired.

Although I have not heard news of any mass retirement, the Associated Press reports that almost 50% of the nation’s Immigration Judges are eligible for retirement this year. While I suppose this is good news for people selling condos in Ft. Lauderdale, it is bad news for the Immigration Court system.

...and in 2015.

…and in 2015.

And yes, as the immigration restrictionists love to remind us, certain immigrants prefer delay, so they can buy more time in the United States. But at least in my experience, this is a minority. Granted, my cases may not be typical. Most of my clients have good cases, and so the sooner they get to the merits hearing, the better. Also, many of my asylum clients have family members who they hope to bring to the U.S. if their cases are granted. The longer the delay, the longer they are separated from (and worried about) their family members. So for me, the increased delays are definitely a bad thing.

Also, I am quite certain that the remaining IJs won’t be happy about their depleted ranks. Immigration Judges are already overworked and overburdened. The title of a 2010 Mother Jones article sums it up well–Judges on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. From the article:

Caught in the middle [of the Obama Administration's efforts to increase deportations] are the judges, for whom mind-numbing bureaucracy collides with thorny moral issues. Most of the time, they work without even basic staff like bailiffs and stenographers. Increased immigration enforcement means that their workload is the highest it has ever been—three to four times larger than caseloads in other federal courts.

And of course, mistakes can have dire consequences. As one IJ noted, “It makes me feel ill to grant asylum to someone who I believe is probably lying, but it also makes me sick to think that I have denied protection to someone who really needs it.”

The obvious solution is to hire more (lots more) judges and court staff. But given EOIR’s budget (or lack thereof), this seems unlikely. So here are a few other thoughts:

- Create an easy, secure on-line system to allow EOIR-registered attorneys to do their Master Calendar Hearings by email. Attorneys could enter their appearances, admit or deny allegations, plead to charges, and set dates for Merits Hearings. For complicated cases (and pro se cases), IJs would still require Master Calendar Hearings, but an on-line system would be a great time saver for everyone.

- Hire more DHS attorneys and staff, and encourage them to communicate with attorneys for immigrants. Many issues can be resolved before trial, which saves time. However, because DHS is also short staffed, they do not have the resources to review cases prior to trial and speak with opposing counsel. If they did, it would shorten hearings and make life easier for the IJs.

- Stop deporting so many people. It seems that President Obama is intent on setting deportation records year after year. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people are being placed into removal proceedings. If ICE were more selective about who it tried to deport, DHS attorneys and IJs could focus more on those cases. We don’t ticket everyone who drives over the speed limit. We don’t prosecute everyone who is caught with a joint. We don’t arrest everyone who illegally downloads music. Why? Because we don’t have the resources to do those things, and to do so would require intolerable levels of intrusion into our lives. In the same way, it seems to me, we could relax a bit concerning deportations. Resources–including judges’ time–is limited. We should use that limited resource more efficiently.

- Don’t allow any more IJs to retire. OK, maybe it is not technically legal to force IJs to keep working, but an immigration lawyer can dare to dream. Besides, I want Judges Iskra and Gossart back.

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Laughing at Death

by Jason Dzubow on January 17, 2014

in Asylum Seekers, International

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Last week, two new clients hired me. Each told me a story that ranks among the worst I’ve heard since I’ve been practicing asylum law.

Having a positive attitude is half the battle.

Having a positive attitude is half the battle.

The first was an Iraqi grandmother. Her son worked for an international NGO and the family had received threats because of the son’s work. One day, armed militiamen pulled the son from his car, and shot him to death in front of my client, her daughter-in-law (the son’s wife), and the son’s infant child. Later, the militia bombed my client’s house and killed her elderly mother. Years before, my client lost her husband, when he was killed in a bombing raid during the Iran-Iraq War. My client’s relative/translator explained, “This is Iraq.”

The second client was from Afghanistan, and his story was not directly related to his current asylum claim. He told me that 20 years ago, he was going to a party at his relatives’ house. For some reason, he was delayed, and before he arrived, the house was hit by a missile. He reached the scene moments later, and witnessed horrific carnage (I will spare you the details he told me). Suffice it to say, he saw many relatives and friends dead and dying. At the time, he was a teenager, and what he saw sent him into shock. He was physically unable to offer assistance, and he had to be carried back to his home. Relating the story many years later, he told me how the scene was still perfectly clear in his memory.

One thing that both clients have in common is that they laughed nervously and smiled while telling me their stories.

It seems to me that laughing and smiling in response to these stories is a very human reaction. Perhaps the normal emotions–anger, grief, shock–are simply inadequate to the task of recalling and relating such events. Or maybe my clients’ embarrassed smiles are almost an apology for having to talk about such terrible stories. There probably is no appropriate affect for telling personal stories of senseless violence and life-changing horror, and so maybe the default demeanor is a shy smile or a nervous laugh.

Of course, as an immigration lawyer, I am concerned that an “inappropriate” smile or laugh might create the impression that my clients are not credible. Although they have often reacted this way during our practice sessions, my clients seldom laugh or smile during actual trials or asylum interviews. And even if a client did show an “inappropriate” emotion, I suspect that most decision makers would see the reaction for what it was, and I doubt credibility would be negatively impacted.

I also sometimes wonder about how these stories affect the people that hear them. One study I found about secondary trauma in asylum lawyers found that lawyers were at some risk of secondary trauma, and the risk increased with the amount of time the lawyers worked on asylum cases. Another study, which originally appeared in the Georgetown Immigration Law Journal (where I once served as a Senior Notes and Comments Editor), found that Immigration Judges suffered from secondary trauma and “more burnout than has been reported by groups like prison wardens or physicians in busy hospitals.”

I’ve always been a bit skeptical that people in my line of work (or me specifically) suffer from secondary trauma. The difficulty for me comes not from hearing the clients’ stories (which can be upsetting), but rather from overwork. Too many clients expect too much, too quickly. Maybe hearing terrible stories and working with people who have experience real trauma has an effect on us, but it is very hard–for me at least–to see this effect.

But of course, like my clients who laugh when they tell me their stories, I have my own ways of coping with stress. In my first job out of college, I helped find work for recently resettled refugees. Everywhere I went, I asked about employment opportunities. Finally, I decided that I could not continue that way. There was a time for work, and a time for not working. If you can’t separate the two, you ultimately won’t be successful at either. Although it is more difficult now, with my own business, I still try to keep that separation. With that said, I’m off to the pub to do some more coping. Cheers.

{ 9 comments }

The Ancient Origins of Asylum: Part 1

by Jason Dzubow on January 7, 2014

in Asylum Seekers

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Since it is the beginning of the year, I thought I might go back–way back–to explore the ancient origins of asylum. As you may know, the word “asylum” comes from the Greek asylos, meaning that which is inviolable or that which cannot be robbed: “a” (without) + “syle” (the right of seizure). The word originally referred to a sacred place where fugitives could find protection from their pursuers.

Even today, some refugees still seek protection from statues.

Even today, some refugees still seek protection from statues.

The origins of asylum are probably more myth than history. One candidate for the creator of asylum is the ancient Egyptian King Assyrophernes, who supposedly erected a statue in honor of his dead son (King Assyrophernes does not appear on the Egyptian King Lists, and at least one scholar claims that the whole story was made up by an historian in the early 18th century). The son’s statue later became a place of worship for the king’s servants and eventually a place where people could seek asylum. Under this theory, the concept was transferred from the Egyptians to the Hebrews, who developed and codified the idea.

Another candidate for the originator of asylum is King Ninus of Assyria, the legendary founder of Nineveh who ruled a vast Middle Eastern empire during the 21st century BC. Whether King Ninus actually existed is also an open question–the oldest written record of the king is found in a fifth century BC account by the badly-named Greek historian and physician Ctesias of Cnidus, who supposedly learned about Ninus from ancient Persian records. In this story, Ninus built a statue to commemorate his father, Belus, which served as an asylum for people fleeing harm.

A third possibility is that asylum was created by the Persians. In the first century AD, the Roman Emperor Tiberius commissioned an inquiry into the origin of asylum in Greece. At the time, the Romans had conquered Greece and the Greek system of temple asylum–which allowed for the protection of fugitives who reached a temple–was a thorn in the side of Rome. In response to Tiberius’s inquiry, two Greek cities reported that their sanctuaries were founded by the Persian kings Cyrus and Darius (fourth and fifth centuries BC) during the Persian occupation. More likely, the right to asylum existed in other Greek communities at the time, and so the two cities in question petitioned the Persians for a right already found in other parts of Greece.

In each of these stories, the refugee obtains asylum by going to a particular place where he is protected. Whether any of these stories is true is an open question, but I suppose they demonstrate that human beings have been dealing with the issue of whether to protect strangers fleeing persecution for a long time.

The earliest written record of asylum in the ancient world comes from the Hebrews. These ancient rules for asylum were created at a time when family, friends or clansman of a murder victim would revenge the death by killing the murderer (or members of his clan). Revenge killings might take place even where the initial death was inadvertent.

To regulate this problem, the Torah (the Hebrew Bible) designates six divinely-designated “cities of refuge” to protect “one who has killed another unwittingly.” The purpose of the cities is to prevent unjustified revenge killings in cases of involuntary manslaughter: “Thus the blood of the innocent shall not be shed, bringing blood-guilt upon you in the land that the Lord has allotted you.” Interestingly, the cities would “serve the Israelites and the resident aliens among them for refuge, so that anyone who kills a person unintentionally may flee there.”

The Torah also created a method for adjudicating the manslayer’s intent. The cities of refuge were run by Levites (priests), and an assembly of such men would decide the case. The system of proof might seem a bit primitive by today’s standards. For example, if the manslayer used an “iron object,” he is a murderer and should be put to death. Ditto for stone or wood tools that “could cause death” (this one seems a bit tautological).

Even if the death was ruled inadvertent and the manslayer received protection in the city of refuge, that was not the end of the matter. If he left the city, and the “blood-avenger comes upon him outside the limits of his city of refuge, and the blood-avenger kills the manslayer, there is not bloodguilt on his account.” The punishment would remain in effect until the high priest died (the death of the high priest, like the death of the sovereign in other societies, signified a new era where prior legal obligations ended). Only then could the manslayer return to his home.

Although the Israelite system was primitive and somewhat arbitrary, it was better than nothing. It also marked the first historically documented system of asylum.

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Do people fleeing persecution have a “right” to illegally enter the United States? A new report from Harvard Law School about changes in Canadian asylum policy got me thinking about this question.

The report, Bordering on Failure: Canada-US Border Policy and the Politics of Refugee Exclusion, concludes that recent changes to Canadian refugee and border policy have made it more difficult for legitimate asylum seekers to find refuge in Canada.

Training program for rookie Liaison Officers.

Training program for rookie Liaison Officers.

The recent changes include the Multiple Borders Strategy (“MBS”), whose goal is to “push the border out” and to “intercept improperly documented persons as far away from Canada’s territorial borders as possible.” Canada “enacts measures that deter and deflect the arrival of asylum seekers at… countries of origin, visa screening points, airline check in points, points of initial embarkation, transit areas, points of final embarkation, and points of final arrival.” How do they do this? Canada has 63 liaison officers in 49 “strategic locations around the world.” The officers “train and work with airlines, local immigration authorities, and local law enforcement agencies to identify improperly documents persons, including some asylum seekers, and block them from boarding Canada-bound boats or planes.” The officers have intercepted 73,000 people between 2001 and 2012. Another part of the MBS is to sanction airlines and shipping companies that allow improperly documented people to arrive in Canada. The Canadians have also imposed stricter visa requirements on people from refugee source countries when refugee arrivals from those countries increase. In short, Canada is doing more to block people from illegally entering the country. So what’s wrong with that?

The Harvard report raises a few points. For one, some of those people blocked from arriving in Canada are refugees (though we don’t know how many). The liaison officers and the carriers do not consider whether a person qualifies for asylum; they block anyone with improper documentation. Another problem is that by tightening security, some asylum seekers will resort to other means of gaining entry into Canada–human smuggling, for example. This puts the asylum seekers at risk of harm. The report concludes that by “closing its borders to asylum seekers, Canada is setting a poor example for other nations, and contributing to the deterioration of refugee protection around the world.”

Aside from criticizing the (probable) negative impact of the MBS on asylum seekers, Harvard offers little in the way of solutions. Should Canada loosen its entry requirements? Should liaison officers allow people with fraudulent documents to go to Canada if those people express a fear of persecution? Should Canada get rid of the liaison officers so it is easier to enter Canada improperly? Should it eliminate carrier fines, so that airlines will be encouraged to allow anyone to fly into the country, even if they do not have permission to enter?

The basic problem, it seems to me, is that refugees who are rich enough to qualify for a visa or to hire a competent smuggler, will likely get in. Ditto for those clever enough to obtain fraudulent travel documents. Poor people, less educated people, people who are not resourceful enough, will not get in. Tightening or loosening the border (or even “pushing out” the border) will, as the Harvard report points out, exclude people in “arbitrary and unprincipled ways,” but this impact is tiny compared to the basic–and very arbitrary–distinction between the rich, the educated, and the lucky, who will probably get in, and the poor, the uneducated, and the unlucky, who will probably be excluded. Thus, even if Canada had not implemented any of the new restrictive changes, the asylum seekers who manage to reach Canada are able to get there because of factors (such as wealth) that are completely unrelated to the merits of their asylum claims. Given that the ability of potential asylum seekers to enter Canada is completely arbitrary anyway, why should it matter if Canada imposes another layer of arbitrariness on those seeking admission? In other words, why should it matter if an arbitrary portion of an arbitrary group is blocked from seeking asylum?

Or, to return to our initial question in a more specific way: Do those asylum seekers lucky enough to have the ability to reach a safe country have a “right” to travel to that country to seek asylum? If you accept the basic premise of sovereignty of nations (and there are very good reasons not to), it is difficult to answer that question in the affirmative. But to answer that question in the negative would invalidate much of international law and practice related to protecting refugees.

Perhaps the key to resolving this dilemma is to recognize that most countries–including Canada and the United States–have given up some of their sovereignty when they voluntarily entered into treaties protecting refugees. Nevertheless, the Harvard report highlights an odd reality: People who are smart enough, rich enough or sneaky enough to evade border security and gain entry into a safe country have a right to seek asylum in that country. But those who are unable to reach a safe country–even if the reason for their failure is that the safe country managed to prevent their entry–do not have a right to seek asylum in that country.

So I guess the answer to the initial question is a qualified yes (or perhaps a qualified no, if you are a glass-is-half-empty sort of person): Asylum seekers have a right to illegally enter the United States, but only if they manage to get in. Or, to paraphrase Robert Anton Wilson, “rights” are what you can get away with.

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Ten Years an Asylum Lawyer

by Jason Dzubow on December 20, 2013

in Legal

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It’s hard to believe that I am marking my 10-year anniversary as an owner of my own law firm. It seems like so much longer.

During those years, I have represented over 750 clients, most of whom were asylum seekers. I’ve also had five offices, six partners, two employees, a few contract attorneys, and a whole heap of interns. In short, it’s been an incredible, challenging, exhausting, exhilarating, frustrating, funny, and bizarre 10 years. In commemoration of this grand occasion, I thought I would list some of the more memorable moments of my career as a small-firm lawyer. So without further ado, here we are:

- Starting Out: Before starting my firm, I had to pay back my student loans. Once that was accomplished, I moved to Nicaragua, tried to learn Spanish, and then returned and rented an office below a restaurant in DuPont Circle, DC (at $375/month). I decided to use my old computer, as I didn’t have a lot of cash for a new one. Unfortunately, I had been away for a while and my anti-virus program expired. So as soon as I connected to the internet, my computer got a virus that wiped the entire system. It took over a month to get the computer up and running. An auspicious start it was.

Me, at the beginning of my solo lawyer career.

Me, at the beginning of my solo lawyer career.

- Rats and Flies: Since the office was under a restaurant, you can imagine there were some issues. I shared the office with a friend and fellow asylum lawyer. Once, while he was talking to a client, a rat kept running around the office. I did my best to distract the client and herd the rat out the door. The client was too polite to say anything, but I don’t think she ever came back. We also had numerous infestations of Amityville-Horror-style flies, and one time, part of the ceiling collapsed spilling some strange brown liquid onto our printer.

- My First “Real” Asylum Case: I had done bits and pieces of a few asylum cases before, but I got my first real case in 2004. It was an Ethiopian guy who entered the U.S. illegally at the Mexican border. Two attorneys had already passed on the case because they didn’t like it, so he was stuck with me. Somehow, he ended up receiving asylum, and that win led to one referral and then another. In the last 10 years, I’ve probably represented close to 200 Ethiopians seeking asylum.

- Afghan Cases: By 2006 or 2007, I had done a few Afghan cases, but it was a very small (albeit very interesting) part of my business. Then a potential client came in who had been a well-known TV star in Afghanistan. He couldn’t afford to pay my fee, and so he didn’t hire me. I thought about it for a few days and decided that I wanted to do his case–it was too interesting to pass up. So I called him and said he could pay whatever he could afford. We won the case, and that led to many more Afghan clients. They now represent the majority of my asylum clients.

Me, after ten years.

Me, after ten years.

- Removed from Court in a Stretcher: If you practice immigration law, you know that Immigration Courts are slow. They make geologic time seem speedy. One of my clients from Morocco was particularly eager to receive her green card so she could visit her family back home. But when she heard her court date–something like two years later–she collapsed and could not be revived (even by a DHS attorney who was a former EMT). The end result, she was removed from court on a stretcher. Happily, she was fine, and the next week, we received a notice that her case had been rescheduled for the following month. I have not advised other clients to collapse when they hear their court dates, but I have been tempted…

- My First Lozada Case: Immigration cases that have been denied due to ineffective assistance of counsel can be reopened under Matter of Lozada. Such cases generally requires a bar complaint against the ineffective attorney. Most lawyers (me included) hate this requirement. But in cases of bad misconduct, there is something satisfying about filing a complaint. The first time I filed such a complaint was against an attorney who was incompetent and dishonest. We proved using the lawyer’s own documentation that she had lied to her (now my) client and to the Immigration Court. The Virginia Bar found that she had violated the rules of professional conduct, but declined to punish her because there were “exceptional circumstances.” What were these circumstances? Turns out, she had already been suspended for three years for messing up two other people’s cases (and lives), so the Bar Association felt there was no need to punish her in my case. As I said to the Immigration Judge in our (successful) motion to reopen, the offending lawyer was saved by her own incompetence.

- The Pain of Exile: I represented an Ethiopian asylee who was in removal proceeding after committing a crime. We filed for a 209(c) waiver, which would allow him to remain in the U.S. One witness, his uncle, was a famous singer who had lived in exile since the mid-1970s. Many of his songs were about Ethiopia. We were trying to show that it was unsafe for the nephew (my client) to return to Ethiopia. I asked the uncle, what he thought of his country. “I love my country.” “Would you like to go back,” I asked. “If it was safe, I would go back tomorrow.” Somehow it struck me as profoundly sad that this man had not been back to Ethiopia in 30+ years, but he still loved and missed his country, and kept writing songs about his homeland. The nephew’s case was approved, in part on the strength of this testimony. And as far as I know, the uncle has not yet returned to Ethiopia.

- The Client Who Paid Me $1 Million: OK, this one didn’t happen yet, but here’s hoping.

- The Clients: There are too many to mention. A few I can remember are journalists from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Human rights activists from Russia, DR Cong, Zimbabwe, and Iran. Police officers from Peru and Nepal. A Rwandan woman who saw her family murdered during the genocide. Interpreters for the U.S. military from Iraq and Afghanistan. A Russian politician who was stripped of his citizenship. LGBT people from Serbia, Egypt, Kenya, and especially Sudan (you know who you are). Women’s rights advocates from Afghanistan. Diplomats from Ethiopia, Iran, and Ukraine. People persecuted due to their religion from China, Egypt, Iraq, Bangladesh, and Eritrea. Victims of gang and cartel violence in Central America. And on and on.

Finally, I should also take a moment to thank the people who have helped make this all possible: My staff, who does all the work while I sit around making witty remarks and eating bon bons, and my family, who tolerates long hours, mediocre pay, and occasional rants about the Man. Thank you.

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Lately, I’ve been worrying that asylum might become a victim of its own success. Thanks to lawyers pushing the law, the number and categories of people eligible for asylum has increased pretty dramatically: Victims of FGM and domestic violence, LGBT individuals, certain victims of crimes. This is a good thing, as many lives have been saved. But it has started to attract the attention of immigrant restrictionists, who think the asylum system is too generous. Could the tide be shifting? Might we be on the verge of a backlash?

The Romans aren't all that popular this time of year.

The Romans aren’t all that popular this time of year.

There’s precedent for such fear dating back to antiquity. When the Roman Empire conquered Greece, the various city-states had a well-developed system of temple asylum. In short, if you were a slave fleeing abuse, you could go for protection to a Greek temple. Over time, the types of people who could claim protection in Greek temples expanded, so that basically anyone, including rebels and common criminals, could find refuge in a temple. The law-and-order Romans would have none of it. In 14 AD, Emperor Tiberius ordered the temples to produce evidence of their right to offer asylum. Most temples could not do so, and so Tiberius’s little bureaucratic maneuver essentially ended asylum in the Greek city-states. So much for the history lesson.

Late last month, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), Immigration and Border Security Subcommittee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), and Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) announced that they would be holding hearings on asylum and credible fear “abuse” by people arriving in the U.S. via Mexico. The press announcement does not sound promising:

It’s outrageous that members of Mexican drug cartels and others involved in illicit activity are so easily able to exploit our asylum laws and live in the U.S. virtually undetected. Our asylum laws are in place to help individuals who are facing truly serious persecution in their countries. However, dangerous criminals are gaming the system by claiming they have a ‘credible fear’ of persecution when often they’ve been the perpetrators of violence themselves. Their claims almost always get rubberstamped by the Obama Administration and once these individuals are in the U.S., the illegal activity doesn’t stop. 

Unfortunately, it appears the Obama Administration is compromising our national security and the safety of our communities for its political agenda. The House Judiciary Committee plans to hold a hearing soon to closely examine this egregious abuse to see what can be done to put an end to it.

Over the last couple months, I’ve written pretty extensively about the influx of asylum seekers at the border, and there certainly seem to be issues that require attention. That’s why it’s disappointing to see such an overtly political description of the upcoming hearings. Hopefully, the hearings themselves will be more constructive (yes, for some reason, I am feeling unusually optimistic – maybe its The Season). 

Not that anyone has asked, but I thought I would raise some issues that the Committee might explore:

- We need accurate statistics about who is seeking asylum and why: It is very difficult to know who seeks asylum, who receives it, who receives other relief, and who is denied. One problem is that the two agencies that track asylum cases–DOJ and DHS–use different metrics for calculating their numbers. Another problem is that there are no stats available on people who receive Withholding of Removal and Torture Convention relief (two benefits that are similar, though inferior, to asylum). Congress should mandate better record keeping on asylum cases: Where do asylum seekers come from? What is the basis for their grants or denials? How many are detained? How many leave of their own volition after receiving a denial? How many are deported? How many cases are re-opened for fraud or due to criminal convictions? Such information will allow us to improve our policy-making and will hopefully lead to a better and more secure system.

- We need to make some decisions about how to treat asylum applicants at the borders: There has been a significant increase in asylum applicants arriving at our Southern border. Currently, most are detained and–if they pass a credible fear interview–they are released with a date to return to Immigration Court. I have not seen specific examples of individuals who have entered the U.S. in this manner and then committed bad acts. But given the number of arrivals, the possibility for this to happen seems pretty high. So do we detain these asylum seekers until their cases are heard? Such an approach makes it much more difficult for them to prepare their asylum cases. It is also very expensive. Should each person be fitted with an ankle bracelet or some other tracking device? If we had more accurate data about asylum seekers, perhaps we could better answer these questions.

- We must decide how to treat people fleeing persecution where that persecution is not based on a protected ground: Many people arriving at the Southern border face real harm from gangs, cartels, and criminals. Many others face serious harm due to sexual violence. Often, such people do not fall neatly into one of the five protected categories. Most will not qualify for lesser forms of relief, such as the Convention Against Torture. So what to do with them? Of course, we could simply deport them as we are not obligated by our international agreements to protect them. But sending innocent people to their deaths seems not in keeping with our national values (or any other notion of morality). Could something be done for such people without creating an incentive for everyone South of the border to come to the United States?

- We need to plan ahead to deal with a potentially large refugee flow from Mexico: For years, we’ve been hearing discussion about the possibility of large refugee flows from Mexico due to the violence there. If this happens, our current asylum system will likely not handle the volume. Perhaps we need a contingency plan for how to deal with such refugees. Faced with refugee crises, other countries have created temporary camps for people, where they can stay until it is safe to return (though often that takes decades or longer, and then there is no where to return to). Maybe such a model would be appropriate if the situation in Mexico deteriorates further. Or maybe some type of TPS would be more appropriate. In any case, it seems to me that we can start thinking about this now, so that we are more prepared in case of a humanitarian disaster. 

There is obviously more to say about these topics, but–since it is the season of miracles–I continue to hope that the Judiciary Committee will address these and other important issues related to our asylum system.

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The blog entry was originally posted on Wherever Magazine‘s website. It’s not uncommon for me to meet clients who have been victims of human trafficking. Most of them were trafficked from East Africa to the Arabian peninsula, and then to the U.S. as domestic servants. Occasionally, I also meet clients who were victims of sex trafficking. For this post, I combined several of my own cases and one publicly available case in order to illustrate the problem of modern day slavery:

Amelia was a promising twenty-something working as a teacher in her native Indonesia. After she lost her job due to religious and ethnic discrimination, she wanted to move some place safe. She began looking for ways to come to the United States.

The past isn't really past.

The past isn’t really past.

Through an ad, Amelia found a position in the restaurant industry in New York. An agency arranged her travel to the U.S., but when she reached JFK, things were not as expected.

Her “contact” met Amelia at the airport and immediately took her passport and other documents. Instead of bringing her to the promised job, he took her to a brothel. When she protested, her contact threatened Amelia with a gun.

For the next several months, Amelia was transported from one brothel to the next and forced to have sex with many different men. Her captors kept her under close watch at all times. 

Finally, one day, she escaped through an unlocked window. Even after she was free, Amelia knew no one in the United States and she did not know where to go for help. She lived on the street until she met someone who put her in touch with law enforcement.

Amelia was able to obtain a “T” visa—a special visa for victims of human trafficking, which allows an alien to (eventually) become a permanent resident of the United States. 

Except for the successful escape, Amelia’s story is quite typical. Social scientists estimate that there are currently about 27 million victims of human trafficking world-wide. But only a small fraction of those victims—about 40,000 people—are identified and helped each year. In the United States, as many as 200,000 children are currently at risk of sex trafficking. Most victims are trafficked within their own countries, but many people—like Amelia—are taken on long journeys from poor countries to more affluent countries, where they serve as sex slaves, domestic labor or agricultural workers.

According to U.S. government estimates, last year over 17,000 people were brought into the United States to serve as slaves.

As an attorney who represents asylum seekers, I sometimes meet victims of human trafficking. One common scenario involves women recruited to work as domestic servants in the Persian Gulf (most commonly in Saudi Arabia and the UAE). The women usually come from poor countries in Africa and are lured to the Gulf with promises of a decent wage and steady work.  

In one recent (and typical) case, my client Fatima had been detained and beaten in Ethiopia because of her political activities. She was also a victim of female genital mutilation. Fatima had to find a way out of her country. She went to an employment agency. The agency helped Fatima obtain a passport and found a job for her as a domestic servant in the United Arab Emirates. In July 2009, she left Ethiopia and started working for a family in the UAE. 

Work conditions and pay were not as promised. Originally, the agency told Fatima that she would be babysitting one child. When she arrived, she found that she would be babysitting three young children. In addition, she had to clean the house, cook, wash laundry, and tend to her employers’ guests. Fatima worked 20 hour days, and her employer banned her from speaking with other Ethiopian house servants. When she showed signs of being unhappy, the employer threatened to return her to Ethiopia. 

In August 2010, the employers announced that they would be going to Florida with the children for a six month vacation. Fatima would come with them. The U.S. government issued Fatima a visa for “personal and domestic employees” and she was on her way to America.

In the United States, Fatima continued as a domestic servant, but now her employer stopped paying her. She knew no one in Florida and had little opportunity to meet people outside her employers’ house. Finally, after five months as an unpaid, 140-hour a week domestic worker, she met some other Ethiopians in a park. They told her that she could seek political asylum in the United States. 

Fatima called her brother in Ethiopia, who put her in touch with some friends in Ohio. Those friends found someone in Florida to help. So early one morning, while her employers were sleeping, Fatima snuck out of the apartment, went to a rendezvous point and met her contact. She stayed with him for a few days until her brother’s friends arranged to bring her to Ohio and then Washington, DC.

In DC, Fatima filed for asylum. The case took several years, but finally, in September 2013, an Immigration Judge granted Fatima’s application for asylum. She has now begun her new life in the United States. 

Fatima and Amelia both escaped from their captivity. Most trafficking victims are not so lucky.

At least in Fatima’s case, the U.S. government could have done more to protect her. She received her visa without an interview at the U.S. Embassy. For domestic servants who come to the U.S., the embassies should interview each person (as they do for most other visa applicants) and ask about wages, hours, and working conditions. Where there is evidence of trafficking, visas for the workers and their employers should be denied, and the local authorities should be contacted. At least this would reduce the number of victims trafficked to the U.S. And once they are here, the employers of domestic workers should be required to verify (with evidence) that the domestic workers are receiving their salary, paying taxes, and working reasonable hours. Employers who do not comply with the law should have their visas revoked and should be prosecuted.

For trafficking victims in the U.S., there are resources available. The Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign raises awareness about the issue, and there are numerous NGOs, such as the Polaris Project, involved in the anti-trafficking fight. It will take the combined efforts of governments, non-profits, and individuals to identify and free victims of human trafficking, and bring the perpetrators to justice.

In this article, the names of the women and identifying details have been changed.

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