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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

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  1. Refugees Come to America--To Sing!

    One of my more memorable cases involved testimony from my client's uncle, a well-known singer from Ethiopia who had been living in exile in Sweden and the U.S. since 1974. He was testifying about conditions in Ethiopia and whether it was safe for his nephew (my client) to return home. He mentioned that even after 40 years away, many of his songs were about Ethiopia. I asked him about his feeling towards his homeland. "I love my country," he responded. Did he want to return? "If I could, I would return tomorrow." It's a beautiful and sad testament to a life lived in exile, and it is not an uncommon story.
    The Refugee All Stars embody the old proverb, "It ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward." (Balboa 3:16).
    It seems there is a natural connection between exile and art. Some artists are forced into exile after their art offends the powers that be. Others create art to remember their previous lives or to help heal themselves and their loved ones. I suppose there are as many motivations for art as there are artists, but memories of a homeland lost are a particularly powerful muse.

    In that vein, one of my favorite musicians is Enrico Macias, an Algerian Jew who had to leave his country during the war of independence in 1961. He has not returned to Algeria since, but many of his songs reference his homeland and the loss he experienced by leaving.


    Recently, I've learned about a band called the Refugee All Stars, which is currently touring American (their schedule is here). Members of the band are from Sierra Leone, and their story is inspiring:

    Throughout the 1990s, the West African country of Sierra Leone was wracked with a bloody, horrifying war that forced millions to flee their homes. The musicians that would eventually form Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars are all originally from Freetown, and they were forced to leave the capital city at various times after violent rebel attacks. Most of those that left the country made their way into neighboring Guinea, some ending up in refugee camps and others struggling to fend for themselves in the capital city of Conakry.

    Ruben Koroma and his wife Grace had left Sierra Leone in 1997 and found themselves in the Kalia refugee camp near the border with Sierra Leone. When it became clear they would not be heading back to their homeland anytime soon, they joined up with guitarist Francis John Langba (aka Franco), and bassist Idrissa Bangura (aka Mallam), other musicians in the camp whom they had known before the war, to entertain their fellow refugees. After a Canadian relief agency donated two beat up electric guitars, a single microphone and a meager sound system, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars were born.

    Now, the band tours worldwide and works with many well-known musicians and producers. They have also performed benefits for Amnesty International and the World Food Program, among others.

    Like many people who have experienced war and exile--including many of my clients--it seems that the band members' desire to carry on with their lives and work to improve the world has not been dimmed:

    The senseless deaths and illnesses of friends and family, including some of the band’s original members, and the slimming hope for great change in their country as a result of peace, has only strengthened the resolve of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars to do what they can to turn their country around. Their weapon in this struggle is music, and their message, while offering critique and condemnation of wrongdoing, remains positive and hopeful. Optimism in the face of obstacles, and the eternal hope for a better future motivates their lives and music.

    Given the world's current refugee situation and all the problems in the U.S. asylum system, optimism is in short supply. But it's needed now more than ever.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
  2. Asylum for the Jews of France?

    Over the past few years, there have been a number of deadly and horrific attacks against Jewish people in Europe. Targeted by radical Muslims, Jews have been murdered in a Kosher market, outside a synagogue, and at a Jewish daycare facility. They have been targeted for attack at a Jewish Community Center, and there have been hundreds of lesser (but still frightening) instances of anti-Semitism.



    The Jews of France are not alone. But is that enough?

    In response, some (non-French) Jews have suggested that there is no future for Jews in Europe and that they should leave. On one level, this suggestion is based on genuine concern. But on another level, it is quite insulting. It’s as if an African leader came to the U.S. and told American blacks that—in light of Ferguson, Treyvon Martin, and Eric Garner—they should abandon their homeland. My feeling is that a French Jew, an African American, or any other put-upon individual should have the right to make his own decision about whether to leave his country. Unless and until he decides to go, we should do everything possible to help him stay.


    Here, however, I am concerned not with the existential issue of European Jewry. Rather, I want to discuss a more narrow question: Whether a French Jew--and I am choosing France because that country has seen the most instances of anti-Semitism--could qualify for asylum under U.S. immigration law.


    Asylum decisions are highly dependent on the specific facts of each case; so it is difficult to answer this question in the abstract. However, we can look at general country conditions to get an idea for whether an individual might qualify. Also, where there is a “pattern and practice” of persecution against a specific group, and the asylum applicant demonstrates that she is a member of that group, she can receive asylum (for example, during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, if an asylum applicant demonstrated that she was Tutsi, she could receive asylum).


    To demonstrate a “pattern and practice,” the applicant would have to show that the persecution is systemic, pervasive or organized. Although radical Muslims have attacked Jews in France on several occasions, and the unpredictable nature of the attacks makes everyone feel vulnerable, I think the problem is not systematic, pervasive or organized enough to qualify as a “pattern and practice” of persecution under U.S. asylum law. The recent attacks have been by individuals or small groups; not (as far as we know) the systematic work of an organization. There is a much more widespread problem with harassment, threats, and vandalism. These problems--while frightening--probably would not constitute "persecution" as that term is generally understood. For all these reasons, I believe that a French-Jewish asylum seeker would have a hard time proving that Jews in France suffer from a pattern and practice of persecution.


    In the absence of such a pattern and practice, our theoretical French Jew would need to show that he faces a reasonable fear of persecution based on his religion (or other protected ground). If the persecutor is not the government—and here, it is not—he also must demonstrate that the government is unable or unwilling to protect him.


    First, it seems clear that the Jews who have been targeted were targeted because they were Jews. Persecution on account of religion is a basis for asylum. So the real question is whether there is a reasonable likelihood of persecution.


    Courts have stated that an alien may qualify for asylum where there is a 1-in-10 chance of persecution. This is a fairly low standard, but even so, a person needs to demonstrate some type of individualized threat in order to qualify. I doubt that the average French Jew would be able to show that he faces a 10% chance of persecution. There are nearly half-a-million Jews in France, and only a small number have been harmed. And even in countries with much higher instances of violence--Iraq and Syria, for example--a person can generally not qualify for asylum without an individualized threat. Although the average French Jew would probably not meet this standard, some Jews--those who have received specific threats or who hold high-profile positions, for example--might be able to prove that they face a likelihood of harm.


    If our theoretical French Jew demonstrates a likelihood of harm, the next question is whether the government of France is able and willing to protect him. While there are surely people within the French government who do not like Jews, the French government as a whole clearly wants to protect Jewish people. After the Kosher supermarket and Charlie Hebdo attacks, the government deployed thousands of troops to protect Jewish sites. But given the nature of the attacks (random and against soft targets), there is a good argument that the government of France is unable to stop the terrorists.


    In the end, it seems that most French (or European) Jews would not qualify for asylum, but some might: Those who have received threats or who are high profile, and who their governments--unfortunately--cannot protect.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
  3. Syria of Blessed Memory

    The Greek philosopher Heraclatus tells us that you can never step into the same river twice. We often find ourselves returning to places we visited long ago, though of course those places have changed and so have we. At least that's how it is for me with Syria.
    A dashing young traveler visits the Old City of Damascus.

    I visited Syria with two friends way back in April 1990, when I was a student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. We left Israel during our Passover break, making the reverse commute, as it were, to Egypt, where we got new passports without Israel stamps (people with Israel stamps were not admitted to Syria--and they could be arrested). We then crossed Sinai and the Red Sea, spent some time in Jordan (where we further rid ourselves of evidence that we'd been living in Israel), and finally took a bus to Syria.


    In those days, Syria was ruled by Hafez Asad, father of the current dictator. His Droopy-Dog image adorned buildings, money, walls, and calendars. This was eight years after Asad put down an uprising in Hama, killing thousands in the process. Syria in 1990 was repressive, but it was safe for tourists and very welcoming. I don't remember what I expected before I went, but as a young Jewish student visiting Israel's number one enemy and finding human beings--friendly ones at that--I found myself changed forever. I'm reminded of a line from Christmas in the Trenches, a song about World War I: "The walls they kept between us to exact the work of war / Have been crumbled and are gone for ever more."


    Aside from the friendly reception, Syria was a wonderful place to visit: the Old City of Damascus, the 1300-year-old Umayyid Mosque, the Citadel and covered souk in Allepo, the Crack de Chevalier (a medieval castle), the Roman ruins of Palmyra. Over the years, I had many occasions to think about my trip to Syria, and how it affected me. However, despite the repressive nature of the regime, I never had any Syrian clients.


    That changed after the Revolution began in 2011. I started receiving cases from Syria, and I started thinking about the country in a new way.


    Since then, some of my most tragic cases have come from Syria. Many of my clients have lost family members--siblings, parents or children. Others were detained and tortured during the early days of the Revolution (now, it seems, the regime no longer releases detained opponents--it kills them). Many have had their homes destroyed, their property looted, and their businesses seized. All have had their lives profoundly disrupted.


    On one level, it is difficult to square the destruction and the terrible stories from Syria with my memories of the place. I was there during peace time, and I’ve come to view my time in the Middle East in 1990—and especially my trip to Syria—as a dividing line in my life. For me, it marks the transition from childhood to adulthood.


    Maybe because my trip to Syria came at a significant time in my life, the difficulties of my Syrian clients has affected me more deeply. Or maybe it is because I became a father--with all the new emotions that entails--not long before the Revolution began. Or maybe it's simply that the stories from Syria are so heartbreaking. I suppose the "why" doesn't much matter. For anyone who deals with Syrians--even one so far removed as me--it is impossible not to be moved by the human tragedy that we are witnessing. And for those of us who have visited Syria, the loss is somehow more vivid.


    It's Passover again, and once again my family and I are celebrating the holiday of freedom. This year, I am remembering my trip to Syria a quarter century ago. I am also thinking of my clients, and the millions of others, who have been harmed by the current war. It seems impossible that the war will ever end, but one day it will. Until then, I hope we will continue to protect refugees from Syria. As we are reminded each Passover:

    When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

    Chag Sameach. Happy Passover.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.

    Updated 04-06-2015 at 11:13 AM by JDzubow

    Tags: passover, syria Add / Edit Tags
  4. Where the [Expletive Deleted] Is My Work Permit?

    If you look at the processing times on the USCIS Texas Service Center website, you will see something interesting. The website indicates that USCIS will complete an asylum seeker's I-765 form--the application for an Employment Authorization Document or "EAD"--in three weeks. Perhaps USCIS views this time frame as aspirational. I view it as metaphorical. Or maybe delusional.

    EAD ETA? WTF.
    The reality is that EADs are not processed in three weeks. If you're lucky, it will take three months. If you're not lucky, it may be a lot longer than that. Indeed, it seems of late that processing times for EADs have become much slower. As a result, some of our clients have lost their driver's licenses (which are tied to the EADs) or their jobs. The problem has caught the attention of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which is investigating (and if you are an attorney whose client's EAD is delayed for more than 90 days, you can report it here).

    So why is this happening? As usual, I have no idea. USCIS doesn't explain such things. What can be done about it? A few things:

    - If you are filing to renew your EAD, you should file as early as possible. The instructions indicate that you can file the application 120 days before your old card expires. That would probably be a good idea. However, you should be careful not to file any earlier than 120 days ahead of time. EADs filed too early might be rejected, which will result in further delay (because you have to wait for the rejection notice and then re-file).

    - If you already filed for your EAD and the application has been pending more than 75 days, you can contact USCIS customer service and ask that an "Approaching Regulatory Timeframe 'service request' be created." Supposedly USCIS will route the service request to the appropriate office for review. You should note that if you receive a request for evidence and then respond, the "clock" starts over for purpose of calculating the 75-day period. You can see more about the obscure and exciting calculation of the 75-day period here.

    - If you are applying for your first EAD based on a pending asylum case, you can file 150 days after your asylum application was initially filed (the date of filing is on your receipt). However, if you have caused a delay in your case (by rescheduling an interview, for example), the delay will affect when you can file. The I-765 instructions explain how applicant-caused delay affects eligibility for an EAD. Please note that the 150-day waiting period is written into the law and cannot be expedited.

    - If your case is in Immigration Court, and you cause a delay (by, for example, not accepting the first hearing date offered to you), the Asylum Clock might stop, and this could prevent you from receiving an EAD. I have written about the dreaded asylum clock before, but if you are in court, you'd do well to consult an attorney about your case and about your EAD.

    - If you entered the country at the border and were detained and then "paroled" in, you might be eligible for an EAD as a "public interest parolee": see page 4 of theI-765 instructions. This one can be tricky, so you might want to consult with a lawyer before you file under this category.


    - If you already have asylum, but your EAD expires, fear not: You are still eligible to work. You would present your employer with your I-94 (which you received when you were granted asylum) and a state-issued photo ID (like a driver's license). For more information, see the Employer Handbook, pages 13 and 50.


    - If you are a refugee (in other words, you received refugee status and then came to the United States), you can work for 90 days with your I-94 form. After that, you must present an EAD or a state-issued ID. For more information, see the Employer Handbook, pages 13 and 50.
    - If all else fails, you can try contacting the USCIS Ombudsman about the delayed EAD. The Ombudsman's office assist USCIS customers and tries to resolve problems. Normally, they want to see that you have made some effort to resolve the issue through regular channels before they intervene, but if nothing else is working, they may be able to help out.

    The last thing I will say about asylum seekers and EADs is this: If you do not have an EAD, you are not eligible to work lawfully. However, if you are able to find a job without the EAD, it should not affect your asylum case. In other words, working without permission does not block a person from obtaining asylum. It may affect your ability to obtain other types of immigration benefits, and if you have questions, you should consult a lawyer.

    It is unclear to me how an asylum seeker is expected to survive without a job or a driver's license. With all the problems in the asylum system, you'd think USCIS could do something to make life easier for people waiting for their cases to resolve. One thing to be done is to process the EADs in a timely fashion. Another would be to make the EADs valid for the length of the case, so there is no need to re-apply (or at least make them valid for two years instead of one). For now, however, it is up to asylum seekers to fend for themselves: Apply as early as you are allowed for the EAD and hope that it is granted quickly.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
  5. In Defense of the Homeschoolers’ Asylum Bill

    Last week, the House Judiciary Committee passed a bill that would grant asylum to families of homeschoolers who are persecuted by their governments. The bill, sponsored by Congressman Jason Chaffetz, would also make it more difficult for others fleeing violence to obtain asylum in the U.S. by (among other things) raising the bar for credible fear interviews and blocking all government funding for child refugees who need lawyers. Congressman Louis Gutiérrez criticized the bill's restrictions: "Shouldn't children who are fleeing child abuse and violence be afforded the same protection as a child who is denied homeschooling?"


    While I personally find this bill distasteful, it seems to me that it falls within the grand tradition of asylum. One of the unique characteristics of asylum is that, by granting asylum to an individual, we implicitly condemn the actions of his home country. You can’t have asylum without a bad guy—a persecutor. When, for example, we grant asylum to a member of a religious minority from China, we send a message that the Chinese government persecutes its own people based on religion. Thus, asylum is inherently political: We make a political statement about another country, and at the same time, we demonstrate our own values.


    Gutierrez to Chaffetz: "You're like a homeschooler on a school day - No class."
    Historically, the political nature of asylum has played an important role in the development of our law. For example, the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees (which we helped create and upon which our current law is based) limited asylum to the five protected categories: Race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and membership in a particular social group. This definition had the effect (probably intended) of helping people fleeing from persecution in the Soviet Union (because they generally faced a type of persecution that fit within a protected category) without offering much to people fleeing from persecution in the West (because such people generally faced "persecution" in the form of economic harm or crime, which does not qualify them for refugee status).


    What's more, we've never been particularly subtle about the political nature of asylum. During the Cold War, we gave asylum to “trophy refugees,” high-profile people who defected from the Soviet Block to the West. Such refugees helped demonstrate Western moral superiority over the Communists, and so we were happy to take them.
    More recently—in the mid-1990s—Congress amended the definition of refugee to include victims of forced family planning. This amendment was a direct refutation of China’s one-child policy. And it was an expression of our country's (or at least Congress's) opposition to abortion.


    Except for the forced-family-planning amendment, Congress has never modified the definition of refugee. But courts—prompted by creative lawyers—have expanded the definition to include gays and lesbians, victims of female genital mutilation, and people facing domestic violence, among others. While these changes have helped many people, they were not driven by a desire to make a political statement about other countries. And certainly they are not based on our collective desire—as expressed by Congress—to send a message condemning behavior that offends us. Rather, they are based on the idea that people fleeing persecution should be treated equally.


    Most lawyers—including yours truly—are big fans of equality. If the state offers a benefit to Joe (be it a tax break, the right to marry, a lenient criminal sentence, or asylum), it should offer the same benefit to Mary. My belief in equal treatment for asylum seekers leads me to oppose special preferences for certain groups, like victims of forced family planning and people fleeing Cuba. In my opinion, such people do not need special laws to protect them. They can request asylum like everyone else. In short, I believe that asylum should not be about sending a political message; it should be about protecting people from harm. If a person demonstrates that she faces harm, she should receive asylum.


    The problem is that democracy and equality don’t always go together. The Equal Protection clause protects Americans from the tyranny of the majority, but equal protection does not apply in the context of asylum. Congress could, for example, offer asylum only to people from certain regions or to people of certain religions.
    Perhaps we can call it the Realpolitik theory of asylum versus the Equality theory. The Homeschoolers' asylum bill falls on the Realpolitik side, in that it is designed to further our country's political agenda by offering a humanitarian benefit to a group that we deem worthy of protection.


    Should it become law, the bill would also represent a democratic development of asylum law, something we have not seen in almost 20 years. Wouldn't it have been nice if some of the other developments in the law--protecting gays and lesbians, for example--had been accomplished democratically instead of by lawyers pushing the boundaries of asylum in court?


    To be sure, I don't like this bill. I don't like how it restricts most asylum seekers (especially children) while offering special benefits to people who I think should apply for asylum like everyone else. But my opinion is clearly not the point. The Homeschoolers' bill falls within the democratic, Realpolitik tradition of asylum. It helps a group of individuals who "We the People" view as deserving of protection and it places restrictions on another group that is deemed less deserving. It also sends a message about American values, for better and for worse.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
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