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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum


  1. Protecting Refugees Fleeing Ebola; Ignoring Refugees Fleeing Violence

    Apparently, there was some big news recently about immigration. I am not sure about that, but there was some other news this week, a bit under the radar, also about immigration: The United States has offered Temporary Protected Status ("TPS") to people from Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone who are currently present in the United States. The reason: Ebola.

    "I'm 25% more dangerous than Ebola."

    This means that people from those countries will not be removed from the United States, and they are eligible for a work permit. The TPS is designated to last for 18 months, and then could be renewed or ended, depending on conditions in West Africa (and political considerations in North America). Applications for TPS must be submitted before May 20, 2015.

    How does this contrast with our current policy towards Central America and Mexico? People in that part of the world do not face a threat from Ebola, but they do face a threat from cartel and gang violence, domestic violence, and--increasingly--government-sponsored violence related to the drug trade. So here's a question: Which of these two scenarios is more likely: A person from Liberia dying from Ebola, or a person from Honduras dying by violence? Let's take a look at some numbers.

    According to the Center for Disease Control, 2,964 people in Liberia have died due to Ebola. The total population of Liberia is 4,092,310. This means that approximately 72 out of 100,000 Liberians have died from Ebola. Compare this to Honduras, where the murder rate is about 90 per 100,000. For those of you who like numbers, this means that a Honduran person is about 25% more likely to die from violence than a Liberian person is to die from Ebola.

    The story is similar for the other TPS countries. Sierra Leone has had 1,250 Ebola deaths, with a population of 6,190,280, or about 20 deaths per 100,000 people. And Guinea has had 1,192 deaths with a population of 10,628,972, or about 11 deaths per 100,000 people.

    Other Central American countries are less violent than Honduras, but still very dangerous. The homicide rate in El Salvador is about 41 per 100,000 and Guatemala is 39 per 100,000. The rate in Mexico is about 21 per 100,000, but I suspect that that figure is out-dated, as violence there has been escalating.

    In other words, generally speaking, a person in Mexico or Central America is more likely to die from violence than a person from Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone is to die from Ebola. And yet we have offered TPS to West Africans and nothing to Central Americans. Why?

    I suppose one reason is the nature of the problem. Ebola is a new threat and it is likely to be short-lived. Also, it is very frightening and its potential victims are completely innocent. Finally, there probably aren't a whole lot of people currently in the U.S. who will qualify or apply for TPS; maybe a few thousand. Gang and cartel violence, on the other hand, is more complicated. The problem is endemic and it does not look to go away anytime soon. Victims of this type of violence might also be perpetrators, and so offering them protection can seem dangerous (though I would argue that we can effectively weed out the bad guys). Last, there are a lot of people from Mexico and Central America currently in the United States. To offer them TPS would be a long-term, large scale commitment.

    Which all brings us back to the Big Announcement of the week: Deferred Action for many people who have been in the U.S. for 5+ years. This certainly is a humanitarian benefit, in that it will keep many families together. But it is not a humanitarian benefit in the sense that it was created to protect people from harm. People in Central America and Mexico are facing a crisis. Violence there is out of control. While I am glad that we are not requiring people to return to places with Ebola, I think we should recognize that there is a certain hypocrisy in offering TPS to such people while offering nothing to our Southern neighbors.

    The danger faced by Mexicans and Central Americans is equal to--or worse than--the danger faced by West Africans. It's just that the source of the danger is different. And so in the wake of the TPS and Deferred Action announcements, I am wondering whether we should be doing more to help people fleeing the gang and drug violence that is killing so many.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
  2. Palestinian Activist Convicted of Immigration Fraud; Supporters Cry Foul

    Earlier this week, Rasmea Odeh, the associate director of the Arab American Action Network in Chicago, was convicted of one count of Unlawful Procurement of Naturalization. She faces up to 10 years in prison, a fine, and possible deportation from the United States.

    Convincing Ms. Odeh's supporters proved easier than convincing a jury.

    Ms. Odeh is a Palestinian who was convicted in Israel in 1970 for involvement in two bombings, one of which killed two university students in a supermarket. She was sentenced to life in prison, but she was freed in 1979 as part of a prisoner exchange between Israel and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Ms. Odeh maintains that she is innocent of the crime, and that she was coerced into confessing under torture by the Israeli authorities.

    In the mid-1990s, she immigrated from Jordan to the United States, and in 2004, she became a U.S. citizen. By all accounts, she did well in her adopted country:

    Rasmea Odeh has been with the Arab American Action Network (AAAN) since 2004 and is the Associate Director and Community Adult Women Organizer.... She has worked as a teacher and then a lawyer after she completed her law degree. She gained valuable community experience through her work and service in various associations including women’s and workers’ unions, family and domestic violence groups, human right centers and the Red Cross. She created a successful community writing group at the AAAN to encourage women to tell their colorful stories and experiences while living in the United States in a creative and exciting way.

    Ms. Odeh's current troubles stem from her failure to report her conviction and sentence on her immigration and naturalization forms. Those forms ask such questions as "Have you ever been arrested, cited, or detained by any law enforcement officer... for any reason?" and "Have you ever been charged with committing, attempting to commit, or assisting in committing a crime or offense?" (emphasis in original). In response to these questions, Ms. Odeh answered "no."

    In a sense, this is an open-and-shut case. Whether or not Ms. Odeh is guilty of the underlying crime (the bombing), she certainly provided false information on the immigration forms. But of course, nothing connected to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can ever be simple, and Ms. Odeh's case is no exception.

    The first complicating factor is Ms. Odeh's alleged torture by Israel. This became relevant because the defense hoped to prove that Ms. Odeh did not "knowingly" lie on the immigration forms; rather, her "post-traumatic stress disorder" somehow caused her to answer the questions incorrectly. The judge disallowed this defense in a pre-trial order, and it will no doubt be one of the claims raised on appeal. To me, the PTSD defense is simply not believable. Many of my clients are torture victims and possibly suffer from PTSD, but I've never seen a case where the client isn't able to answer a yes-or-no question about whether she was arrested. Maybe she does not want to talk about the arrest, but she knows it happened and can complete the form properly. Even if the judge had allowed this defense, I doubt that the jury would have accepted it.

    Deprived of her PTSD defense, Ms. Odeh argued that she misunderstood the questions related to her criminal convictions. She said that she thought the questions were about her time in the U.S., and that she had nothing to hide and did not need to lie. She apparently testified about her alleged torture at the United Nations in 1979, and as her lead attorney said, “It was well known that she was convicted, and traded [in a prisoner exchange]. The U.S. Embassy knew it, the State Department knew it, and Immigration should have known it.” Neither of these points is very convincing. First, Ms. Odeh clearly had a very good reason to lie--if the U.S. government knew about her conviction on terrorism charges, she would likely have been denied a visa and citizenship. Second, her attorney's claim that she did not have to answer the questions truthfully since the U.S. government was already aware of her conviction is simply bizarre (as if some USCIS bureaucrat in 2004 would magically be aware of Ms. Odeh's testimony before the UN in 1979).

    The most (and to me, only) convincing argument made by Ms. Odeh is that her prosecution stems from an improper government investigation that targeted Palestinian activists and others who were exercising their First Amendment rights. Ms. Odeh filed an unsuccessful motion to dismiss relying on this theory. The investigation in question was brought against 23 anti-war and Palestinian activists, and after 3+ years, has not resulted in any indictments. During the course of the investigation, the government of Israel turned over documents to the United States. It is these documents that purportedly led to the discovery of Ms. Odeh's imprisonment (and hence the discovery that she lied on her immigration forms). The failure of the underlying investigation to reach any conclusion suggests that it might have been improper and, if so, perhaps the discovery related to Ms. Odeh was unlawful (fruit of the poison tree and all that). I suppose we will see what comes of this argument on appeal. But of course, even if Ms. Odeh is correct about the improper investigation, and even if she ultimately wins with this issue on appeal, that does not change the fact that she lied on her forms.

    Finally, it is interesting to see how people’s views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict affect their views of Ms. Odeh’s case. To her supporters, this case is about Israeli torture of Palestinians. They seem to accept Ms. Odeh’s explanation that she is innocent, that she was tortured into confessing, that any mistakes on the form were either a misunderstanding or a result of her PTSD, and that the whole case is an effort by the U.S. government to undermine the Palestinian cause.

    While I largely sympathize with the Palestinian side, I find Ms. Odeh's explanations hard to accept. To me—and apparently to the jury—the case is much simpler than all that. The question is, Did Ms. Odeh knowingly lie on her immigration and naturalization forms? The jury found that she did. Despite all the craziness surrounding her case, and whether she is a victim or a villain, the simplest and most likely explanation here is that Ms. Odeh lied about her imprisonment in order to obtain an immigration benefit from the United States. If so, she received the conviction she deserved.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
  3. Wyoming, the "Equality State," Is Anything But

    There is only one state in the Union without a refugee resettlement program--Wyoming. Late last year, the state’s Republican governor, Matt Mead, took some tepid steps toward establishing a public-private partnership to help resettle refugees in the Equality State. Predictably, those efforts were met by fierce resistance, both from inside and outside the state.

    WyoMing the Merciless.

    First, a bit of background. The United States accepts more refugees for permanent resettlement than any other country (though many countries temporarily host significantly more refugees than we do). In FY 2012, we accepted 58,238 refugees for resettlement. These refugees came from Bhutan, Burma, Iraq, Somalia and many other countries. With the help of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and various NGOs, the refugees were resettled in 49 states plus the District of Columbia. Some states took many (California: 5,173; Texas: 5,923) and other states took few (Montana and Hawaii: 1 each; Mississippi: 8; Arkansas: 10). Only Wyoming took none.

    A former refugee, and now a Wyoming resident and high school math teacher, Bertine Bahige, began a campaign to change the situation and encourage Wyoming to join the rest of the country and establish a refugee resettlement program. As a result of his efforts, in September 2013, the Governor made some preliminary inquiries with HHS about establishing a resettlement program.

    But once word got out that Wyoming was considering thinking about possibly creating a resettlement program, hundreds of people called the Governor's office to express opposition to the plan. In response, a spokesman for the Governor issued a statement, "Wyoming is not setting up a refugee camp.... This is still very preliminary.”

    Since its tepid beginnings, the Governor's inquiry has made zero progress. In its most recent statement, the Governor's office backed away from any resettlement plan:

    "Constituents asked the governor to look into the possibility of a program, and he did that," [said a spokesperson. Governor] Mead believes any effort to establish a program must be led by community interest. But... "no interested group has offered a recommendation to establish a program to date."

    Of course, the fact that there is no program and there has been no progress in creating a program has done little to assuage the anger of the anti-refugee faction. Last week, a (seemingly small) group called Citizens Protecting Wyoming, held a rally at the state capitol where they expressed their fear that refugees would bring Ebola to Wyoming, take cash from the government, and drain the state of resources.

    The key note speaker at the rally was Don Barnett, a fellow at the Washington, DC-based Center for Immigration Studies ("CIS"). In a bit of a non-sequitur, Mr. Barnett claims to have "gained his expertise in immigration and refugee policy during an assignment in the U.S.S.R. while employed with the U.S.I.A. [United States Information Agency]." His organization, CIS, generally favors reduced immigration, and advocates (not always intellectually honestly) to restrict asylum and refugee admissions. Mr. Barnett’s main concern seems to be that the federal government pays charities to help resettle refugees, and he wants to bring this information "out of the shadows." (I suppose he is less concerned about the private prisons that make Bank by detaining tens of thousands of asylum seekers and immigrants each day). Mr. Barnett is also concerned with fraud in the refugee system. Of course, fraud and costs are legitimate concerns, but so is protecting refugees, and to me, Mr. Barnett’s throw-the-refugee-baby-out-with-the-bathwater approach mischaracterizes and unfairly distorts the life-saving work of the religious charities.

    In connection with the rally, Citizens Protecting Wyoming issued a press release, noting that, "The people of Wyoming are caring and generous... Yet that does not mean we are OK with being forced to increase the burden to our health, safety, welfare, medical, community and educational programs via our tax dollars." Hmm, isn't giving assistance to people who legitimately need it the very definition of caring and generous? You’d think they could at least be honest about who they are. How about this for their next press release:

    While the citizens of Wyoming are generally caring and generous, we here at “Citizens Protecting Wyoming” couldn’t give a damn about disease-carrying, welfare-grubbing foreigners, who probably left their countries just to steal from the American tax payer. And even though the rest of the country does its share to support refugee resettlement, which is an important component of American foreign policy, we’ll let others carry this burden for us. Wyoming is the “Equality State,” and to us, that means we get equal benefits, but we shirk equal responsibility.

    I take some comfort from the fact that there was a substantial counter-protest by people who support expanding the refugee resettlement program to Wyoming. In some ways, though, this is all a tempest in a tea pot. I doubt Wyoming would ever accept more than a handful of refugees (although it is a large state, it has a small population), and so in practical terms it wouldn’t mean much one way or the other. However, in symbolic terms, I think it is important. The United States has committed to protect a certain number of refugees each year. This commitment reflects our values as a nation and our position as the leader of the Free World. In fulfilling our commitment, it would be nice to see all 50 states doing their share. So come on Wyoming, we’re all waiting for you to join us. I think you will be glad you did.

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

    Updated 11-07-2014 at 10:54 AM by JDzubow

  4. An Interview with "Juan" - Unaccompanied Minor, ISIS Supporter, and Ebola Carrier

    In a recent press conference, the dynamic duo of Congressman Steve King and rich guy Donald Trump made some pretty frightening claims about the young people who have lately been arriving at our Southern border. Mr. King told the audience that America is becoming “a third-world country” because of “the things that are coming at us from across the border,” including illegal drugs, Central American children of “prime gang recruitment age,” ISIS... and the Ebola virus. These are some pretty serious charges, and so we here at the Asylumist decided to investigate for ourselves. What we found will shock you.

    King and Trump: A couple of cards. Probably jokers.

    After flying down to Texas, I went to a detention facility that must remained unnamed. There, I met a 14-year-old boy, who we will call Juan. Juan hails from El Salvador--or so he says--and claims that members of a gang attacked his house, threatened his family, and tried to kill him. He then fled to the United States. It's a sad tale, but is it true? I suspected that there was more to the story. You see, Juan has brownish skin, so he is likely a Muslim. Plus, when I met him, he was sweating. This, despite the fact that the detention facility is kept at a balmy 52 degrees Fahrenheit. In my book, Sweating = Ebola. I had some hard questions for Juan:

    ASYLUMIST: Salaam Alaikum.

    JUAN: [stares blankly]

    ASYLUMIST: Salaam Alaikum.

    JUAN: I am not sure what you are saying to me.

    ASYLUMIST: Yeh, right. So tell me Juan, if that is your real name, why did you come to the United States?

    JUAN: Actually, Juan is not my name. You just started calling me Juan for some reason. My real name is Alberto.

    ASYLUMIST: For purposes of this interview, we will call you Juan. So tell me, Juan, why did you come here?

    JUAN: In my town, the gang is very powerful. If you don't join them, they threaten you, take your money, even kill you. Gang members have targeted my family because we are Evangelical Christians and we refuse to join the gang. My father is a Minister. Because we refused to join, the gang set our house on fire, they fired a gun through our window, they threatened me many times with guns and knives. Finally, they tried to kill me, so I had to...

    ASYLUMIST: Blah, blah, blah. Everyone knows that you can't get asylum in the U.S. if you are fleeing gang violence. There's no nexus. It will open the floodgates. We have enough problems here already. We don't need ********ers like you messing up our country.

    JUAN: But I am not a gang member! And I heard that in some cases, when a person is threatened on account of his religion, he can receive asylum in the U.S. even if the persecutor is not the government. There is a case about that called Matter of S-A-. Also, the gang targeted my whole family; not just me, and "family" is a protected category under U.S. asylum law. One case that discusses family as a social group is Lopez-Soto v. Ashcroft. Besides these published decisions, there are many unpublished decisions where people like me have received asylum in the United States.

    ASYLUMIST: You seem to know a lot about asylum for a 14-year-old Salvadoran boy. Very suspicious. Let's shift gears. Why are you so sweaty?

    JUAN: I don't have Ebola.

    ASYLUMIST: Ah Ha! I didn't even mention Ebola. Why would you bring it up unless you had Ebola. Thou protesteth too much, dear Juan. Excuse me while I relocate myself outside your six-foot danger zone.

    JUAN: You mentioned it at the very beginning! And I really don't have Ebola. I've been detained here for two months. If I had Ebola, I'd be dead by now.

    ASYLUMIST: You're spitting when you talk. Please stop that.

    JUAN: I was not spitting.

    ASYLUMIST: If you don't have Ebola, how do you explain the sweating?

    JUAN: Maybe because I am stressed. I fled my country and I'm away from my family for the first time. The gang tried to kill me. Now, I've been detained for the last two months.

    ASYLUMIST: I'm not buying it. Didn't you come here to take our jobs and our women, collect welfare, and spread Ebola and Jihad? Is that a prayer rug you're sitting on? And what's that book next to you? It looks like a Koran.

    JUAN: Huh?

    ASYLUMIST: You're sitting on a Muslim prayer rug. And that book looks like a Koran.

    JUAN: No, I am sitting on a towel. There was no bed space for me, so they gave me a towel to sleep on. It is not very comfortable.

    ASYLUMIST: And the book?

    JUAN: Pep Comics # 224. It's about Jughead Jones and his dog named Hot Dog. The dog used to belong to Archie, but somehow Jughead got him.

    ASYLUMIST: I see. Anything else you want to add before I leave this godforsaken place?

    JUAN: I am just hoping to get my case heard. I am afraid to return to my country. I want to live safely and in peace. I don't have any diseases and I am not a terrorist or a criminal. I really don't understand the United States. You are so powerful, and yet you are afraid of a 14 year old boy. I hope you will help me. And why are you on the floor in the fetal position?

    ASYLUMIST: Please don't unleash your Jihadi Ebola attack on me! Ahh! Run away!

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

    Updated 10-30-2014 at 12:06 PM by JDzubow

  5. I Was Interviewed for Asylum, But I Never Received a Decision

    Some asylum seekers file their applications and never receive an interview. Others are interviewed for asylum and never receive a decision. I've discussed the first problem--called the backlog--several times, but today I want to discuss the second problem. What happens to people who are interviewed for asylum, but then wait forever for a decision?

    Better late than never.

    I’ve had a number of clients with this problem. They fall into a few broad categories.

    One group are people from countries that are considered a security threat to the United States--countries like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Somalia. People from such countries are subject to more extensive—and thus more time consuming—security background checks. The security check process is very opaque, so we really don’t know much about what the government is checking or why it takes so long, and the length of the delay seems to have nothing to do with the person's personal history (for example, I've had clients who worked in the U.S. Embassy in their country or with the U.S. military, and still the background check was delayed). To me, the security background check delays don't make sense. If the person is a threat to the United States, allowing him to live freely here for months or years while the government investigates his background seems like a bad idea. Another aspect of the background check that does not make sense is that asylum seekers in court never seem to be delayed by security checks. Also, aliens seeking their residency in other ways (marriage to a U.S. citizen or through employment) don't seem to have problems with background checks either. While the need for background checks is clear, the inordinate delays for asylum seekers is hard to understand.

    Another group of people who face delays after the interview are people who may have provided "material support" to terrorists or persecutors. I have a client like this--he was kidnapped by terrorists and released only after he negotiated a ransom (which was paid by his relative). Had he not paid the ransom, his case would not have been delayed post-interview. Of course, had he not paid the ransom, he would have been killed by the kidnappers, so the point would probably be moot. I imagine that his case is subject to review by Headquarters, which again, seems reasonable. But why it should take 10 months (so far) and what they hope to discover through an additional review, I don't know.

    A third group of people whose cases are delayed are members of disfavored political parties or organizations. Such people might also be subject to the "material support" bar, but even if they have not provided support to persecutors, their cases might be delayed.

    A final group are high-profile cases, such as diplomats and public figures. When such a person receives asylum (or is denied asylum), there are potential political ramifications. Again, while I imagine it makes sense to review such cases at a higher level, I am not exactly sure what such a review will accomplish. The law of asylum is (supposedly) objective--we should not deny asylum to an individual just because her home government will be offended--so it is unclear what there is to review.

    These delays are particularly frustrating given that decisions in asylum cases should generally be made within six months of filing. According to INA § 208(d)(5)(A)(iii), "in the absence of exceptional circumstances, final administrative adjudication of the asylum application, not including administrative appeal, shall be completed within 180 days after the date an application is filed." Unfortunately, the "exceptional circumstances" clause is the exception that swallows the rule. These days, everything from backlog to background check to Asylum Office error seems to pass for exceptional circumstances. I know this is not really anyone's fault--the Asylum Offices are overwhelmingly busy, but it is still quite frustrating.

    Indeed, I have had clients waiting for more than two years (two years!) after their interview, and the asylum offices can give us not even a hint about when we will receive a decision. The worst part about these delays is how they affect asylum seekers who are separated from their families. I've already had a few clients with strong claims abandon their cases due to the intolerable wait times. The saddest case was an Afghan man who recently left the country, two years after receiving a "recommended approval." The client had a wife and small children who were waiting in Afghanistan. After he received the recommended approval--in 2012--we were hopeful that he would soon receive his final approval, and then petition for his family. After enduring a two-year wait, during which time first his child and then his wife suffered serious illnesses, the client finally gave up and returned to his family. This is a man who worked closely with the U.S. military in Afghanistan and who has a very legitimate fear of the Taliban. In his case, we would have been better off if the Asylum Office had just denied his claim--at least then he would have known that he was on his own. Instead, he relied on our country for help, we told him we would help, and then we let him down.

    Delays after the interviews seem to affect a minority of applicants, and they have not garnered as much attention as the backlog. However, they can be just as frustrating and never-ending as backlogged cases. At the minimum, it would be helpful if the Asylum Offices could provide some type of time frame for these people, particularly when they are separated from family members. As DHS struggles to deal with the backlog, I hope they don't forget about those who have been interviewed, but who are also stuck waiting.

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