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Judiciary Committee Hearing on Asylum Abuse: Some Questions for Rep. Goodlatte and for Asylum Advocates
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.
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.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
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.
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.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
As Thanksgiving approaches, I thought it might be nice to look back at our country's earliest--and strangest--effort to help asylum seekers. I'm not talking about the Pilgrims, who came here long before our nation's independence. I'm talking about the French colony of Asylum, founded in 1793 on the shores of the Susquehanna River in northern Pennsylvania.
In those days, the United States and France enjoyed good relations, thanks in part to France’s key role during the American Revolution. When France’s own Revolution went bad, the United States was prepared to help refugees fleeing the guillotine—and to make a profit in the process.
...and that's why, even today, you can find good croissants in northern Pennsylvania.
Several prominent Pennsylvanians were involved in forming the Asylum Company, which purchased land and began constructing large houses in the untamed wilderness. The largest house, called “la grande maison,” was 84 feet long and 60 feet wide. It had eight fireplaces. Supposedly, it was built for Marie Antoinette, wife of King Louis XVI (she of the “Let them eat cake” fame). Unfortunately, Marie Antoinette was executed by the Revolution before she could find asylum in the U.S.
A number of prominent exiles did manage to reach Asylum, including members of the French Royal Court, soldiers, and businessmen. The exiles tried to re-create their aristocratic life style in America, and they enjoyed music and plays, brandy and fine wine. Ultimately, though, the idea of an aristocratic French Court in the Pennsylvania wilderness could not be sustained; the exiles yearned to return to France. One historian described the mood in Asylum:
As time went on [the French] grew to hate the work, the monotony, and the sordid hopelessness of their life at Asylum… Nostalgia had the colony in its grip.
Finally, Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in France and ended the Revolution. He invited all French exiles to return, and promised to restore their estates. The celebration in Asylum supposedly lasted for days, and most of the residents returned to France by 1802. The Asylum Company itself proved a failure, with at least one principal landing in debtor’s prison.
All that remains today of Asylum are some archaeological ruins and a museum. The historic site serves as a reminder of our country’s earliest effort to provide refuge to those fleeing persecution.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
Carlos Gutierrez was a successful businessman in Chihuahua, Mexico when cartel members demanded extortion payments from him. After he could no longer afford to pay, the cartel members cut off his feet as an example to others. Mr. Gutierrez somehow survived and fled to the United States where he requested asylum. Ultimately, his case was administratively closed, leaving him in legal limbo (though I guess that beats deportation).
Carlos Gutierrez: "What matters is that you get up. I have no legs, but I am on my feet."
To raise awareness about Mexican asylum seekers, Mr. Gutierrez--outfitted with prosthetic legs--biked over 700 miles across Texas:
“I’m not here to point the finger at anyone; simply to alert the [U.S.] government as to what’s going on with the Mexican people,” Gutierrez said. “People from other countries are granted asylum as soon as they touch American soil, but not us Mexicans. Because even with the circumstances we’ve lived through – in my case the attempt on my life – it isn’t enough to get asylum. I don’t think it’s fair that it’s this way for Mexicans just because we are from a neighboring country.”
Mr. Gutierrez's lawyer, Carlos Spector, the founder of Mexicanos en Exilio, adds that, "Asylum law doesn’t reflect the Mexican reality, which is that much of the extortion is possible because of the relationship with the state." He continues:
Because the police is an extension of the state... and because the police is often responsible for acts of violence or allows acts of violence to occur with impunity, the state is responsible for what happens to victims of organized crime. That, he says, makes it political persecution.
I've written before about the abysmally low asylum grant rate for Mexican asylum seekers: Historically, something like 2% of asylum cases from Mexico are granted. So what gives? Why is the denial rate for Mexican asylum seekers so high when conditions in that country are so violent?
First, let's look at the statistics. Perhaps the situation today is not quite so dire as the historical data suggests. According to the Department of Justice, for FY 2012, there were 9,206 applications for asylum from Mexico received by the Immigration Courts. In the same year, the Courts granted 126 cases and denied 1,395 (an additional 337 Mexican cases were granted by the Asylum Offices, but I have seen no data on the total number of Mexican applications, so we do not know the success rate before the Asylum Offices - see DHS Statistics, Table 17). Another 138 cases were abandoned, 1,906 were withdrawn, and 2,335 were resolved in other ways. "Other" cases are mostly people who changed venue, but also people who received some other type of relief from removal. Presumably "abandoned" and "withdrawn" cases might also include people who received some other type of relief.
So just looking at granted (126) vs. denied (1,395), we have an 8.3% grant rate. But since this does not include people granted Withholding of Removal, relief under the Convention Against Torture or some other type of relief (Cancellation of Removal or adjustment of status), we can safely assume that the number of Mexican asylum seekers who win their court cases is significantly higher (with "win" being broadly defined, as not everyone who gets CAT relief views it as a win).
Even if the grant rate is not as low as previously believed, it is still pretty darn low. Why?
One reason that the success rate for Mexican asylum seekers is so low may be that Mexican applications tend to be defensive (i.e., filed as a defense after the applicant is in removal proceedings) rather than affirmative. Although I have not seen any data on this, it is probably safe to assume that most Mexican cases are filed defensively. This is because the majority (61%) of aliens residing unlawfully in the U.S. are from Mexico, so it stands to reason that they would represent the largest group in removal proceedings. People in removal proceedings who have no other option tend to file for asylum as a last ditch effort to remain in the U.S. Such people are less likely to succeed (see DHS Statistics, page K2) for several reasons. For one, they are usually filing outside the one-year filing deadline and are thus probably ineligible for asylum. Also, some of these asylum seekers will be detained, which makes it much harder to successfully litigate their cases. Finally, some of these people will be in removal proceedings due to a criminal conviction, which also makes it more difficult (or impossible) to win an asylum case.
So while there are some legitimate explanations for the low denial rate of Mexican asylum seekers, could there be other, less proper, reasons? Mr. Gutierrez and his lawyer Mr. Spector suggest two possibilities: One, that because Mexico is a neighboring country, we tend to deny their asylum claims at a higher rate. This has been called the "floodgate" argument--if we grant asylum too easily to Mexicans, it will open the floodgates and we will be inundated with Mexican applicants. And two, adjudicators in the U.S. do not properly recognize that claims related to cartel violence are really political claims because the cartels and the Mexican state are inextricably linked (asylum claims can be granted based on political persecution, but generally not based on fear of criminal violence).
Although I have no evidence to back it up, I think there is something to the floodgate argument. Decision-makers are certainly aware that granting asylum to large numbers of Mexicans will likely lead to more people coming to the U.S. Combine this with the fact that these cases are relatively easy to deny (since they usually do not fall neatly within one of the five protected categories) and you have a strong incentive to reject Mexican asylum claims.
I am a bit more skeptical of the argument that these cases are "political," since the government and the cartels are connected. Even if the government is doing the persecuting, that does not necessarily mean that the persecution is political. It may simply be (as it seems) that the criminals and their government allies are trying to steal money from the people. Under current asylum law, it is difficult to argue that this--by itself--is a basis for asylum.
Finally, there is no doubt that many Mexicans--including Mr. Gutierrez--face dire circumstances. Perhaps there needs to be a change in the law to help them, even when they do not meet the legal definition of "refugee." If we can help Chinese people victimized by forced family planning, and Cubans (whether they have been victimized or not), shouldn't we do something to help our Mexican neighbors who are daily threatened, harmed, and murdered by the cartels?
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
Last week when I wrote about Dream Activists and Asylum Seekers, I caused a bit of a kerfuffle. Hopefully, today, I will do better, and this post won't be quite so kerfuffle-inducing (and yes, I plan to see how many times I can use the word "kerfuffle" in one post - according to Carl Kasell, so far that's three).
First, a bit of housekeeping. If you have not read my post from last week, this entry will be harder to follow.
Probably the main objection to my posting last week was my insinuation that the asylum claims of the Dream 30 were not legitimate. However, based on the comments from their attorneys/advocates David Bennion and Mathew Kolken, it seems that the claims are legitimate, and so I will take that as a given for purposes of this blog post.
Explaining stuff helps us understand.
With that as background, there are two issues I want to discuss: (1) From a moral and policy point of view, is there any problem with using the Dream 30's asylum cases to promote a political agenda (the Dream Act) when that agenda is unrelated to the substance of the asylum claim (fear of persecution in Mexico)? and (2) Will this strategy move the Dream Activists closer to their goal?
Political asylum cases are, by their nature, political (duh). This means that the claimants have a political agenda. Normally, that agenda relates to the substance of their claim. For example, I represented a Pakistani journalist who opposed the government and faced persecution because of his activities. After he received asylum, he spoke about his case in the media to try to gain attention for his cause. This seems perfectly legitimate.
The journalist's case is different from the Dream Activists, in that the activists are not publicizing their cases to highlight the political situation in Mexico. Instead, they are highlighting the failure of the U.S. government to pass immigration reform. I worried that this use of asylum would somehow damage the asylum system. So are the Dream Activists under any obligation to justify their actions? And, if so, is there a justification for using the asylum system in this manner?
First, why should the Dream 30 be required to justify their use of the asylum system as a form of protest? They have legitimate reasons for seeking asylum, and if they want to use their cases to gain attention for the Dream Act or for any other cause, isn't that their business? Speaking for myself, without such a justification, I find it very difficult to support their political action (though I certainly support their right to seek asylum, as per the letter from Bill Ong Hing). Although it may sound corny, having represented hundreds of asylum seekers, I believe that our system of asylum is, in some ways, sacred. It is a system that is designed to--and does--save lives. If that system is going to be used for some ulterior motive, I, for one, would like an explanation.
I can image some possible justifications: Maybe the activists think publicizing these cases will help advance immigration reform; maybe they want to demonstrate that when undocumented immigrants leave the U.S., their lives are at risk; maybe they want to alert other Dream Act-eligible people to the possibility that they might avoid removal by seeking asylum; maybe they want to inspire other undocumented people to come forward; or perhaps there is another reason for their actions that I have not thought of. My point being, it would be nice to know what the Dream Activists want.
The second big question for me is whether the strategy of publicizing the Dreamers' asylum claims will accomplish their political goal (whatever that might be). Assuming the goal is immigration reform of some kind, I have seen no explanation for how publicizing these asylum cases will move our country towards that goal.
Certainly, it could simply be that I am ill informed. However, I am more than a casual observer, and I am not a complete idiot (at least on my better days). So if I don't get it, probably many others don't either. The Dream activists have done an extraordinary job of publicizing the Dream 30 (and the Dream 9 before them), but they have failed to capitalize on this initial attention to move the discussion in a positive direction. Indeed, it seems to me that they have completely lost the initiative, as the discussion has bogged down in internecine internet warfare. Maybe if the Dreamers had been more clear from the beginning about their goals and strategy, the debate over these issues would not have taken such an unproductive turn.
It is not too late for the Dream Activists to re-take the initiative and extricate themselves from the unproductive tit-for-tat with other immigrant advocates. For a start, they need to clearly explain a few things: (1) When and under what circumstances did the members of the Dream 30 leave the U.S. and why are they seeking asylum (their lawyer David Bennion did a pretty good job of this in response to my blog post from last week); (2) What is the ultimate goal of the Dream Activists; and (3) How does the action at the border help achieve that goal.
For me--and, I suspect, for others--clear answers to these questions would be a good way to begin a productive dialogue about goals and strategy, and would go a long way towards bringing us on board with the Dream Activists' plan. But for now, without a good explanation, I am simply not convinced that the Dreamers' actions have done anything to advance the cause of undocumented people, asylum seekers, or immigration reform.
Kerfuffle - 4.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.