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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

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  1. It's Time to End the Cuban Adjustment Act

    In a surprise move (at least a surprise to me), President Obama announced that our country would be moving towards normalization of our relationship with Cuba. As part of the deal, the two countries agreed to exchange some political prisoners, and it appears we will be restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba and opening an Embassy in Havana.




    Evidence that the embargo is working: A dashing Fidel Castro pre-embargo...

    During our long Cold War with Cuba, one element of our “special relationship” has been the Cuban Adjustment Act (“CAA”), a law that allows any Cuban who arrives in the United States to obtain residency here. It’s akin to automatic asylum for any Cuban who reaches U.S. shores.


    I have written before about my opposition to this law: In short, I believe that Cubans should apply for asylum in the same way as everyone else. It makes no sense to give automatic asylum to Cubans, especially since other countries—Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq to name a few—are much more dangerous than Cuba, and nationals from those countries must apply for asylum in the normal way.


    It seems to me that the CAA and our over-all Cuba policy exists because of our government’s decision that this was the best way to isolate the Castro regime and force democratic change on our island neighbor. More specifically, anti-Castro Cubans in Miami pushed our nation’s Cuba policy towards the all-stick, no-carrot approach that—50 years later—has accomplished nothing. Now, it seems attitudes among the Cuban American community have shifted. To be sure, many still oppose normalization, but—so far at least—we have not seen the type of angry, in-the-streets reaction that characterized the Elian Gonzales affair during the Clinton Presidency. Perhaps there is more widespread recognition that the old policy hasn’t worked, and that we need to try something new.


    Fidel Castro, visibly aged due to pressure from the embargo.


    So now that we are moving towards a new phase in our relationship with Cuba, it makes sense to end the CAA. The situation in Cuba is less dangerous than in many other countries, and so there is no longer any justification for the CAA based on humanitarian reasons (though I believe there really never was a valid justification for the law based on humanitarian reasons). The only logical reason for the CAA was as a propaganda tool against the Castro regime. I doubt this ever really worked (except maybe in the minds of some in the anti-Castro Cuban community), and—given that we are moving towards normalized relations—it certainly makes no sense at all any more.


    All of this is not to say that the Cuban regime respects human rights or allows political dissent. It’s clear that the government represses the political opposition, and that it detains and persecutes perceived opponents. But that type of behavior is, unfortunately, all too common in many countries, and it does not justify a blanket asylum for everyone who comes from a country with a poor human rights record. Indeed, it is exactly why we have an asylum system in the first place.


    The CAA is inconsistent with our new Cuban policy. When viewed in context of the overall asylum system, it cannot be justified on humanitarian grounds. It’s time to end the CAA and move towards a new relationship with Cuba.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
  2. The Perils and Promise of Low Bono

    “Low Bono” refers to providing legal representation for less than market value. The idea is that for certain clients who cannot afford an attorney, the attorney will reduce her price so that the client can hire her.
    Lobo, No!

    When lawyers represent asylum applicants (or anyone else) on a low bono basis, there is an obvious benefit to the applicant and to "the system," but what's in it for us? Why would an attorney do this? The most obvious reason is because the attorney wants to take the case—either to help the client or because it is an interesting or important matter. Another reason is that “market value” for an attorney’s time is simply too high for most potential clients. Both reasons apply to my decision about setting my fee for an asylum case: I am interested in asylum cases and that is the type of work I choose to do, and the market for asylum seekers won’t support high attorneys’ fees, at least not for most applicants.


    For asylum cases in the DC-area, fees vary widely. I have heard about attorney’s fees as low as $900.00 for an affirmative case, and as high as $7,500.00 (and I even once heard about a case where the lawyer charged $80,000.00—dare to dream!). Most attorneys who primarily represent asylum seekers (such as myself) charge between $2,000.00 and $3,000.00 for a case. My fee for most cases is $2,800.00, which is a flat fee, meaning it includes photocopying and mailing, as well as attending the asylum interview. I have never calculated how this translates into an hourly fee (it would be too depressing), but I have no doubt that it is well below “market value,” whatever that means.


    There is a great benefit to charging an affordable fee: You can get the types of clients and cases you want to do. And in this sense, I have been very lucky. I’ve represented journalists, human rights workers, women’s rights advocates, diplomats, and politicians, among many others. Given the good luck I’ve had with my clientele, I really shouldn’t complain, but since this is my blog, I will anyway. After all, wasn’t it Descartes who once said: “I complain, therefore I am.”


    My main complaint is related to the backlog, and to delays with asylum cases in general. Before the backlog, most asylum cases would take maybe six or eight months from the time of hiring to the time of decision. Assuming a successful outcome, that was the end of the matter for me. Now, cases may take years. This means that the client contacts me for all sorts of things, from work permits to travel documents to requests to expedite to changes of address. All this extra work takes time; time for which I do not charge my clients.


    But since we lawyers make a living by charging for our time, it’s only fair that we get paid for the additional work. As a practical matter, though, seeking fees for this work can be difficult. Clients are already stressed due to the backlog and charging for dribs and drabs of additional work seems a bit petty. Also, raising the fees for a case makes it more difficult for clients to hire lawyers, so charging for the additional time can create an access-to-justice issue: Higher fees = fewer represented asylum applicants.


    But there is a cost to the attorney for not charging. Extra work for one case means less time for another. It also means more stress in general. Maybe there is some sort of balance that can be achieved here, but I have yet to find it.


    Another problem of low bono is that with less money coming in, the attorney must spend less time on each case. This is not necessarily a problem that results in less successful outcomes for the clients (because although we spend less time on each case, we do a lot of asylum cases, so we become proficient at it). However, it does take some of the pleasure out of doing this type of work. Much of the attraction of an asylum case is the human interaction. But when there is less time for each case, there is less time to spend with the client. It’s common, for instance, for a client to offer to take me to lunch or dinner after a case is granted, but I almost never go—there simply isn’t time.


    In the end, of course, I am my own boss, and I set my fees in a way that (theoretically) maximizes my own happiness with my practice. I want the interesting cases and the cool clients. That is what makes the job worthwhile. The extra work caused by the backlog has made this more difficult; it has upset the equilibrium. For now, I will keep on keeping on, but if the backlog persists, I don’t know whether the “low bono” model is sustainable. I hope that it is, but with each passing day in Backlogistan, I feel less optimistic.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
    Tags: asylum, low bono Add / Edit Tags
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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

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