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Our guest blogger today is Jonathan Bialosky, an attorney at the George Washington University Law School Immigration Clinic. He recently had an important win in an "other serious harm" asylum case. It also happens that he was a student in Todd Pilcher and my Asylum Law class at GW last semester. Congratulations on the win (and on passing our class - which you could have taught). Enjoy--
On September 3rd, 16 years after filing his application, and two years after first approaching the GW Immigration Clinic, my client was granted asylum. Sixteen years is a long time, even in the glacially slow world of EOIR, but more significant is that the Immigration Judge granted my client “humanitarian asylum” on a basis that seems to be greatly under-utilized.
Jonathan Bialosky, who claims that taking Todd and my class constitutes "other serious harm."
There are two types of humanitarian asylum. The first is for individuals whose past persecution was so severe that they cannot be expected to return to their home country, even if—typically because of changed country conditions—they no longer have a well-founded fear of return on account of a protected ground. The BIA first addressed this type of humanitarian asylum in 1989 in the precedent decision Matter of Chen, and this type of humanitarian asylum was codified as a regulation in 1990.
Matter of Chen seems pretty well-known, but a second type of humanitarian asylum is apparently much less common. Pursuant to a regulation that became effective in 2001, under a different type of humanitarian asylum, applicants who suffered past perception on account of a protected ground but who no longer have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of a protected ground remain eligible for asylum if there is a reasonable possibility that they would suffer “other serious harm” upon removal. The BIA, in the 2012 precedent decision, Matter of L-S-, explained that the “other serious harm” need not be related to the past persecution or even have a nexus to a protected ground.
My client qualified for “other serious harm” asylum because he previously suffered past persecution on account of his imputed political opinion and now, due to serious medical conditions, he would die if he were removed to his home country, where the medical care he needs to survive is not available. My client is from Sierra Leone and he served in a regimental band in the country’s army. In 1998, during the civil war, he was falsely accused of involvement with anti-government rebels. He was detained at a military barracks for two weeks, beaten with sticks and weapons, and burned with cigarettes. He escaped and made his way to the U.S. Sadly, beginning in 2000, when he was diagnosed with HIV, my client suffered a series of medical problems. His kidneys failed, he went into a coma, and then, after finally receiving a kidney transplant, his body rejected the new organ. All the while, his asylum application (first filed in 1998 within six months of his arrival in the U.S.) remained administratively closed by USCIS—for 13 years—hence the long wait for a decision.
Through dialysis and participation in a clinical trial of anti-retroviral drugs with the NIH, my client’s medical condition is more or less stable, but he leads a pretty grim life: He has many dietary restrictions, he’s on dialysis three days a week for four hours at a time, and he’s constantly tired. In addition, he has chronic nightmares about what happened in Sierra Leone. All these problems, combined with the generally poor quality of medical care and the recent Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, made it pretty clear that, even though the civil war has ended, my client would suffer “other serious harm” upon removal. Dialysis is not widely available and is prohibitively expensive in Sierra Leone, and kidney transplants are even more rare. One doctor wrote a letter stating that sending my client to Sierra Leone was a “death sentence,” and that he wouldn’t last more than a few weeks there.
The ICE trial attorney and, more importantly, the Immigration Judge, agreed. After 16 years, my client’s asylum merits hearing lasted just 20 minutes. ICE and the IJ were satisfied with the evidence we submitted before the hearing that my client was deserving of humanitarian asylum.
It wasn’t me who identified the legal theory that ultimately won my client’s asylum. Others far sharper than me identified the legal basis that essentially made my client’s case a shoo-in. I had no idea about humanitarian asylum. When I told an immigration attorney friend that I was working on a humanitarian asylum case, she was only familiar with the Matter of Chen type claim. I was also surprised to see very few judicial opinions discussing “other serious harm asylum” (though admittedly, this made the legal research for my brief much easier).
“Other serious harm” asylum has the potential to help many people, even those who have been in the U.S. for more than one year and never applied for asylum. Actually, “other serious harm” humanitarian asylum may render the one-year filing deadline meaningless for some. Consider those that suffered past persecution on account of a protected ground and now cannot return to their home country for some other reason. As my client’s case demonstrates, the reason could be that the individual has a medical condition that cannot be effectively treated in the home country. In addition, Matter of L-S- states that “civil strife, extreme economic deprivation and new physical or psychological harm” could be the causes of other serious harm. The inquiry is prospective, so changed circumstances matter. A recently diagnosed medical condition or outbreak of violence in the home country could constitute changed circumstances that serve both as an excuse for the late filing of the asylum application and as the basis of “other serious harm.” To my knowledge, this has not been tested, but for individuals who did not comply with the one-year filing deadline, “other serious harm” humanitarian asylum may present a viable option for relief where there otherwise would be none.
My client’s experience seems almost tailored-made for “other serious harm” humanitarian asylum, but maybe there are others out there who could benefit from this basis for asylum. With a little publicity for this relatively obscure regulation, maybe some of them can win asylum too. With any luck, they might even be able to do so in fewer than 16 years.
Jonathan Bialosky, Esq., supervises Immigration Clinic law students and provides legal representation to asylum seekers and respondents facing deportation in Immigration Court. He previously served as director of the Maxwell Street Legal Clinic in Lexington, Kentucky from January 2011 until July 2013, serving as the sole attorney at a nonprofit immigration law practice. Jonathan is a May 2010 honors graduate of the George Washington University School of Law.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
In a recent decision, Matter of A-R-C-G-, 26 I&N Dec. 388 (BIA 2014), the BIA held that "married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship” can constitute a cognizable particular social group ("PSG") for purposes of asylum. The decision is significant because it marks the first time that the Board has published a decision essentially endorsing asylum for victims of domestic violence. Applicants who seek asylum under this standard will still need to prove that the level of harm they face constitutes persecution, that they cannot relocate somewhere else within their country, and that their government is unable or unwilling to protect them.
This decision on PSG has been a long time coming, but--at least in my opinion--it does not go far enough.
Guatemalan Women celebrate their new particular social group.
In 2004, in a case called Matter of R-A-, DHS acknowledged that domestic violence could form the basis for an asylum claim. In that case, DHS argued in a brief that R-A- should receive asylum based on domestic violence. In its brief, DHS defined the PSG as "married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship.” Sound familiar? And that was 10 years ago.
Matter of R-A- never resulted in a published BIA decision (though R-A- herself received asylum in 2009). Since the brief was made public in 2004, asylum attorneys have relied on it to advocate for their clients, presumably with some success (since there is no data on the number of cases granted based on domestic violence, it is impossible to know for sure).
To me, the PSG "married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship” is awkward and contrived. Moreover, to receive asylum based on a PSG, the applicant must show that she was persecuted "on account of" her membership in the PSG. In other words, the persecutor harmed the applicant because she is a member of the PSG. I am not convinced that the husband was harming A-R-C-G- because she was a married woman who was unable to leave the relationship. He would have harmed her whether or not she was married and whether or not she was able to leave the relationship. The husband may have had access to A-R-C-G- because he was married to her and because she was unable to leave, but he was not motivated to harm her for those reasons.
It seems to me that there is a simpler, more elegant PSG that would have been appropriate for this case: "Women." I suspect that I am not alone in this opinion. In amici curiae briefs, counsels for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies argued that gender alone should be enough to constitute a PSG. Also, at least one federal circuit court (you guessed it - the Ninth) has held that "women in Guatemala" might constitute a particular social group.
"Women" makes sense as the PSG in this case. The evidence in the case suggests that the husband would have persecuted any woman who he was with--whether or not she was married or able to leave him. Further, country condition evidence from Guatemala makes clear that women in that country live in dire circumstances. In its decision, the Board notes that Guatemala "has a culture of 'machismo and family violence,'" including sexual offenses and spousal rape. The victims of this violence are, for the most part, women. And, by the way, they are not just "Guatemalan women." I imagine that if a Salvadoran woman, or a Nicaraguan woman, or a Japanese woman lived in Guatemala and integrated into the society, she would face the same problems as a Guatemalan woman. For this reason, the PSG should be "women," as opposed to "Guatemalan women."
But the BIA was not willing to go that far. After noting that counsel for Amici argued in favor of gender alone as the PSG, the Board held, "Since the respondent’s membership in a particular social group is established under the aforementioned group, we need not reach this issue."
Perhaps that is the way of things. It's best not to push the law too far, even if it makes logical sense, and even where it would protect additional people. A decision granting asylum to women (or men) who face persecution solely because of their gender would likely open the door to many more asylum seekers. Given the current state of affairs in the asylum world--the border crisis, partisan scrutiny from Congress, the backlog--maybe it's best not to open the door too far. Maybe a relatively limited decision like Matter of A-R-C-G- is the best we could have hoped for.
I don't mean to minimize the importance of A-R-C-G-. It is obviously a great win for the alien in that case (though the decision does not finally grant her asylum, it seems very likely that that will be the end result), and it will certainly help many women who face harm from domestic abusers. However, the decision codifies a landscape where women--many without the resources available to people like A-R-C-G- and R-A---will be forced to articulate complicated PSGs and demonstrate that they are members of those PSGs. I am not sure how many poor refugee women will actually be able to do all that.
A-R-C-G- was persecuted because she was a woman. Not because she was a Guatemalan woman, not because she was married, and not because she was unable to leave her husband. Matter of A-R-C-G- is an important step towards protecting women victims of domestic violence. Maybe next time, the BIA will take a giant leap.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
If you follow the news from the Executive Office for Immigration Review or EOIR--the office that oversees the Immigration Courts--you are aware of the recent lawsuit filed by Judge Afsaneh Ashley Tabaddor. Judge Tabaddor is an IJ in Los Angeles. She was appointed in 2005 and has been serving ever since. Judge Tabaddor also happens to be Iranian-American.
Judge Tabaddor has been mistreated by the executive Branch. We hope she doesn't Leave. We are Root-ing for her.
According to Judge Tabaddor's complaint against EOIR, trouble began for her in the summer of 2012 when the White House--considered by some a radical Muslim organization--invited her to attend a "Round Table with Iranian-American Community Leaders." After some hemming and hawing over the nature of the event, EOIR granted the Judge leave to attend. But afterward, EOIR banned Judge Tabaddor from adjudicating cases involving nationals from Iran. So in other words, an Iranian American Judge who is active in her community is not permitted to hear cases where the alien is from Iran.
On it's face, EOIR's decision seems completely ridiculous and indefensible. It would be like forcing members of the National Association of Women Judges to recuse themselves in cases involving women, or stopping members of a Jewish judges association from hearing cases involving Jews, etc., etc. But can EOIR's decision somehow be justified? Does it make sense to ban an Iranian-American who is involved in her community from hearing cases form Iran? Permit me to try to make that argument (as an asylum lawyer, tilting at windmills is my specialty).
Perhaps EOIR is concerned about the Judge because Iran is considered our enemy (or--on a good day--our rival). Allowing Judge Tabaddor to hear Iranian cases would be like allowing an American originally from the Eastern Block to serve in the White House during the Cold War (Zbigniew Brzezinski) or like allowing a German-American to lead the fight against Germany in WWI (John J. "Black Jack" Pershing) or against the Nazis in WWII (Major General Carl Spaatz). Hmm, maybe that argument doesn't work so well after all. Let me put it another way. If you are at war with Japan, you'd better imprison all Japanese-Americans. Wait. Maybe that is not such a good argument either. Let's try this a little differently.
It could be that EOIR is worried about the appearance of bias. Appearance is very important for judges. If an IJ is perceived as biased, it reduces our confidence in her decisions. It would be as if five Republican-appointed judges voted to end an election recount, giving the victory to the Republican presidential candidate. Oy. Let me give you a better example. Maybe it would be like allowing a Russian figure skating judge who is married to the director of the Russian Figure Skating Association to serve as a judge at the Sochi Olympics. And then the Russian skater miraculously wins. Harrumph. I guess that one doesn't work too well either. Maybe we should look at the problem another way.
What if we assume that Judge Tabaddor is, in fact, biased in favor (or against) Iranian respondents. If that is the case, why should the recusal order be limited to cases from Iran? Iran and Iraq fought a war recently, so probably the IJ is biased against Iraq and should not hear cases from that country either. Iran also fought a war with Greece back in the day, and if I were Iranian, I'd still be bitter about the Battle of Thermopylae. So the Judge should also be banned from hearing cases involving Greeks, or at least Spartans. Iran has endured invasions by Mongols and Arabs, so Judge Tabaddor obviously should not hear Mongolian or Arab cases, and since Mongolians were mixed in pretty good with the Chinese, we'd better also ban her from Chinese cases--just to be safe. And of course, Iran doesn't much like Christians, Baha'is or Jews, so the Judge should probably be kept away from cases involving those faiths. In addition, Iran has disputes with Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Saudi Arabia. The Judge would have to be banned from hearing cases involving those nationals as well. And don't even get me started about cases involving Israelis. So basically, if Judge Tabaddor is biased, as EOIR seems to assume, the only cases she should decide involve people from Guyana or New Zealand. And maybe São Tomé, but I'm not even sure that's a country.
In the end, I really don't know whether Judge Tabaddor's lawsuit will succeed. IJs exist to implement the authority of the Attorney General. If the AG chooses to prevent certain IJs from reviewing cases from certain countries, that may be within his discretion. While the law may not be clear (at least to me), I have no doubt about which side is right. If an IJ behaves in an inappropriately biased manner, she should be removed from her job. But where--as here--there seems to be no question as to the Judge's integrity, her docket should not be restricted in this insulting and discriminatory way.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
There are, in effect, two definitions of "refugee." There is the legal definition from the 1951 Refugee Convention (codified in U.S. law at INA § 101(a)(42)), and then there is the lay person's definition.
The legal definition of refugee includes:
any person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality... and who is unable or unwilling to return to... that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion
The lay person's definition is much broader and includes basically anyone who has been forced to flee from their home due to war or an environmental or man-made disaster. Many people who have been displaced by conflict or catastrophe are refugees under the lay definition, but not under the legal definition.
Refugees or "refugees"?
The mass movement of people--especially young people--escaping violence and poverty in Central America has gotten me thinking about these definitions. As our country struggles to respond to the influx, I wonder whether we need a new definition of "refugee."
Under current U.S. law, if a person is physically present in the country and meets the legal definition of refugee, he will receive asylum. This is quite a nice benefit to receive. People who get asylum are able to remain here permanently. They can eventually become residents and later citizens. They can travel, work, and attend school. They can sponsor certain family members to join them in the United States. They are sometimes eligible for government assistance. These generous benefits are a "pull" factor because they encourage refugees to seek asylum here (as opposed to staying put or seeking asylum somewhere else). The benefits also create an incentive for people to file fraudulent asylum claims.
To guard against fraud, we have created an elaborate bureaucracy to evaluate the veracity of asylum claims. We have Asylum Officers, Immigration Judges, the Board of Immigration Appeals, the various DHS Chief Counsels' offices (basically, the prosecutors in Immigration Court), the Forensic Document Lab, and an extensive system of security background checks. All this costs money and takes time. But I can imagine an alternative to this system.
We could simply categorize as a "refugee" anyone who says that they are afraid to return home. In other words, if someone requests asylum in the United States, they would automatically be granted asylum. This sounds like a stupid plan, you say? Everyone and their brother would seek asylum here, including terrorists and criminals. Worse, it would put asylum lawyers out of business. Maybe so, but indulge me for a moment.
There are some obvious benefits to this idea. For one thing, it would completely eliminate the bureaucracy associated with adjudicating asylum applications. Second, we would never mistakenly return a legitimate refugee to her country. Third, people who do not meet the legal definition of refugee, but who fear return for some other reason, could find refuge in the U.S.
There are also some obvious drawbacks. First, if everyone who asked for asylum got it, very likely the number of asylum seekers would increase. Second, terrorists and criminals might exploit the asylum system to enter the United States. Third, we would lose the ability to control who and how many people come to our country.
But what if we could reduce the drawbacks and keep the benefits?
The main question is how to deal with the likely increased demand under this new system? The easiest way to reduce the “pull” of asylum would be to reduce the benefits of asylum. Basic economic theory suggests that if it is easier to obtain asylum, more people will come here, but if the benefits are reduced, less people will come here. So in order to offset the increased number of asylum seekers caused by reducing the barriers to asylum, we would need a corresponding reduction in benefits. How much of a reduction will provide this balance, I don’t know. But let’s say we reduce the benefits to the bare minimum: People who come here for asylum will be placed in a refugee camp indefinitely, they will receive only the supplies they need to survive, and they can leave only to return to their home country or to resettle in a third country. This is more-or-less the situation for Syrian and Iraqi refugees in places like Jordan and Turkey. My guess is that if this regime were strictly enforced, the overall effect would be to reduce the number of people seeking asylum in the U.S. In other words, the ease of obtaining asylum would be more than offset by the lack of benefits. If this is correct, it means we could offer something more than the bare minimum benefits without causing a major increase in the number of people seeking asylum here. The difficult question is how to find the equilibrium.
Another important drawback to my system is that it might attract criminals and terrorists. Of course if these people were confined to refugee camps, their ability to harm us would be quite limited.
Finally, my system might cause us to lose control of our border, since anyone claiming asylum would get it. But again, if the asylum seekers were confined to camps, and then resettled by the UN to third countries or to the United States, we might actually end up with a better controlled border since we could admit as many or as few people for resettlement as we choose.
Depending on the number of people arriving at our borders, it may be impossible to offer them the full range of benefits and due process protections that we have previously given to asylum seekers. But I don't think we're there yet--although there has been an increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving in the U.S., the numbers are still nothing close to what countries like Jordan and Turkey have been experiencing. However, if we continue seeing large numbers of people arriving in the U.S. to seek asylum, we may need to start considering alternatives to our current system.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
If you talk to people working in the human rights field, many will tell you that they view their work as an expression of their political and moral beliefs. More often than not, those beliefs are grounded in religious faith.
Dare to dream...
That is true for me. I am Jewish and I am an asylum lawyer. I view my work as an expression of my Jewish values. These values are derived not just from our sacred texts--which encourage discussion, debate, and self reflection--but also from our experience as a people who lived in exile and faced centuries of persecution. For me, Jewish values include respecting the life and dignity of all people, trying to understand "the other," trying to understand myself, and sympathizing with the powerless. All this is a good fit with asylum law where I represent foreign people who face harm or death from governments or terrorist groups. But how do these values align with support for Israel?
There was a time when I felt that my values were largely consistent with supporting Israel. After all, it is a small country, created by refugees and surrounded by enemies. But more recently, it has become harder for me to be "pro-Israel," as that term is generally understood. It's not that I don't support Israel and believe it should exist as a Jewish state. I do. But I have found that in recent years, it has become increasingly difficult to reconcile the values that guide my life and career with being "pro-Israel." There are several reasons for this.
For one, it is difficult to accept the dishonesty of the pro-Israel side. Of course, this is not a problem confined to supporters of Israel. If anything, I see more dishonesty from opponents of Israel. But since I am Jewish and concerned about the behavior of my side, it is difficult to square my Jewish values with the pro-Israel propaganda that I daily see in the news. An example of this is how Israel's supporters consistently put forth a narrative that exonerates Israel for any blame in the current conflict. It is true that Hamas initiated the recent fighting, but that is hardly the beginning of the story. Israel seems always to have an excuse for failing to make concessions or reign in settlers. As a result, moderate Palestinians are undermined (since they cannot show progress to their constituents) and extremists are empowered. A more honest evaluation would include self criticism--what have Israel and its supporters done wrong? How have their actions contributed to the cycle of violence? How have Israeli policies encouraged Jewish extremism? This type of analysis, I have never heard from the pro-Israel camp.
Also, I have great difficulty accepting the alliance of pro-Israel Jews with Neo-Conservatives and Christian Zionists. I find the Neo-Conservative's view on the use of force to be immoral and anti-Jewish, not to mention cynical, short-sighted, and ineffective. Exhibit No. 1 in that regard is our war in Iraq. As for the Christian Zionists--people like John Hagee of Christians United for Israel--their purported love of Israel seems a thinly veiled proxy for hating Muslims. If there ever came a time when Israel was actually able to make peace with the Arabs, the Christian Zionists would be opposed: Peace with Muslims is not compatible with their world view. The values of Neo-Conservatives and Christian Zionists are profoundly contrary to my own. And while I understand that the enemy of my enemy is sometimes my friend, for me, certain alliances are beyond the pale.
I also have trouble with the knee-jerk defensiveness of the pro-Israel camp, which is eager to label any expression of anti-Zionism as Antisemitism. Sometimes anti-Zionism is Antisemitism, and sometimes it is not. But there is a flip side to that coin: For many years, Jews have made the State of Israel an integral part of our religion. Synagogues have Israeli flags and signs supporting Israel, we celebrate Israeli Independence Day, we send our young people to Israel to study, we raise money for Israel. In other words, we have made Judaism and Zionism synonymous. In that case, it is hard to fault our enemies for confusing the two concepts. Frankly, I think our attachment to Israel is a good thing. What I oppose is the assumption that all criticism of Israel is made in bad faith, which allows us to avoid the difficult task of self examination.
Linked to the issue of defensiveness is the on-going effort by Israel supporters to stifle speech that they view as anti-Israel. They threaten funding sources, ban (or attempt to ban) disfavored speakers from Jewish events, label leftist Jewish groups "traitors," and they rejected the dovish J Street's attempt to join the Presidents Conference, an umbrella organization of Jewish-American agencies. If the pro-Israel camp sought to counter the ideas they find offensive, that would be one thing. But instead, they seek to eliminate those ideas. I am a believer in free speech and in the (very Jewish) idea of debating issues. To me, these efforts to squelch speech and avoid engagement on difficult issues is offensive.
Finally, I do not appreciate the effort of Israel supporters to deflect attention from Gaza by comparing it to the much more deadly situations in Syria or Iraq. While I think it is legitimate to ask non-Jews and non-Palestinians why they are more concerned about Gaza than Syria, I do not think that question is appropriate for Jews (or--obviously--Palestinians). As Jews, we should be concerned about the behavior of other Jews. We should question Israel's policies that we disagree with. The fact that others are behaving worse than us does not seem a valid justification for our own actions.
I remember an incident from when I lived in Israel--way back in 1990. I was visiting the Jewish settlers in Hebron, a large Arab town in the West Bank. We went to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, which is considered the burial place of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is a holy place for Jews and Muslims. We were in the Jewish section when the settlers started singing "Jerusalem! Jerusalem!" and dancing. They danced into the Muslim part and interrupted a dozen old Muslim men who were praying. At the moment, I felt I had to choose sides--with the settlers or with the Muslims. I am sorry to say that I chose to dance and sing with my fellow Jews. The old Muslim men stopped their prayers and watched us quietly, humiliated.
I still believe that there is a choice to make, but it is not a choice between Jews and Muslims or Israelis and Palestinians. It is a choice between right and wrong. I am pro-Israel in that I believe Israel should exist as a Jewish democratic state and that it has the right to defend itself from terrorists' missiles and tunnels. But if "pro-Israel" means persecuting, humiliating, and de-humanizing Palestinians, refusing to make concessions for peace, demonizing opponents, stifling speech, and making alliances with morally bankrupt groups, you can count me out.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.