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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum


  1. Back(log) to the Future: 60,000+ People Stuck in the Asylum Backlog

    I recently participated in a panel discussion at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in Washington, DC. The panel was hosted by Congresswoman Yvette Clarke and featured speakers from academia, non-profits, government, and the private bar. The introductory speaker was the Ambassador of Jamaica, who (to my surprise) knew more about asylum law than most immigration attorneys. The focus of the panel was on asylum seekers of African decent (so, generally, people from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America).

    Déjà queue - The backlog is back. Or maybe it really never went away.

    One purpose of the panel was to bring attention to asylum seekers and refugees from Africa and the African diaspora. According to Jana Mason of UNHCR, despite the recent turmoil in the Middle East, the plurality of the world's refugees and internally displaced people come from Africa. This is significant because in the United States, there is not a strong constituency to support these people (as there is for Cubans, for example). The result is that African and diaspora asylum seekers often receive less attention and less support than asylum seekers from other places. The CBC hopes to improve our government's policies towards African asylum seekers, and our panel was part of that effort.

    Panel speakers also touched on issues that affect asylum seekers in the U.S. more generally. The most important comments in that regard came from John Lafferty, the Chief of the Asylum Division at USCIS, who spoke--among other things--about the backlog (for some background on the backlog, check out my previous post).

    The statistics Mr. Lafferty cited were sobering: 55,000 affirmative asylum cases filed in FY 2014, over 50,000 credible fear interviews, and a nationwide backlog of 60,000 cases. USCIS estimates that it might take three to four years to resolve the backlog, and presumably that's only if unforeseen events don't cause additional delay.

    One piece of good news is that USCIS has been working hard to deal with the situation. In the last year or so, they've grown from 273 asylum officers to 425 officers, and they plan to hire additional officers going forward. I must say that my experience with the new officers has been a bit mixed. Most are excellent--professional, courteous, knowledgeable, and fair. A few, though, seem to be unfamiliar with the law or with basic interview techniques. Hopefully, as they gain more experience, these kinks will be worked out (and hopefully not too many legitimate refugees will be denied asylum in the mean time).

    Despite USCIS's efforts, the backlog has continued to grow. At this point, even if no new cases enter the system, it would take over one year to review all 60,000 cases. And of course, new cases continue to enter the system all the time. Given the large number of people stuck in the backlog, I'd like to offer a few suggestions on how to make life easier for those who are waiting:

    , and I think most importantly, USCIS should give priority to applicants with family members who are overseas. This can be done in at least two ways: (1) Review existing I-589 forms, and where there is a spouse or child who is currently not in the U.S., give that case priority; and (2) when a backlogged case is (finally) approved, give priority to any I-730 petition for family members following to join.

    , and this would probably require a legislative fix so maybe it is pie in the sky, for any case that USCIS knows will enter the backlog, allow the applicant to file immediately for her work permit (under existing law, the asylum applicant must wait 150 days before filing for a work permit).

    , instead of issuing the work permit (called an employment authorization document or EAD) for one year, issue it for two years (or more). A two-year EAD would make life easier for asylum seekers. Renewing the permit every year is expensive and processing delays sometimes result in people losing their jobs and driver's licenses (which are tied to the EADs).

    , devote more resources to backlogged cases, even if this means slowing down the process for newly-filed cases (backlogged cases have been skipped; USCIS processes new cases before backlogged cases). Even if only a few backlogged cases were being adjudicated, this would at least give hope to the thousands who are waiting without any sign of progress. Also, it would be helpful for people to have some sense of when their cases will be adjudicated. USCIS should endeavor to release as much information as available about their efforts to resolve the backlog. Given that each Asylum Office has its own website, perhaps the information could be posted there and updated regularly.

    I recognize that USCIS's situation is difficult and unprecedented, and that they have been overwhelmed by the large numbers of new applications and credible fear interviews. But from my view of things, the situation for those who are waiting is pretty rough. These modest suggestions would help to mitigate the difficulty for the most seriously affected, and would give some hope and relief to the others.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
    Tags: asylum, backlog Add / Edit Tags
  2. “Miranda Rights” for Asylum Seekers

    It’s a common scenario in my office: A person who entered the U.S. unlawfully at the Mexican border, and who was detained and released by U.S. immigration authorities, wants to seek asylum, but has missed the one-year deadline to apply.

    Dupe process of law at the border: Don’t tell people about their rights, and they won’t exercise them.

    Just the other day, a young man from El Salvador came to me for a consultation. In his country, gang members threatened to kill him. They targeted him partly because of his religion (Evangelical), but mostly because he had a job and (they presumed) money. They also targeted his wife and young child. The man’s family went into hiding and the man came to the United States. He entered without inspection in June 2013 and was apprehended by the Border Patrol. After he passed a credible fear interview (a CFI is essentially an initial evaluation of whether the alien can state a claim for asylum), he was released and ordered to appear before an Immigration Judge. The man attended his first hearing, where the IJ gave him additional time to find a lawyer. That’s when I came into the picture—in September 2014; more than one year after the man entered the United States.

    So how to evaluate this man’s case? On the merits, it’s not a great case. He certainly faces grave harm if he returns. But it may be difficult to show that the harm is “on account of” a protected ground: Perhaps he has a claim based on his fear that the gang will persecute him due to his religion, or his particular social group (family; maybe “people with jobs”), but it’s certainly not a slam dunk. Probably the more difficult issue, however, involves the man’s failure to file for asylum during his first year in the United States (in order to qualify for asylum, an alien must file the asylum form--the I-589--within one year of arrival or meet an exception to the one-year deadline). With regard to this filing deadline, the man’s case is pretty typical.

    Like most asylum lawyers, I despise the one-year filing deadline (found at INA § 208(a)(2)(B) and 8 C.F.R. § 208.4). It was originally enacted to help prevent fraud. The logic being that if you had a legitimate case, you’d file it within a year. The reality is quite different. People like the Salvador man know that they face harm in their country, but they have no idea about the law, and little incentive (or money) to hire a lawyer until their court date is imminent—often well beyond their first year here. The result is that legitimate refugees are denied asylum for reasons completely unrelated to their claims and, instead of reviewing the merits of a case, the IJ or asylum officer is stuck evaluating the applicant’s excuse for failing to file within one year. For these reasons, it’s hard to find anyone involved in the system who likes the one-year rule. So what can be done?

    The obvious solution is to eliminate the one-year bar. But that would require Congressional action, and it’s rare these days to see the words “Congress” and “action” in the same sentence. So I won’t hold my breath on this idea.

    A more realistic solution may be to create a Miranda*-style rule for asylum. In other words, the Border Patrol or the Immigration Judge or whoever the alien comes into contact with, would be required to inform the alien that if he wishes to seek asylum, he needs to file the form I-589 within one year of arrival. We could also require that the alien be informed about the one-year rule in a language that he understands, and (since we are wishing) we can even require that they give him a copy of the form and information about where to file it.

    I think the 1966 Supreme Court case Miranda v. Arizona provides a good model for how to protect aliens. That case created the famous "Miranda warning" that police read at the time of arrest (You have the right to remain silent; anything you say can be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney...). In reaching its decision, the Court wanted to protect our Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination (no one "shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself"). The Court reasoned that in the intimidating environment of police custody, suspects might feel compelled to talk, and so the Court created the Miranda warning to help ensure that people will understand their right against self incrimination. One portion of the case particularly strikes me:

    An individual swept from familiar surroundings into police custody, surrounded by antagonistic forces, and subjected to the techniques of persuasion described above cannot be otherwise than under compulsion to speak.

    The image of the beleaguered suspect, disoriented and in unfamiliar surroundings, unable to exercise his Fifth Amendment rights, seems to me analogous to the alien, recently arrived in the U.S., who is taken into custody, placed into a system that he does not understand, in a language that he (probably) does not understand, and who then loses substantive rights as a result of his predicament. True, in the case of Miranda, the suspect was momentarily disoriented and vulnerable, whereas with asylum seekers, the person has a whole year to file his case. But just as the Miranda Court examined specific instances where suspects' rights were violated and reached its conclusion that protection was necessary based on an analysis of how suspects actually behaved in custody, an examination of how many aliens are behaving will reveal that they are not aware of the one-year filing requirement.

    For many legitimate refugees--like my potential client from El Salvador--learning about the one-year filing requirement is much more difficult than it might seem. They are in a new country where they do not understand the language or culture, they probably have spent much of their lives living in fear of their government, they often have no support network and few resources, and many times the "advice" they receive from notarios, unscrupulous lawyers, and "friends" is incorrect. In short, unless they are well-educated or well-connected, many asylum seekers have little chance to learn about the one-year filing requirement. The result, of course, is that they miss the deadline and lose their opportunity to claim asylum.

    Aliens have a due process right to file for asylum. However, just like suspects in police custody, unless they are made aware of their rights, many legitimate refugees will continue to miss the one-year deadline and lose their right to seek asylum. It seems easy enough to solve this problem: Create a Miranda-style rule requiring government officials to inform aliens about the one-year deadline.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
  3. Sixteen Years and 20 Minutes to "Other Serious Harm" Asylum

    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.
  4. One Giant Leap for a Woman; One Small Step for Womankind

    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.
  5. In (Attempted) Defense of Banning Iranian-American Immigration Judges

    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.
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