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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

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  1. Update on the Asylum Backlog

    If you've visited this website before, you know that I've written about the asylum backlog again and again... and again and again and again and again. And yet again. And once more. And probably a few other times in-between. USCIS recently released some new statistics on asylum, and so I thought I would share them here and discuss the current situation.


    Measured in smoots, the backlog is 86.9 miles long + one ear.
    First off, despite the efforts of the Asylum Division, the backlog continues to grow. In January 2015, the total number of backlogged cases was 76,446. By the end of March 2015, there were 82,175 backlogged asylum cases nationwide. The numbers have only increased since then.


    The main cause of the backlog has been large numbers of people--mostly young people--coming to the United States from Central America. These young people are detained at the border and receive a credible fear interview, which is an initial assessment of eligibility for asylum. If they pass the credible fear interview, their case is referred to an Immigration Court, which then fully reviews their asylum application. The credible fear interviews are conducted by Asylum Officers, and because they are detained at government expense, the young people are given priority over other (non-detained) asylum seekers. Because the Asylum Division must devote resources to these credible fear interviews, they have been unable to keep up with the more traditional asylum cases. Hence, the backlog.

    I keep expecting the number of young people coming here to wane, but so far that has not been the case. Indeed, the number of people coming from Central America this year is nearly identical to the numbers we saw last year. And given that summer is traditionally a busier time for migration from Central America, we can expect more young people to arrive at our border in the next few months. Thus, it seems likely that the backlogged cases will keep piling up.


    According to the latest statistics, the least backlogged offices are Houston (3,971 backlogged cases), Arlington (5,791), and Chicago (6,485). The most backlogged office is Los Angeles (17,042), followed by Newark (14,924), New York (13,568), Miami (11,366), and San Francisco (9,028). Wait times in these offices roughly correlate with the number of cases backlogged, so Houston is currently the fastest office and Los Angeles is the slowest.


    Of course, obtaining a (relatively) quick interview date is of little value if the case is denied. In terms of grant rates, the fastest offices are not necessarily the most likely to grant asylum. Although the statistics on this vary, the offices in Chicago, Houston, Miami, Newark, and New York all grant asylum less than 33% of the time. Arlington and Los Angeles grant about 50% of their cases, and San Francisco grants over 60% of its cases.


    So what is the Asylum Division doing to address the backlog?


    For one thing, they have been hiring more Asylum Officers. Since the backlog began in 2013, the number of staff members has increased by 90% and they continue to hire and train more officers. It appears that the Asylum Division will continue to add new officers through 2016. So if--and it is a big if--we see a drop in credible fear interviews at the border, the asylum offices should be well positioned to make some progress on the backlog.


    The Asylum Division is also making an effort to keep the public more informed about the backlog. For some months now, there has been discussion about providing more information about processing times at the different asylum offices (for example, the Arlington, Virginia office is currently interviewing cases from July 2013). Because workloads are unpredictable, the asylum offices do not know when they will interview an individual case, but they do know which cases they are processing now. By posting this information, at least asylum seekers will have some idea about where they stand in the queue (the Department of State has a similar system for family- and employment-based immigration visas).


    The asylum offices have also created some very limited ways to expedite cases. I have discussed those here.


    As an advocate for asylum seekers, of course I believe that more should be done. Most importantly, I would like to see the asylum offices give higher priority to people separated from their immediate relatives. I would also like to see more resources devoted to processing I-730 petitions, which allow approved asylum seekers to bring their spouses and children to the U.S. Also, given that asylum cases are moving slowly, I would like to see USCIS issue work permits (EADs) for two or more years, instead of just one year. Finally, I would like to see responsibility for credible fear interviews moved from the Asylum Division to a separate unit or--better yet--the elimination of credible fear interviews altogether (CFIs are basically rubber stamps and thus a waste of resources; it would be better if such cases were adjudicated in the first instance by an Immigration Judge).


    The Asylum Division is faced with a very difficult--if not impossible--task: To continue adjudicating asylum cases while dealing with an unpredictable and overwhelming number of credible fear cases, all the while, with a hostile Congress looking for excuses to reduce asylum protections. For the sake of our asylum system and those who need protection, I hope they can navigate these treacherous waters.
    Tags: asylum, backlog Add / Edit Tags
  2. Is the Asylum System to Blame for Migrant Deaths?

    We think of spring in the Northern hemisphere as a time of rebirth and renewal. But in the Mediterranean, for refugees attempting to reach Europe by sea, it is a time of dying.
    Deporting children protects them. Vaccines cause Autism. Ketchup is a vegetable.

    Last month, over 800 people died when an overcrowded boat sank en router from Libya to Southern Europe. That brings the number of migrant deaths at sea during this season to 1,780 people, as compared to 96 people during the same period last year.


    By contrast, deaths at the U.S. border are down from previous years. The Associated Press reports that, "The number of people who died trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border has dropped to the lowest level in 15 years as more immigrants turned themselves in to authorities in Texas and fewer took their chances with the dangerous trek across the Arizona desert." In FY 2014, the government recorded 307 deaths at the border. Although this is significantly lower than what we are seeing in Europe, hundreds of people are still dying each year on their journeys to the United States (and of course this figure does not include people who die on the route to the U.S. before they reach our border).


    In many cases, the migrants coming to Europe and the United States are fleeing severe violence in their home countries. They are desperate people seeking safety and a better life in the West. And although in many ways the U.S. and Europe are hostile to asylum seekers, we do provide strong "pull factors" that encourage people to make the journey. We offer such people asylum.


    So it's fair to ask: Does the very fact that we offer asylum provide an incentive for people to risk their lives--and sometimes die--to reach our country?


    A recent bill proposed in Congress and passed by the House Judiciary Committee seems to answer this question in the affirmative. The bill, called the Protection of Children Act of 2015, would "protect" unaccompanied minors who come to the U.S. by sending them home more expeditiously. One of the bill's sponsors, Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) explained the rationale for this new legislation:
    The Obama Administration’s immigration policies have given confidence to parents who are in the U.S. illegally that they can stay and have encouraged them to bring their children, who are still in Central America and beyond, to the United States unlawfully. These children, often assisted by smugglers, face many dangerous situations as they travel through Mexico and then walk miles across a hostile border environment. We need to take action to stop these children from risking their lives to come to the United States unaccompanied and unlawfully. The Protection of Children Act makes common sense changes to our laws to ensure minors who travel to the U.S. alone are returned home safely and quickly.

    While the bill will not, in fact, protect any children (rather, it will harm them), the Protection of Children Act is--at least in part--an effort to reduce the incentive for people to come to the U.S. for asylum and thus an effort to reduce the number of people who die attempting to reach our country.


    But still, the question remains: Do our asylum laws encourage people to come illegally to the United States and risk their lives in the process? Is our generosity killing people?


    One way to look at the question is to explore the motivation for asylum seekers' coming to the U.S. Which is more important, the "push" of danger in the home country or the "pull" of asylum in the United States? If the "pull" is more important, we would expect that people from similar countries would come to the U.S. in similar numbers, regardless of violence levels in those countries. So for example, we would expect to see people coming to the U.S. in similar numbers from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua (all poor Central American countries). A review of the data, however, indicates that this is not the case. Many more people come to the U.S. from the more violent countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) than from the less violent one (Nicaragua) (I have written more about this here).


    Some of the disparity may be because there are more people from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in the U.S. than there are people from Nicaragua, and so perhaps migrants are not fleeing violence, but instead are coming here for family unity. There is no doubt that this is part of the equation. However, according to the Pew Foundation, there are roughly 408,261 Nicaraguans in the U.S. By comparison, there are 774,866 Hondurans, 1,265,400 Guatemalans, and 1,969,495 Salvadorans in the United States. I could not find recent data on the number of Nicaraguans coming to the U.S., but for December 2014, Nicaragua was not even in the top 10 sending countries for asylum seekers. In that month, 333 people filed for asylum from Honduras, 495 from El Salvador, and 546 from Guatemala. One hundred and fifty four people filed for asylum from India, which is # 10 on the list, so we know that even fewer people sought asylum from Nicaragua. Given the significant number of Nicaraguans living in the U.S., if family unity was the main “pull” factor, we would expect greater numbers of migrants from Nicaragua.


    All this leads to the conclusion that violent conditions in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are “pushing” people to come to the United States. And, by the way, this squares with anecdotal evidence from the asylum seekers themselves and the lawyers (like me) who represent them.


    So what does it all mean? If people are coming here mainly due to “push” factors (violence) and not “pull” factors (asylum), then making it more difficult for them to claim asylum in the U.S. (or Europe) is unlikely to dissuade them from making the journey.


    Most asylum seekers, like most people, are rational and respond to their environment in rationale ways. If conditions are violent and they fear for their lives, people will flee. If there is somewhere safe for them to go, they will go. The Protection of Children Act does nothing to protect such people. It merely shifts the problem somewhere else. To help reduce the number of asylum seeker deaths, the United States and Europe need to do more to address the root causes of violence. Making life even more difficult for those fleeing harm will only make a bad situation worse.

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

    Updated 05-05-2015 at 09:13 AM by JDzubow

  3. Refugees Come to America--To Sing!

    One of my more memorable cases involved testimony from my client's uncle, a well-known singer from Ethiopia who had been living in exile in Sweden and the U.S. since 1974. He was testifying about conditions in Ethiopia and whether it was safe for his nephew (my client) to return home. He mentioned that even after 40 years away, many of his songs were about Ethiopia. I asked him about his feeling towards his homeland. "I love my country," he responded. Did he want to return? "If I could, I would return tomorrow." It's a beautiful and sad testament to a life lived in exile, and it is not an uncommon story.
    The Refugee All Stars embody the old proverb, "It ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward." (Balboa 3:16).
    It seems there is a natural connection between exile and art. Some artists are forced into exile after their art offends the powers that be. Others create art to remember their previous lives or to help heal themselves and their loved ones. I suppose there are as many motivations for art as there are artists, but memories of a homeland lost are a particularly powerful muse.

    In that vein, one of my favorite musicians is Enrico Macias, an Algerian Jew who had to leave his country during the war of independence in 1961. He has not returned to Algeria since, but many of his songs reference his homeland and the loss he experienced by leaving.


    Recently, I've learned about a band called the Refugee All Stars, which is currently touring American (their schedule is here). Members of the band are from Sierra Leone, and their story is inspiring:

    Throughout the 1990s, the West African country of Sierra Leone was wracked with a bloody, horrifying war that forced millions to flee their homes. The musicians that would eventually form Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars are all originally from Freetown, and they were forced to leave the capital city at various times after violent rebel attacks. Most of those that left the country made their way into neighboring Guinea, some ending up in refugee camps and others struggling to fend for themselves in the capital city of Conakry.

    Ruben Koroma and his wife Grace had left Sierra Leone in 1997 and found themselves in the Kalia refugee camp near the border with Sierra Leone. When it became clear they would not be heading back to their homeland anytime soon, they joined up with guitarist Francis John Langba (aka Franco), and bassist Idrissa Bangura (aka Mallam), other musicians in the camp whom they had known before the war, to entertain their fellow refugees. After a Canadian relief agency donated two beat up electric guitars, a single microphone and a meager sound system, Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars were born.

    Now, the band tours worldwide and works with many well-known musicians and producers. They have also performed benefits for Amnesty International and the World Food Program, among others.

    Like many people who have experienced war and exile--including many of my clients--it seems that the band members' desire to carry on with their lives and work to improve the world has not been dimmed:

    The senseless deaths and illnesses of friends and family, including some of the band’s original members, and the slimming hope for great change in their country as a result of peace, has only strengthened the resolve of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars to do what they can to turn their country around. Their weapon in this struggle is music, and their message, while offering critique and condemnation of wrongdoing, remains positive and hopeful. Optimism in the face of obstacles, and the eternal hope for a better future motivates their lives and music.

    Given the world's current refugee situation and all the problems in the U.S. asylum system, optimism is in short supply. But it's needed now more than ever.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
  4. Asylum for the Jews of France?

    Over the past few years, there have been a number of deadly and horrific attacks against Jewish people in Europe. Targeted by radical Muslims, Jews have been murdered in a Kosher market, outside a synagogue, and at a Jewish daycare facility. They have been targeted for attack at a Jewish Community Center, and there have been hundreds of lesser (but still frightening) instances of anti-Semitism.



    The Jews of France are not alone. But is that enough?

    In response, some (non-French) Jews have suggested that there is no future for Jews in Europe and that they should leave. On one level, this suggestion is based on genuine concern. But on another level, it is quite insulting. It’s as if an African leader came to the U.S. and told American blacks that—in light of Ferguson, Treyvon Martin, and Eric Garner—they should abandon their homeland. My feeling is that a French Jew, an African American, or any other put-upon individual should have the right to make his own decision about whether to leave his country. Unless and until he decides to go, we should do everything possible to help him stay.


    Here, however, I am concerned not with the existential issue of European Jewry. Rather, I want to discuss a more narrow question: Whether a French Jew--and I am choosing France because that country has seen the most instances of anti-Semitism--could qualify for asylum under U.S. immigration law.


    Asylum decisions are highly dependent on the specific facts of each case; so it is difficult to answer this question in the abstract. However, we can look at general country conditions to get an idea for whether an individual might qualify. Also, where there is a “pattern and practice” of persecution against a specific group, and the asylum applicant demonstrates that she is a member of that group, she can receive asylum (for example, during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, if an asylum applicant demonstrated that she was Tutsi, she could receive asylum).


    To demonstrate a “pattern and practice,” the applicant would have to show that the persecution is systemic, pervasive or organized. Although radical Muslims have attacked Jews in France on several occasions, and the unpredictable nature of the attacks makes everyone feel vulnerable, I think the problem is not systematic, pervasive or organized enough to qualify as a “pattern and practice” of persecution under U.S. asylum law. The recent attacks have been by individuals or small groups; not (as far as we know) the systematic work of an organization. There is a much more widespread problem with harassment, threats, and vandalism. These problems--while frightening--probably would not constitute "persecution" as that term is generally understood. For all these reasons, I believe that a French-Jewish asylum seeker would have a hard time proving that Jews in France suffer from a pattern and practice of persecution.


    In the absence of such a pattern and practice, our theoretical French Jew would need to show that he faces a reasonable fear of persecution based on his religion (or other protected ground). If the persecutor is not the government—and here, it is not—he also must demonstrate that the government is unable or unwilling to protect him.


    First, it seems clear that the Jews who have been targeted were targeted because they were Jews. Persecution on account of religion is a basis for asylum. So the real question is whether there is a reasonable likelihood of persecution.


    Courts have stated that an alien may qualify for asylum where there is a 1-in-10 chance of persecution. This is a fairly low standard, but even so, a person needs to demonstrate some type of individualized threat in order to qualify. I doubt that the average French Jew would be able to show that he faces a 10% chance of persecution. There are nearly half-a-million Jews in France, and only a small number have been harmed. And even in countries with much higher instances of violence--Iraq and Syria, for example--a person can generally not qualify for asylum without an individualized threat. Although the average French Jew would probably not meet this standard, some Jews--those who have received specific threats or who hold high-profile positions, for example--might be able to prove that they face a likelihood of harm.


    If our theoretical French Jew demonstrates a likelihood of harm, the next question is whether the government of France is able and willing to protect him. While there are surely people within the French government who do not like Jews, the French government as a whole clearly wants to protect Jewish people. After the Kosher supermarket and Charlie Hebdo attacks, the government deployed thousands of troops to protect Jewish sites. But given the nature of the attacks (random and against soft targets), there is a good argument that the government of France is unable to stop the terrorists.


    In the end, it seems that most French (or European) Jews would not qualify for asylum, but some might: Those who have received threats or who are high profile, and who their governments--unfortunately--cannot protect.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
  5. Syria of Blessed Memory

    The Greek philosopher Heraclatus tells us that you can never step into the same river twice. We often find ourselves returning to places we visited long ago, though of course those places have changed and so have we. At least that's how it is for me with Syria.
    A dashing young traveler visits the Old City of Damascus.

    I visited Syria with two friends way back in April 1990, when I was a student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. We left Israel during our Passover break, making the reverse commute, as it were, to Egypt, where we got new passports without Israel stamps (people with Israel stamps were not admitted to Syria--and they could be arrested). We then crossed Sinai and the Red Sea, spent some time in Jordan (where we further rid ourselves of evidence that we'd been living in Israel), and finally took a bus to Syria.


    In those days, Syria was ruled by Hafez Asad, father of the current dictator. His Droopy-Dog image adorned buildings, money, walls, and calendars. This was eight years after Asad put down an uprising in Hama, killing thousands in the process. Syria in 1990 was repressive, but it was safe for tourists and very welcoming. I don't remember what I expected before I went, but as a young Jewish student visiting Israel's number one enemy and finding human beings--friendly ones at that--I found myself changed forever. I'm reminded of a line from Christmas in the Trenches, a song about World War I: "The walls they kept between us to exact the work of war / Have been crumbled and are gone for ever more."


    Aside from the friendly reception, Syria was a wonderful place to visit: the Old City of Damascus, the 1300-year-old Umayyid Mosque, the Citadel and covered souk in Allepo, the Crack de Chevalier (a medieval castle), the Roman ruins of Palmyra. Over the years, I had many occasions to think about my trip to Syria, and how it affected me. However, despite the repressive nature of the regime, I never had any Syrian clients.


    That changed after the Revolution began in 2011. I started receiving cases from Syria, and I started thinking about the country in a new way.


    Since then, some of my most tragic cases have come from Syria. Many of my clients have lost family members--siblings, parents or children. Others were detained and tortured during the early days of the Revolution (now, it seems, the regime no longer releases detained opponents--it kills them). Many have had their homes destroyed, their property looted, and their businesses seized. All have had their lives profoundly disrupted.


    On one level, it is difficult to square the destruction and the terrible stories from Syria with my memories of the place. I was there during peace time, and I’ve come to view my time in the Middle East in 1990—and especially my trip to Syria—as a dividing line in my life. For me, it marks the transition from childhood to adulthood.


    Maybe because my trip to Syria came at a significant time in my life, the difficulties of my Syrian clients has affected me more deeply. Or maybe it is because I became a father--with all the new emotions that entails--not long before the Revolution began. Or maybe it's simply that the stories from Syria are so heartbreaking. I suppose the "why" doesn't much matter. For anyone who deals with Syrians--even one so far removed as me--it is impossible not to be moved by the human tragedy that we are witnessing. And for those of us who have visited Syria, the loss is somehow more vivid.


    It's Passover again, and once again my family and I are celebrating the holiday of freedom. This year, I am remembering my trip to Syria a quarter century ago. I am also thinking of my clients, and the millions of others, who have been harmed by the current war. It seems impossible that the war will ever end, but one day it will. Until then, I hope we will continue to protect refugees from Syria. As we are reminded each Passover:

    When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

    Chag Sameach. Happy Passover.

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

    Updated 04-06-2015 at 11:13 AM by JDzubow

    Tags: passover, syria Add / Edit Tags
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