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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum


  1. I Was Interviewed for Asylum, But I Never Received a Decision

    Some asylum seekers file their applications and never receive an interview. Others are interviewed for asylum and never receive a decision. I've discussed the first problem--called the backlog--several times, but today I want to discuss the second problem. What happens to people who are interviewed for asylum, but then wait forever for a decision?

    Better late than never.

    I’ve had a number of clients with this problem. They fall into a few broad categories.

    One group are people from countries that are considered a security threat to the United States--countries like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and Somalia. People from such countries are subject to more extensive—and thus more time consuming—security background checks. The security check process is very opaque, so we really don’t know much about what the government is checking or why it takes so long, and the length of the delay seems to have nothing to do with the person's personal history (for example, I've had clients who worked in the U.S. Embassy in their country or with the U.S. military, and still the background check was delayed). To me, the security background check delays don't make sense. If the person is a threat to the United States, allowing him to live freely here for months or years while the government investigates his background seems like a bad idea. Another aspect of the background check that does not make sense is that asylum seekers in court never seem to be delayed by security checks. Also, aliens seeking their residency in other ways (marriage to a U.S. citizen or through employment) don't seem to have problems with background checks either. While the need for background checks is clear, the inordinate delays for asylum seekers is hard to understand.

    Another group of people who face delays after the interview are people who may have provided "material support" to terrorists or persecutors. I have a client like this--he was kidnapped by terrorists and released only after he negotiated a ransom (which was paid by his relative). Had he not paid the ransom, his case would not have been delayed post-interview. Of course, had he not paid the ransom, he would have been killed by the kidnappers, so the point would probably be moot. I imagine that his case is subject to review by Headquarters, which again, seems reasonable. But why it should take 10 months (so far) and what they hope to discover through an additional review, I don't know.

    A third group of people whose cases are delayed are members of disfavored political parties or organizations. Such people might also be subject to the "material support" bar, but even if they have not provided support to persecutors, their cases might be delayed.

    A final group are high-profile cases, such as diplomats and public figures. When such a person receives asylum (or is denied asylum), there are potential political ramifications. Again, while I imagine it makes sense to review such cases at a higher level, I am not exactly sure what such a review will accomplish. The law of asylum is (supposedly) objective--we should not deny asylum to an individual just because her home government will be offended--so it is unclear what there is to review.

    These delays are particularly frustrating given that decisions in asylum cases should generally be made within six months of filing. According to INA § 208(d)(5)(A)(iii), "in the absence of exceptional circumstances, final administrative adjudication of the asylum application, not including administrative appeal, shall be completed within 180 days after the date an application is filed." Unfortunately, the "exceptional circumstances" clause is the exception that swallows the rule. These days, everything from backlog to background check to Asylum Office error seems to pass for exceptional circumstances. I know this is not really anyone's fault--the Asylum Offices are overwhelmingly busy, but it is still quite frustrating.

    Indeed, I have had clients waiting for more than two years (two years!) after their interview, and the asylum offices can give us not even a hint about when we will receive a decision. The worst part about these delays is how they affect asylum seekers who are separated from their families. I've already had a few clients with strong claims abandon their cases due to the intolerable wait times. The saddest case was an Afghan man who recently left the country, two years after receiving a "recommended approval." The client had a wife and small children who were waiting in Afghanistan. After he received the recommended approval--in 2012--we were hopeful that he would soon receive his final approval, and then petition for his family. After enduring a two-year wait, during which time first his child and then his wife suffered serious illnesses, the client finally gave up and returned to his family. This is a man who worked closely with the U.S. military in Afghanistan and who has a very legitimate fear of the Taliban. In his case, we would have been better off if the Asylum Office had just denied his claim--at least then he would have known that he was on his own. Instead, he relied on our country for help, we told him we would help, and then we let him down.

    Delays after the interviews seem to affect a minority of applicants, and they have not garnered as much attention as the backlog. However, they can be just as frustrating and never-ending as backlogged cases. At the minimum, it would be helpful if the Asylum Offices could provide some type of time frame for these people, particularly when they are separated from family members. As DHS struggles to deal with the backlog, I hope they don't forget about those who have been interviewed, but who are also stuck waiting.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
  2. The Obscure Swedish Diplomat Who Gave Us “Particular Social Group”

    Odds are, you’ve never heard of Sture Petrén. But if you are a refugee who has escaped persecution on account of female genital mutilation, domestic violence or sexual orientation, you may owe him your life.

    If you've received asylum based on PSG, you should send your thank yous to Sture Petrén.

    Sture Petrén—full name: Bror Arvid Sture Petrén—was born in Stockholm, Sweden on October 3, 1908. He studied law and philosophy at Lund University, and then served in various law courts in his home country from 1933 to 1943, when he was appointed as an appellate judge. In 1949, he was recruited by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he served as the Director of the Legal Department for the next 15 years. More significantly from the point of view of history, Judge Petrén was appointed to the Swedish delegation to the United Nations General Assembly, where he served from 1948-61. He went on to other prestigious posts domestically and internationally. He was a member--and eventually President--of the European Commission of Human Rights, he was a member of the International Court of Justice, and he served as a judge on the European Court of Human Rights. In 1972, Judge Petrén was knighted by the Swedish king. He died in Geneva on December 13, 1976.

    For all his accomplishments, it seems that Judge Petrén's most notable achievement is probably one that he himself did not think much about at the time: In November 1951, he added the phrase "particular social group" to Articles 1 and 33 of the United Nations Refugee Convention.

    In the fall of 1951, the Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons held a series of meetings to hash out the Convention on the Status of Refugees. The original Convention listed four protected categories: race, religion, nationality, and political opinion. The Swedish delegation, led by the good Judge, introduced an amendment to Article 1 adding the phrase "particular social group" or PSG. Judge Petrén offered little in the way of explanation for the addition. In the transcript from November 26, he says only that the other protected categories suggest the inclusion of a "reference to persons who might be persecuted owing to their membership of a particular social group." "Such cases existed," said the Judge, "and it would be as well to mention them explicitly." Without further discussion, the amendment was adopted that same day. Fourteen members voted in favor of the amendment, none opposed, and eight abstained (though history apparently does not record how each country voted).

    A week later, Judge Petrén introduced the same amendment to Article 33 (non-refoulment), so it would be in conformity with Article 1 (modern-day U.S. immigration law derives the asylum/refugee definition from Article 1 of the Convention; the Withholding of Removal definition comes from Article 33).

    So does the origin of the phrase PSG shed any light on the term’s meaning today? What—if anything—can we learn from the historic record?

    First, it seems that Judge Petrén's addition to the Convention was based on the draft of a planned law in Sweden called the National Alien Act, which went into effect in 1954. The National Alien Act was, in turn, based on the existing Swedish practice of protecting aliens who were members of a PSG, though Swedish law from the 1950s apparently does not define PSG. To the extent that the modern-day Swedish Alien Act is instructive, it seems clear that sexual orientation and gender were not consider particular social groups. The modern law offers protection to people in a PSG, homosexuals, and people who face persecution on account of gender. As one commentator observed, it would be superfluous to separately list PSG, sexual orientation, and gender, if sexual orientation and gender were considered PSGs.

    I could not find a copy of the old Swedish law (upon which the Convention definition of PSG was purportedly based), but it would be very surprising—even for a forward-thinking country like Sweden—if the 1950s law separately protected people based on gender and (especially) sexual orientation. My guess is that the Swedish law listed PSG as a protected category, but left the term undefined. Of course, this does not mean that PSG was meant to encompass sexual minorities and women under Swedish law or under the Convention definition. The Dead White Men who created the Convention may have been progressive for their time (though there are arguments that they were not), but it seems more than unlikely that the idea of specifically protecting gays and women was even on their radar. At least I could find no evidence in the historic record to support such a notion.

    A second question is what Judge Petrén understood the term PSG to mean. I am not sure whether his understanding is relevant to anything other than historical curiosity, but it seems almost certain that he had no intention of dramatically (or even modestly) expanding the protected categories. Rather, PSG was meant as a safety net to catch people who did not easily fit into the other categories--people like aristocrats and linguistic minorities, to name a few. Indeed, Judge Petrén's comments indicate a realist, as well as an idealist. After noting that Sweden was a country of asylum in the past, he states, “but the fact must be taken into account that its capacity for absorbing large numbers [of refugees] was limited and that, particularly in the present serious state of world affairs [post-WWII], considerations of national security must play a certain part.” This does not necessarily sound like someone who wanted to greatly expand the classes of people covered by the refugee definition.

    To a large degree, of course, all this is academic. The goings-on in 1951 are a long way from our reality today. Perhaps an Originalist—like a Justice Scalia—might parse Judge Petrén’s words and look back to post-War Swedish law to suss out some meaning that informs our definition of PSG today. However, given that the Convention and mid-20th Century Swedish law are pretty removed from currently U.S. asylum law, the Originalist inquiry seems like a stretch.

    Moreover, laws and norms change over time. The vagaries of the past are fodder for debate today. To me, such debates are healthy and—hopefully—lead us in the direction of Justice. Although Judge Petrén probably had no intention of altering the refugee definition so dramatically, he certainly planted the seed that led to protection for many thousands of people. Intended or not, that is his extraordinary legacy.

    Special thanks to Ali and Behnam for their help with this article.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
  3. 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
  4. “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.
  5. 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.
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