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The Black Lives Matter movement has helped bring attention to the problem of police violence in the African-American community. To me, the problem is a symptom of broader issues in our society: Institutionalized racism that has reduced educational and economic opportunities for African Americans, the American penchant for punishment over prevention, police culture and the militarization of many police forces. Regardless of the root causes, many individuals are fearful that they—or their family members—will be harmed or killed by law-enforcement officers because of their race. As an asylum attorney, I've received inquiries from several such people. They want to know whether they are eligible for asylum under international law.
Who knew that the road to safety would be this long?
To qualify for asylum, an applicant must demonstrate that she meets the definition of a “refugee.” According to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a “refugee” is “any person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
The first thing to notice is that in order to qualify for asylum, an applicant must be “outside the country of his nationality.” In other words, you cannot be a refugee, as that term is defined under international law, unless you leave the United States.
Assuming you reach another country and apply for asylum, you will need to show that you were persecuted in the past or that you have a well-founded fear of future persecution. Although the term has never been clearly defined, “persecution” is generally considered “an extreme concept, marked by the infliction of suffering or harm… in a way regarded as offensive.” People who have been harmed by the police (and survived) may be able to demonstrate past persecution, depending on the severity of the harm. Imprisonment, by itself, is probably not a severe enough harm to constitute “persecution” (though perhaps solitary confinement is). Physical violence may be enough, depending on what happened. Physical violence that has resulted in severe injuries, or sexual violence, probably does rise to the level of “persecution.”
If you have been persecuted in the past, and if the persecutor was motivated to harm you because of your race (or other protected ground, like political opinion), then you would likely be considered a refugee under international law.
For people who have not been harmed in the past, but who fear future harm, the situation is more complex—and the likelihood of obtaining asylum is probably lower. One path to asylum involves a “pattern and practice” of persecution against a specific group. Where the entire group--for example, Tutsis in the 1994 Rwanda genocide--faces persecution and the asylum applicant demonstrates that she is a member of that group, she can receive asylum. To demonstrate a “pattern and practice” (at least under U.S. law), the applicant would have to show that the persecution is systematic, pervasive or organized. I have not seen evidence that the persecution of Blacks in America is organized. However, one could argue that it is systematic (in a "now we see the violence inherent in the system" sort-of way) and/or pervasive (i.e., widespread). Both these points strike me as relatively weak given the high standard necessary to prove "pattern and practice," but I suppose different fact-finders might reach different conclusions depending on the evidence presented (how often does violence need to occur for it to be considered "pervasive," for example?). One Canadian court that examined the matter found African Americans do not face a pattern and practice of persecution in the U.S. and denied asylum to a Black man who feared persecution by the police (the court found that he had not suffered "past persecution," and this made his case more difficult).
In the absence of a "pattern and practice," an African-American asylum seeker could still obtain asylum if he demonstrates a reasonable possibility of persecution based on his race (or other protected ground). In interpreting international law, U.S. 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 African American would be able to show that he faces a 10% chance of persecution by the police. Indeed, in 2015, there were about 46.3 million African Americans in the United States. During that same year, 102 unarmed African Americans were killed by police. This is obviously far less than 10% (it's about 0.0002%). Of course, if we focus on young men, and include other harm (aside from killing), the likelihood of persecution is higher, but I still suspect that it would be difficult to show a 10% chance of harm.
Although the average African American would probably not meet the standard for asylum, some African Americans--those who have received specific threats and, of course, those who were previously persecuted--might be able to prove that they face a likelihood of harm and thus meet the definition of "refugee."
Even for people who are deemed “refugees,” this may not be the end of the story. You still may not qualify for asylum in a new country if that country believes you can relocate to a safe place within the United States, or if the persecutor (here, the police officer) was a rogue actor and the U.S. government is able and willing to protect you. Of course, you could also be denied asylum for a host of other reasons, depending on the specific laws of the country where you are seeking refuge.
In the end, it seems that most African Americans would not qualify for asylum, but some might: Those who have been persecuted in the past, and those who have been threatened with harm. If you are actually thinking about seeking asylum, it would be a good idea to talk with a lawyer in the new country before making any plans. While I doubt that many African Americans will actually leave the U.S. to seek asylum abroad, the fact that some people are considering this option speaks to the sad state of affairs in our country.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.