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Following the December 2, 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, where the husband-and-wife perpetrators had purportedly become radicalized via the internet, Congress requested that the Department of Homeland Security ("DHS") take steps to better investigate the social media accounts of immigrant applicants (the husband was an American-born U.S. citizen of Pakistani decent; his wife was a lawful permanent resident from Pakistan). In response, DHS established a task force and several pilot programs to expand social media screening of people seeking immigration benefits and U.S. visas. DHS also approved creation of a Social Media Center of Excellence, which would conduct social media background checks for the various DHS departments. The Center of Excellence would "set standards for social media use in relevant DHS operations while ensuring privacy and civil rights and civil liberties protections."
The director of the Center of Excellence, Bill S. Preston, Esquire.
Last month, the DHS Office of Inspector General released a (clumsily) redacted report detailing the efficacy of DHS's efforts and making suggestions. Due to the incomplete redaction job, it seems likely that the pilot program focused on refugees and perhaps asylum seekers, but the plan is to expand the program to cover all types of immigration benefits.
The goal of the pilot program was to help develop policies and processes for the standardized use of social media department-wide. "USCIS had previously used social media in a limited capacity, but had no experience using it as a large-scale screening tool." The pilot program relied on manual and automated searches of social media accounts to "determine whether useful information for adjudicating refugee applications could be obtained." It seems that the ability of DHS to investigate social media accounts was limited by technology: At the time the pilot program was launched in 2016, "neither the private sector nor the U.S. Government possessed the capabilities for large-scale social media screening."
In one portion of the pilot program, applicants were asked to "voluntarily" give their social media user names. USCIS then "assessed identified accounts to determine whether the refugees were linked to derogatory social media information that could impact their eligibility for immigration benefits or admissibility into the United States."
DHS has also been looking into social media, email, and other computer files of people entering or leaving the United States, including U.S. citizens, and this inquiry is far from voluntary. There have been numerous recent reports of DHS Customs and Border Protection ("CBP") agents demanding passwords for cell phones and computers. The number of people subject to such searches increased significantly at the end of the Obama Administration, and seems to be further increasing under President Trump. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the large majority of people targeted for these searches are Muslim.
All this means that DHS may be looking at your accounts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, etc. to determine whether you pose a threat and (possibly) to assess your credibility. They might also gain access to your email and other information stored on your computer or your cell phone. This data could then be used to evaluate your eligibility for immigration benefits, including asylum.
On the one hand, it seems reasonable that DHS would want to look into social media and other on-line material. After all, it is well-known that terrorists rely on the internet to spread their messages, and as DHS notes, "As the threat landscape changes, so does CBP." Also, most immigration benefits are discretionary, meaning that even if you qualify for them, the U.S. government can deny them in the exercise of discretion. Therefore, if DHS "requests" certain information as part of the application process, and the applicant fails to provide it, DHS can deny the benefit as a matter of discretion.
On the other hand, the inter-connectivity of the on-line world could yield evidence of relationships that do not actually exists. For example, one study estimates that Facebook users (all 1.6 billion of them) are connected to each other by 3.57 degrees of separation. That means there are--on average--only 3.57 people between you and Osama bin Laden (assuming he still maintains his Facebook page). But of course, it is worse than that, since there are many terrorist suspects on Facebook, not just one (Osama bin Laden). So if you are from a terrorist-producing country, it's likely that suspected terrorists are separated from you by less than 3.57 degrees of separation. Presumably, DHS would take these metrics into account when reviewing on-line data, but you can see the problem--your on-line profile may indicate you have a relationship with someone with whom you have no relationship at all.
So what can you do to protect yourself?
First, don't be paranoid. It's nothing new for DHS or other government agencies to search your on-line profile. Since everything posted on-line is, at least in a sense, public, you should be discrete about what you post, and you should be aware that anyone--including the U.S. government--could be reading it.
What's more problematic is when CBP seizes electronic devices at the border and then reviews emails and other confidential information. This is extremely intrusive and an invasion of privacy. There is also an argument that it violates the Fourth Amendment right to be free of unlawful searches, but generally, people coming and gong from the U.S. have less protection than people in the interior (though I imagine that as CBP steps up the practice, we will see lawsuits that further define Fourth Amendment rights at the border). Knowing that you could be subject to such a search at least enables you to prepare yourself. Don't travel with devices if you don't want them searched. Be careful what you store on your devices and in the cloud.
Also, if you think you have problematic on-line relationships or derogatory on-line information, be prepared to explain yourself and present evidence if the issue comes up.
On-line information can affect an asylum or immigration case in more subtle ways. For example, if you state in your application that you attended a protest on a particular date, make sure you got the date correct--DHS may be able to find out the date of the protest, and if your account of events does not match the on-line information, it could affect your credibility. The same is true for more personal information. For instance, if your asylum application indicates you attended high school from 1984 to 1987, that should match any available information on the internet. Mostly, this simply requires that you take care to accurately complete your immigration forms, so that there are no inconsistencies with data available on-line.
Again, it's not really news that DHS is reviewing social media and other on-line information. It does appear that such practices will become more common, but as long as applicants are aware of what is happening, they can prepare for it.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
Updated 03-15-2017 at 10:46 AM by JDzubow
Earlier this week, DHS Secretary John Kelly issued a memorandum describing how DHS plans to implement President Trump's policies concerning "Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements." Here, I want to discuss how this memo could affect the asylum system.
First, for people granted asylum or who have obtained their residency (green card) or citizenship through asylum, the memo has essentially no effect. The only possible exception is that DHS plans to expand the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate (affectionately referred to as the FDNS), and if DHS somehow discovers that a previously-granted case was, in fact, fraudulent, it could reopen that person's case. Also, given the Trump Administration's stepped-up enforcement, it is a good idea to carry proof of lawful status with you at all times, just in case you are stopped by the authorities (and in many cases, non-citizens are actually required by law to carry proof of immigration status).
Shade-enfreude (defined): The pleasure one gets knowing that someone with a darker skin tone is in pain.
For people with asylum cases currently pending--before the Asylum Office or the Immigration Court--the memo also has little effect. As I have written here before, a person with a pending asylum case cannot be deported from the United States without due process of law, meaning a hearing before an Immigration Judge and an appeal. So while the atmosphere for asylum seekers has become more toxic, the substantive law and procedure remains largely the same. As mentioned above, you should carry proof of your pending status (work permit, asylum receipt, court order) with you at all times.
One possible issue for people currently in the system is more delay. The DHS memo directs USCIS "to increase the number of asylum officers and FDNS officers assigned to detention facilities located at or near the border with Mexico to properly and efficiently adjudicate credible fear and reasonable fear claims and to counter asylum-related fraud." The memo also envisions a "joint plan with the Department of Justice to surge the deployment of immigration judges and asylum officers to interview and adjudicate claims asserted by recent border entrants." Assigning more Asylum Officers and Immigration Judges to the border (either by physically sending them there or by having them adjudicate cases remotely), obviously means that those adjudicators will not be available to work on the hundreds of thousands of cases in the backlog, and that could mean more delay. In addition, the memo calls for hiring thousands more immigration officers, and for stepped up enforcement and detention. If all that happens, many more people will be channeled into the Immigration Court system, and unless more judges (lots more judges) are hired, the influx of people into the system will cause further delay. On the other hand, the memo also calls for expanded use of "expedited removal," which may end up removing certain cases from the system and cause the remaining cases to move more quickly. How all this plays out, only time will tell.
Another possible issue for people with pending asylum cases is the increased focus on fraud. The Immigration and Nationality Act and the REAL ID Act, along with the Code of Federal Regulations, and case law set forth the standards for evaluating credibility. The DHS memo calls for "enhancing" asylum referrals and credible fear determinations. While this would not directly impact people with pending asylum cases (as asylum referrals and credible fear determinations occur prior to a case being sent to Immigration Court or to the Asylum Office), it might signal DHS's intention to subject asylum cases to greater scrutiny. Also, of course, expansion of the FDNS points towards a greater focus on asylum fraud, which could impact pending cases (personally, I think DHS should be doing more to combat asylum fraud, as long as they are doing so effectively, as I discuss here).
For people inside the United States who plan to seek asylum here, but have not yet filed, the memo may affect you. If you entered lawfully with a visa, you should be able to apply for asylum as before. Indeed, even if you entered unlawfully, you should be able to seek asylum as before. However, if you entered the U.S. without inspection or based on some type of fraud (how broadly "fraud" will be interpreted is not yet known), and you are detained by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) before you file for asylum, you could be subject to "expedited removal." People crossing the border illegally who get caught or who surrender to ICE agents may also be subject to expedited removal.
People facing expedited removal are permitted by law to request asylum. If they indicate a fear of harm in their country, the law requires that an Asylum Officer perform a "credible fear interview" where the person must demonstrate a "significant possibility" that they could establish eligibility for asylum. If they meet this standard, their case will be referred to an Immigration Judge for an asylum hearing. If they do not demonstrate a "significant possibility" of winning asylum, they can be removed immediately from the United States (subject to limited review by an Immigration Judge). The DHS memo indicates that the government will greatly expand the use of expedited removal, though the details of the plan have not yet been released.
As you might imagine, there are some major problems with the expedited removal process. For one, ICE officers often fail to inform aliens of their right to seek asylum (or ignore their requests to seek asylum). If this happens, people with a legitimate asylum claim may be removed from the United States before they have an opportunity to claim asylum or have a credible fear interview. The expedited removal process is quite fast and there is little chance to retain counsel and defend yourself, and no opportunity to see an Immigration Judge. In addition, the DHS memo seeks to expand the use of expedited removal and raise the evidentiary bar for credible fear interviews. All this will make it more difficult for asylum seekers who are subject to expedited removal from asserting their claims. I plan to write another post on this topic, but I will first wait for DHS to clarify its position on expedited removal (in the mean time, if you want to learn more, check out this excellent practice advisory by the American Immigration Council).
Per its campaign promises, the Trump Administration is ramping up immigration enforcement efforts. People who have won asylum, or who have already filed, are largely insulated from those efforts, and without Congressional action, it is likely to remain that way. But if you are in the United States and you plan to file for asylum, you should do so soon (at least before your lawful status expires). Remaining here lawfully is the best way to protect yourself from the Administration's enforcement efforts.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
Former House Speaker, and Donald Trump adviser, Newt "The Brain" Gingrich recently made plain what Mr. Trump has been arguing for months: The new Administration is planning "straight-out war" against the federal bureaucracy. But in my time, there are two things that I've learned about ideological wars: (1) The casualties are flesh-and-blood human beings, and (2) Everyone involved thinks that G-d is on his side.
"Sidekick to a bully" is not a job title many government lawyers relish.
In this case, Mr. Gingrich was speaking specifically about the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs, which he accused of various sins amounting mostly to half-truths (or perhaps whole lies). But we've seen a pattern with Mr. Trump's appointments. For example. the new head of the Department of Energy wanted to eliminate that agency in 2012. The leader of the Environmental Protection Agency doubts human-influenced climate change and will likely prevent that organization from issuing regulations to protect public health. And the new Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development will be Dr. Ben Carson, whose main qualification seems to be that he lives in a house.
But the situation for the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security are a bit different, at least in terms of those agencies' oversight of our nation's immigration laws. In those cases, it's more likely that Mr. Trump will be ramping-up enforcement at the possible expense of other immigration functions (like processing immigration benefits).
Senator Jeff Sessions will lead the DOJ as Attorney General. He is known for his opposition to immigration reform and his belief that legal immigration to the United States should be reduced. So how will Senator Sessions's appointment affect DOJ in terms of immigration enforcement? DOJ administers the nations Immigration Courts and the Board of Immigration Appeals ("BIA"), and (within some limits) interprets our immigration laws. As Attorney General, Mr. Sessions has the power to narrow precedents favorable to non-citizens. He can do this directly, by issuing Attorney-General opinions, which supersede decisions made by the BIA. He can also do it indirectly, by appointing ideologically like-minded Judges and BIA Members. DOJ also administers the Office of Immigration Litigation ("OIL"), which defends BIA decisions in the federal courts. Mr. Sessions could order OIL to take more hard-line stances, and he could push litigation that reflects his restrictonist viewpoint.
How would this be different than what we have now? The atmosphere for aliens in immigration proceedings has never been easy. That's particularly true for aliens convicted of crimes. But at least in most cases, I have found that Judges, BIA Board Members, and OIL attorneys are reasonable, and do their best to follow the law. Sometimes that means deporting people who are very sympathetic; other times, it means allowing people to stay who they believe should be deported. The problem comes when we have DOJ attorneys who are more concerned with ideological ends than with due process. We saw this most clearly when Attorney General John Ashcroft purged liberal (or supposedly liberal) BIA Board Members at the beginning of the George W. Bush Administration. Perhaps we will see a similar reshuffling in the months ahead.
For fair-minded attorneys, Judges, and Board Members at DOJ, that's a frightening prospect. Are their jobs in jeopardy? Will they be forced to take positions contrary to their conscious, or contrary to their interpretation of the law? Many immigration benefits--such as asylum--contain a discretionary element. Will the ability to exercise discretion be intolerably curtailed?
It's still unclear whether attorneys and officers at the Department of Homeland Security will face the same potential dilemmas as their DOJ counterparts. The new Secretary for DHS will be retired Marine Corps General John Kelly, who is widely viewed as non-ideological. Under the DHS ambit are several agencies that impact immigration, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ("ICE"), which is basically the immigration police and prosecutors, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services ("USCIS"), which administers immigration benefits, including asylum. We have yet to learn who will lead these agencies, and probably the choices for those posts will have more effect on the officers and attorneys "in the trenches" than General Kelly, who is overseeing the entire agency.
Currently, DHS attorneys, Asylum Officers, and ICE officers have a fair bit of discretion in handling cases, especially cases where the alien has no criminal record. DHS attorneys often can decide whether to keep an alien detained, they can offer prosecutorial discretion, and they can decide how aggressively to pursue an individual's deportation or whether to agree to relief. Asylum Officers also have a fair bit of discretion to determine credibility and decide on relief.
The attorneys, officers, and Judges I know at DHS and DOJ are generally intelligent, caring individuals who do their best to follow and enforce the law without inflicting undo harm on individuals and families. They are aware of their power and their responsibilities, and they take their jobs seriously. Sometimes, I disagree with them on their interpretation of the law. Sometimes, I think their approach is unnecessarily aggressive. In some cases, we evaluate the merits of a case differently. While we do not always agree, I can see that they are performing an essential function by fairly enforcing our nation's immigration laws.
In speaking to some DOJ and DHS attorneys and officers since the recent election, I have seen a certain level of demoralization. Some people have expressed to me their desire to leave government service. While these individuals respect and follow the law--even when the results are harsh--they are not ideological. They do not hate immigrants (or non-white people, or Muslims) and they do not want to enable or contribute to a system that they fear will become overtly hostile to immigrants that President Trump considers undesirable. I suppose if I have one word of advice for such people, it is this: Stay.
If you are a government attorney or officer and you are thinking of leaving because you fear an overtly ideological Administration, you are exactly the type of person that we need to stay. As has often been the case in recent decades, an honest, competent bureaucracy is the bulwark against our sometimes extremist politics.
It's likely that if you are a government employee who is sympathetic to non-citizens, your job will get more difficult, the atmosphere may become more hostile. It will be harder to "do the right thing" as you see it. Opportunities for promotions may become more limited. Nevertheless, I urge you to stay. We need you to help uphold the law and ensure due process for non-citizens and their families. To a large extent, our immigration system is as good or as bad as the people who administer the law. We need the good ones to stay.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com
Last time, I discussed the asylum case backlog from 2013: Why it happened, what (little) can be done to help, and DHS's justification for processing new cases before old cases. Today, I want to make some suggestions about how DHS might better handle this situation.
DHS has created a new, less humorous version of the old NPR gameshow.
First and foremost, DHS should provide better information about what is happening. While I imagine that DHS does not always know what is happening (after all, the backlog is unprecedented), it could be providing better information to the backlogged applicants. Some info that would be helpful: (1) An estimate of when the backlogged cases will be heard. Maybe DHS has no idea, but at least tell us something. Apparently, many new officers and support staff have been hired. Will some of these people be dedicated to backlogged cases (I've heard that at the San Francisco office one or two officers will be assigned to backlogged cases). Is there any sort of plan to deal with the backlog? Leaving applicants completely in the dark is the worst possible way to handle the situation; (2) If a particular Asylum Office has an "expedite list," it would be helpful to know the applicant's place in line and how many people are on the list. Is she the third person or the 200th person? This would at least give some idea of the wait time, especially if DHS updated each person's place in line as they move forward; and (3) It would be very helpful if the Asylum Offices explained why the backlog exists, what they are doing about it (hiring new officers), and what the applicants can do (apply for work permits, criteria to have a case expedited). While people like me can try to tell applicants what we know (and hopefully our information is more right than wrong), it is far better to hear it from the source. Each Asylum Offices has its own website, so it should be easy enough to publish this information.
Another thing the Asylum Offices could do to ease the pain of the backlog is to give priority to backlogged cases based on family reunification. As I noted last time, one justification for the backlog is that applicants can get their work permits while their cases are in limbo. Of course, the work permit is helpful (even crucial) for many applicants, but for people separated from spouses and children, reunification is the number one issue. This is especially true where the family members are in unsafe situations. I know that in a large bureaucracy, nothing is as simple as it seems, but why can't DHS prioritize expedite requests where the applicant has a spouse or child overseas?
A third possibility is to dedicate one or more Asylum Officers in each office to work on backlogged cases. As I mentioned, San Francisco will assign one or two Officers to deal with the backlog. What about the other offices? At least if we could see some progress--even a little--with the old cases, it would give hope to the people who are waiting.
Finally, once a backlogged case is decided, DHS should give priority to any I-730 (following to join) petition filed by a granted applicant. Family separation is a terrible hardship. At least DHS (and the Embassies) can make up for some of the delay already suffered by moving I-730s for these cases to the front of the line. These applicants and their families have already waited long enough.
In a perfect world, asylum cases would be processed in the order received. However, I understand DHS's concerns and the reasons for adjudicating new cases before old cases. By providing more information to backlogged applicants and by giving priority to people separated from their families, DHS can ease the pain caused by delay without implicating the policy concerns that brought us the backlog in the first place.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.