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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum


  1. Where Terror Victims Are Treated as Terrorists

    Let's say you own a grocery store in Mosul, Iraq. Your town is conquered by the Islamic State, and an IS fighter comes to your store, grabs your teenage daughter, puts a gun to her head, and threatens to rape and kill her unless you give him a glass of water. You pour a glass of water, hand it to your daughter, and she gives it to the fighter. Now, lets say that you, your daughter, and the IS fighter get to the United States and request asylum. Question: Who is barred from receiving asylum? (a) The IS fighter; (b) You; (c) Your daughter; (d) All of the above.
    If you can tell the difference between terrorists and terror victims, perhaps you should consider running for Congress. They need your expertise.
    If you guessed "d", you win. By giving a glass of water to the IS fighter, you and your daughter have provided "material support" to a terrorist, and you are both barred from receiving asylum in the United States. Even though you gave the glass of water under duress to save your child's life. And even though it was only one glass of water (what we lawyers call "de minimis"). How can this be?

    After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Congress greatly expanded pre-existing law in order to prevent terrorists from taking advantage of our immigration system. These laws include the rules relating to "material support," which one jurist has called "breathtaking in... scope," see Matter of S-K-, 23 I&N Dec. 936 (BIA 2006) (Acting Vice Chairman Osuna, concurring). The opinion continues:

    Any group that has used a weapon for any purpose other than for personal monetary gain can, under this statute, be labeled a terrorist organization. This includes organizations that the United States Government has not thought of as terrorist organizations because their activities coincide with our foreign policy objectives

    . And anyone who provides any type of support to these "terrorists" is subject to the material support bar.

    The problem is that under these rules, lots of people meet the definition of a terrorist or a person who provided material support to a terrorist. And it's not just people like the shop owners from Mosul. Under our existing law, George Washington would be considered a terrorist. He led an armed rebellion against Great Britain. Ditto for the other founding fathers. Betsy Ross gave material support by sewing a flag for the rebels. There are more modern examples, of course. How about Nobel-prize winning author and Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel, who was interned in a Nazi slave labor camp where he provided—you guessed it—material support to the Germans. And how about John McCain, who gave material support to the North Vietnamese by participating in a propaganda video (after being tortured while a prisoner of war). Indeed, even Luke Skywalker would be considered a terrorist under the current rules since he participated in armed resistance against the Empire.

    Maybe the picture I am painting is a bit too bleak. While there is no statutory exception for the material support bar, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Homeland Security have the authority to waive certain Terrorism-Related Inadmissibility Grounds ("TRIG"). In that vein, DHS has issued group-based exemptions that allow people involved with certain "terrorist" groups to obtain status in the U.S. It is also possible to receive an individual exemption through a Byzantine (and sometimes infinite) process. If your application is being held because of TRIG, you can inquire about your case status at

    One government entity that does not have the authority to grant a TRIG exemption is the Department of Justice ("DOJ"). This is significant because the Immigration Courts are part of the DOJ. Thus, Immigration Judges cannot grant asylum cases where the alien is subject to TRIG, even when the alien provided material support under duress. In a depressing, but not particularly surprising decision last week, the Board of Immigration Appeals confirmed that there is no implied duress exception to the material support bar:

    [A]bsent a waiver [from the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Homeland Security], an alien who affords material support to a terrorist organization is inadmissible and statutorily barred from establishing eligibility for asylum and for withholding of removal under the Act and the Convention Against Torture, even if such support was provided under duress.

    Matter of M-H-Z-, 26 I&N Dec. 757 (BIA 2016). The problem is that an alien can only get an exemption after he is ordered removed from the United States, and even then, there is no particular procedure to follow to request an exemption. It seems the best an alien (or his attorney) can do is to contact the DHS/ICE Office of the Chief Counsel and request consideration for an exemption. An exemption is only available if asylum would have been granted but for the TRIG issue. In other words, the alien needs to show that if it wasn't for the TRIG problem, the Immigration Judge would have granted him asylum (helpful hint to lawyers: If your client is barred from asylum solely due to TRIG, try to get the Judge to state that explicitly in her decision; this will help when applying to DHS for an exemption). If the Secretary of Homeland Security grants the exemption, the alien then needs to re-open his court case in order to receive asylum. Legend has it that DHS does sometimes grant exemptions, so it certainly is worth a try, but my guess is that this is a slooooow process.

    Blocking terrorists and their supporters from the U.S. is obviously an important goal--it protects our country and it protects our immigration and asylum system. However, the material support bar is much too broad. It fails to distinguish between terrorists and their victims. Worse, it treats victims as if they were terrorists. The recent ruling from the BIA underlines this sad fact. It also illustrates why the law needs to be changed. As we continue to work for immigration reform, I hope we will keep in mind those who have been victimized by terrorists and victimized a second time by our overly-broad anti-terrorism law.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist:
  2. Congress: Asylum System Letting in Terrorists

    According to a letter from four members of Congress to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, a "recent disclosure [by USCIS] regarding the number of aliens found to have a 'credible fear' in cases where the terrorism bar to asylum eligibility may have applied raised the concern that hundreds of known and suspected aliens with terrorist connections may be attempting to take advantage of our country’s asylum system."
    Eli Wiesel provided slave labor to the Nazis, so he may be subject to the terrorism bar.

    The "recent disclosure" from USCIS to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform revealed that "the terrorism bar to asylum eligibility may be applicable to 299 aliens who were found to have a ‘credible fear’ of persecution in the first four months of Fiscal Year (FY) 2015, and to 339 aliens who were found to have a ‘credible fear’ in FY 2014." The four Congressman--Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), Trey Gowdy (R-SC), and Ron DeSantis (R-FL)--requested more information about the 638 aliens in question, including each aliens' confidential A-file and whether and by what authority each alien was released from detention.

    First, what's this all about?

    When an alien arrives at the border (or at an airport), she can request asylum. Rather than admit her into the U.S., the alien is usually detained and scheduled for a "credible fear" interview--a preliminary evaluation of eligibility for asylum. The large majority of aliens "pass" the credible fear interview. Their cases are then transferred to an Immigration Judge and--in most, but not all, cases--they are released from detention. Aliens who do not pass the credible fear interview are deported.

    In 638 credible fear interviews, conducted since October 2013, the alien said something or the U.S. government had some information that may have implicated a Terrorism-Related Inadmissibility Ground ("TRIG"). This could have been something relatively benign (the alien paid extortion money to a gang) or something of great concern (the alien is Osama bin Laden's best friend). We don't know--the TRIGs are very broad (as I've discussed here).

    One piece of information that we do have is the list of countries that send us the most credible fear applicants: El Salvador, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Ecuador. These are not normally countries we associate with terrorism. However, these nations have major problems with gang and cartel violence, so we might suspect that many of the TRIG issues raised in credible fear interviews relate to paying extortion to criminal groups. Again, though, we really don't know.

    So what's the solution? In their letter, the four Congressman request more information from DHS about the TRIG issues raised during credible fear interviews. This seems to me a perfectly reasonable request. We need to know more so we can better understand what is happening, who is coming here, and how we can make more appropriate policy decisions.

    I do have a few concerns about the letter, however. At least some of the Congressmen making the request have demonstrated a clear bias against asylum seekers. Since everything these days is subject to spin, I worry that the Congressmen will use the data--no matter how benign--to stir up more anti-immigrant feelings and place further restrictions on asylum seekers. DHS should not let that happen. DHS can do its own evaluation of the data and release a report to the public (it would be difficult to make the raw data publicly available due to confidentiality issues).

    Another concern I have is that the Congressmen are requesting the A-files for individual asylum seekers. Pursuant to 8 C.F.R. § 208.6, these files are confidential, though they can be shared within the government for legitimate purposes. While I believe that the Congressmen have no intention of breaching confidentiality, we do not know what safeguards they have put into place to protect the individual asylum seekers. Who will be reviewing the 638 files (that will be a big job)? Interns? Regular staff members? What training do they have? Do they have a security clearance? Where will the files be kept? How will the results of the study be released so as to ensure confidentiality for individuals? What will happen to the files at the end of the process? These questions need to be answered before DHS releases the A files to Congress.

    Finally, the letter demands that the files be turned over before COB on June 3, 2015--two weeks after the letter was written. How the Congressmen expect DHS to gather this information and turn it over on time--while ensuring confidentiality--is beyond me. The seemingly impossible time frame attached to the letter detracts from its credibility. If the Congressmen are serious about gathering and analyzing this data (which is a very worthy goal), they should approach the problem in a more reasonable way. For example, they could involve the Congressional Research Service, which has the expertise to review and analyze raw data from USCIS.

    I have written before that we need more data about who is seeking asylum in the United States, how they get here, why they are requesting asylum, and the decision-making process itself. Such information would make our country safer and our asylum system better. Congress has an important role to play in this process and so does DHS. Hopefully, for once, the two can play nice together and get the job done.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist:
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