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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

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  1. The Self-Fulling Prophecy of Demonizing Immigrants

    In his book, American Homicide, Professor Randolph Roth of Ohio State University argues that homicide rates correlate closely with four distinct phenomena: political instability; a loss of government legitimacy; a loss of fellow-feeling among members of society caused by racial, religious, or political antagonism; and a loss of faith in the social hierarchy. He examines 400 years of American history and concludes that these four factors best explain why homicide rates have gone up and down in the United States and in other Western countries, and why the United States today has the highest homicide rate among affluent nations.

    Prof. Roth recently elaborated on his theories in the Washington Post. He writes--

    When we lose faith in our government and political leaders, when we lack a sense of kinship with others, when we feel we just can’t get a fair shake, it affects the confidence with which we go about our lives. Small disagreements, indignities and disappointments that we might otherwise brush off may enrage us — generating hostile, defensive and predatory emotions — and in some cases give way to violence.

    He goes on to detail the varying homicide rates for different communities within the U.S., and how those homicide rates track with the particular community's faith in our governing institutions--

    The homicide rate peaked for African Americans during the Nixon administration, at 43 per 100,000 persons per year, when their trust in government was at its lowest and their feelings of alienation were highest. And it peaked for white Americans in 1980, at 7 per 100,000 persons annually, when accumulated anger over busing, welfare, affirmative action, defeat in Vietnam and humiliation in Iran boiled over into the Reagan revolution.

    During the 2008 election, Prof. Roth predicted that "the homicide rate in America’s cities would drop because of what [Barak Obama's] candidacy would mean to African Americans and other minorities, who live disproportionately in urban areas." Prof. Roth also "worried that the homicide rate would rise in the areas of the country most resistant to the idea of an African American president." Data from President Obama's time as president now seems to support the Professor's prediction (at least according to Prof. Roth--and I believe him).

    So what does this mean for immigrants and asylum seekers?

    Maybe the answer is fairly obvious--If we demonize and disenfranchise non-citizens, we increase the likelihood that they will engage in violent behavior, and perhaps other anti-social or criminal conduct as well. And of course, this is a vicious cycle--the more we alienate such people, the more likely they are to engage in bad behavior, and the more they engage in bad behavior, the more we will alienate them.

    We also have to remember who we are talking about. Many aliens already feel, well, alienated. Many asylum seekers and refugees have already suffered trauma and feel insecure and victimized. Adding to that sense of alienation by labeling them terrorists or rapists, and by treating them as criminals, will only increase the likelihood of anti-social behavior in this population.

    Prof. Roth, writing after the massacre in Las Vegas, notes that "most mass murderers have been deeply affected by the distrust, disillusionment and enmity that pervade our society.... We have all played a part in creating them."

    If the violent outliers of our society in some ways reflect who we are, then the obvious solution is for us to do better. To be more civil, more inclusive, more compassionate. To disagree respectfully. To listen more and talk less. Frankly, it's not all that difficult. It's what teachers teach in our schools every day. It's what we require in our workplaces. It's what we see in our places of worship.

    Unfortunately, it is not what we have in the immigration debate. Read the comments section of any news article about immigration and you'll see what I mean. Politicians--most notably our Commander-in-Chief--have taken the visceral feelings about immigration and amplified them. This creates its own vicious cycle, and empowers extremists groups, like we saw in Charlottesville.

    Prof. Roth's work (and common sense) suggests that if you keep hammering away at vulnerable people, a few of them will eventually react negatively. Hopefully, this will not take the form of violent behavior, but the likelihood of a problem seems greater in such a toxic and threatening environment.

    I do think there are things that ordinary people can do to help. Many individuals and organizations have been working to support immigrants, Dreamers, Muslims, and other targets of xenophobia. Giving people hope, and showing them that they are not alone, can mitigate the damage. Government attorneys, Immigration Judges, Asylum Officers and USCIS Officers who continue to do their jobs, and who enforce the law fairly and treat non-citizens with respect, also help counter the harm caused by haters.

    Most research suggests that immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans, but if Prof. Roth's theory is correct, the current Administration's nativist language and policies might help cause an uptick in criminal behavior in our immigrant communities. And of course, if immigrant crime goes up, the Administration can use the increase to justify its anti-immigrant policies. It's up to us--those of us who stand with immigrants--to continue offering them help and hope, and to try to break this cycle before it begins.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
  2. Answering the Impossible Question

    Possibly the most common question I hear at initial consultations with asylum seekers is, "What are the chances that I will win my case?" It's a reasonable question. People want to know the likelihood of success before they start any endeavor. The problem is, it's impossible to answer this question. Why is that?
    The other Impossible Question: "Does this dress make me look fat?"
    One reason is mathematical. Probabilities are tricky to calculate and even more tricky to understand. Also, it is very hard to apply probabilities in a meaningful way to a single event. What does it mean, for example, when the weather report shows a 30% chance of rain? If you run 100 computer simulations of the weather, it will rain 30 times. But in the real world, it will either rain or it won't. The problem is that we do not have complete information to start with, and that there are too many variables to predict precisely how the weather will evolve over time. Without sufficient information, we have to approximate, and we are left with a range of possible outcomes and probabilities. As Niels Bohr observed, "Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future."

    Another difficulty is that predicting case outcomes involves human beings, and we are a notoriously capricious species. At the outset of a case, the lawyer may not know whether the client can get needed evidence, or whether she can remember her testimony, or how a witness will behave. Also, the lawyer may not know who the fact finder will be (with Immigration Court cases, we usually know in advance; for Asylum Office cases, we never know until the day of the interview). Also, what if the fact finder is in a particularly good or bad mood on the day of the case? Or what if she is hungry during the case (one Israeli study famously correlated favorable parole decisions to whether the judge had recently eaten lunch!)? These "human factors" can greatly affect the decision, and few of them can be known in advance, which again makes predicting difficult.


    That's not to say we know nothing about the likelihood of success. For Immigration Court cases, there is data available about the grant rates of individual Judges. Also, there is some data available about Asylum Office grant rates. Of course, all of this is very general and does not necessarily bear much relationship to the likely outcome in a given individual's case, but I suppose it's better than nothing.


    As a lawyer, once you get a sense for asylum cases, you can at least give the client some idea about the outcome. I can tell a strong case from a weak case, for example. If the client has a lot of credible evidence, has suffered past persecution on account of a protected ground, and faces some likelihood of future harm, the client has a strong case. The most I will say to such a prospective client is that, "If the adjudicator believes that you are telling the truth, you should win your case." I might also say that since the corroborating evidence is strong, it is likely that the adjudicator will believe the claim.


    I do think there is a basic human desire behind the question about the chances for success, and that is the desire for certainty. Asylum cases now take years, and it is very difficult to live your life for so long under the threat of deportation. When the clients ask about the likelihood of success, I know part of what they want is reassurance. Even if the case is weak, they want to feel like they have a chance. They want to feel that what they are building in the U.S. while they wait for a decision will not all be lost. How, then, do we balance the need for certainty with providing an honest evaluation of the case?


    For my clients, I try to give them both honesty and hope. In the beginning, I give the client my honest assessment of the case and the likelihood of success. Knowing my assessment (whether it is good or bad), if the client decides to go forward, my focus shifts to creating the strongest case possible with the facts and evidence available, and to helping reassure the clients so they feel some hope. I try to encourage the client to do what is within their power to make the case better: Gather evidence, talk to witnesses, find experts, etc. At least this helps empower the client a bit, and it gives them some agency over their case outcome.


    Different lawyers do things differently, and there are probably many "right" ways to balance realism and hope. There are also wrong ways. Any lawyer who "guarantees" you will win an asylum case is a lawyer you should avoid. No lawyer can guarantee a win because we do not make the decisions--the government does. Also, lawyers who make dubious promises ("I am good friends with your Judge, so I can get you a quicker hearing date") are probably lying to get your business. Be careful, and remember that offers that seem too good to be true probably are. For all its flaws, the American immigration system is largely free from corruption. Lawyers don't have special relationships with adjudicators that can change outcomes or speed adjudication. When a lawyer oversells hope at the expense of realism, you are safer to seek a different attorney; one who is more interested in telling the truth than in selling you his services.


    So when a prospective client asks me the chances for success, I'll try to give the best evaluation I can, so that the person can make an informed choice about whether to file an asylum case. Once the case is started, I will try to address weakness and gather evidence to maximize the chances for a win. I will also try to encourage the client, so that she has some hope during the long wait.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
  3. President Trump's Immigration Orders: Some Preliminary Thoughts

    During the first week of his Administration, President Trump has signed two "executive orders" on immigration: Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements and Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States. At least one other order has been leaked to the press: Protecting the Nation from Terrorist Attacks by Foreign Nationals.
    This is how it looks when America compromises its values.
    The effects of these orders are already being felt. I have heard reports about Syrians with U.S. visas being rejected from a flight because the airline believed that the visa would not be honored and it (the airline) would face liability for bringing the family to our country. My Sudanese client--and a lawful permanent resident based on asylum--was on a business trip to a third country. When she called the U.S. embassy for advice, they told her to return to the United States immediately, as they were unsure how the vaguely-worded executive orders would affect her. A lawyer friend's client who had been released on bond after passing a credible fear interview was detained, even though he has a pending court date for asylum (though apparently, he also has a pending--and minor--criminal issue, and this may be why he was targeted). The practice of prosecutorial discretion--closing certain cases where the alien has no criminal issues and has equities in the United States--has been ended nationwide, and so now DHS (the prosecutors) can no longer close cases for aliens who are not enforcement priorities. These are some stories from Day 1 of the executive orders.

    Here, I want to make some preliminary observations. There will be time for a detailed analysis later, when we know more about how the executive orders will be implemented, but for now, there are some points that non-citizens should keep in mind:


    • Don't panic. The President has the power to issue executive orders ("EOs"), but he is constrained by the law and by the availability of resources to enforce the law, and so there are limits to what he can do. The asylum system and the Immigration Courts still exist, and while pushing more people into the system may cause further delays, at this stage we really do not know what the effect will be.
    • For people physically present in the United States, the government does NOT have the power to deport anyone without due process of law, meaning a court hearing and an appeal. So you can't just be thrown out of the country. Even an expedited process usually takes months.
    • Also, there is nothing in the EOs indicating people legally present in the U.S. will be targeted for removal, so aliens with asylum or green cards should be fine, as long as they do not commit (or get accused of committing--see below) any crimes.
    • For people with pending asylum cases, it does not seem that the EOs will have any immediate effect. The orders seem to impose some additional requirements on obtaining immigration benefits (and this may or may not include asylum), but these requirements are very similar to existing discretionary requirements, and I doubt we will see much difference. Asylum applicants from "countries of particular concern" (meaning Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Yemen, and Libya, and maybe other Muslim-majority countries) may face extra delays because the EO's seem to temporarily suspend immigration benefits for people from those nations.
    • It is probably best to avoid travel outside the U.S. using Advance Parole, at least until we have a better idea about what is happening. If you do need to travel, talk to a lawyer first to be sure that you will not have trouble returning.
    • If you are from Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Yemen or Libya, it is probably best to avoid all travel outside the United States, even if you have a green card. The situation for people from these countries is unclear, but this seems to be the list (so far) of countries targeted for "extreme vetting." Since we don't really know what that means, it is safest to stay in the United States until we have some clarity. If you must travel, talk to a lawyer before you go. If you are from one of these countries and are currently outside the United States, but have lawful status here, it is probably safest to return to the U.S. immediately. Or at least call the U.S. embassy to ask for their advice (though they cannot always be trusted to give the correct advice).
    • If you have a criminal conviction, or even a pending criminal charge, you should be aware that an EO directs the government to make your detention and removal a priority (the idea that people accused of a crime, but not yet convicted, should face an immigration penalty is very troubling). Other priorities include aliens who have engaged in fraud, abused public benefits, or who have a final order of removal (the full list of enforcement priorities is here). However, the government is restricted in its ability to detain and remove people due to limited prison space (though the EOs express an intention to increase detention capacity) and due process of law.


    In many ways, these EOs do not immediately change much of what has been policy for the last eight years. The tone is certainly different, which is an important and distressing change, but the laws are the same. For this reason, it is important to remain calm about the changes. For most people inside the U.S., especially people who are not enforcement priorities, the legal landscape today is not much different than it was prior to January 20.


    The more damaging affects of the EOs, at least in the short term, is on people who are outside the U.S. waiting to come in, such as Syrian and other refugees whose cases now face a 120-day hold (and what happens at the end of 120 days is anyone's guess). The EOs also temporarily suspend issuance of visas for immigrants and non-immigrants from "countries of particular concern." The vague language used in the EOs makes them even more problematic, as it is impossible to predict how they will be implemented.


    The longer-term effects of the EOs also look bad: Increased enforcement and detention, coercion of local authorities to end "sanctuary" jurisdictions, additional requirements for people to immigrate to the U.S., restrictions on travel for people from countries that do not (or cannot) supply "information needed for adjudications" of visas to the U.S. government, the border wall. Not to mention the overall tone of the EOs, which paints foreigners as a dangerous threat to our national security.


    So here we are. One week into the Trump Administration, and the government is moving to restrict immigration and step up enforcement. To anyone watching Mr. Trump over the last several months, none of this should come as a surprise. There will be time later to analyze the policy effects of Mr. Trump's actions (spoiler alert: They are terribly damaging to our national interests and our country's character), but for now, the flurry of activity counsels caution. Over the coming months, we will see how the EOs are implemented, and we will have a better idea about what to expect. For now, though, it seems the large majority of non-citizens in the U.S. will not be affected by the EOs. So keep an eye on the news, and speak to a lawyer before traveling or if your case is an enforcement priority (if you cannot afford a lawyer, you might look for a free attorney here). We shall see how things go, and of course, we will keep supporting each other in these difficult times.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
  4. An Asylee Wonders, Is Sander-Style Democracy Bad for Migrants?

    Ali Anisi Tehrani is an asylee from Iran. He raised some of these issue in a conversation we had one day over lunch, and I asked whether he might put his thoughts into a blog post. He was kind enough to do so--

    “I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people,” Senator Sanders says. He’s not alone. Many Americans envy the Nordic countries, with their affordable education, health care for all, and subsidized child care.

    Feeling the Spurn? Ali Tehrani worries about social democracy and immigrants.
    While these countries are wonderful places to visit, as a political refugee who has spent time in Sweden, I fear that maybe this Nordic Valhalla would not be so heavenly for immigrants after all. Whatever it means for politicians like Bernie Sanders and his supporters, my experience tells me that in the long run, the Scandinavian model would be a disaster for immigrants and for people who plan to immigrate to the United States.


    I have spent almost equal time in Sweden and the U.S. I enjoyed Swedish collective generosity and I studied there for free. The Swedes were even kind enough to send me to the U.S. as an exchange student with full medical insurance! An immigrant friend of mine had three surgeries there and spent weeks in hospitals. He paid very little. In fact, everyone in Sweden has health care and the deductible for medical expenses and medicine was only about $100. In a way, everything was perfect!


    So what the heck am I doing in Washington, DC? Why did I leave the Nordic utopia and move to a country with no social benefits (even after receiving asylum, I was not eligible for short-term medical insurance in Virginia because I earned more than $150 per month)? Perhaps things in Sweden are not as they seem.


    I lived in a small town in Sweden, not super immigrant-friendly. Everyone was nice and polite, and I never had any encounter that could be called explicitly racist or hateful. But I always had the sense that I was unwelcome. That I was a sort-of black sheep (or perhaps a brown one). I can’t say I would feel any different if I were in their shoes: Why should I work in order to pay for some foreigner’s education and benefits? Maybe as a result of this sentiment, the law in Sweden changed in 2011, and free education for foreign students was abolished.


    The current situation in Sweden (and across Europe) is now quite disturbing. We are in the midst of the worst human catastrophe since World War II, and Sweden plans to reject up to 80,000 people who applied for asylum in the country last year; as many as half will be forced to leave against their will. Denmark, Sweden’s neighbor to the south, recently passed laws allowing the authorities to seize any assets exceeding $1,450 from asylum-seekers in order to help pay for the migrants’ subsistence (items of “sentimental value,” such as wedding rings, are exempt).


    Many Swedes, even people who knew me personally and knew that I could not return to my native Iran, had a naive and sincere question: “So… when do you go back?” I never took it personally because I knew they did not ask me to be mean; they asked because they were really interested in the answer. During my three years in the U.S., no one has asked me this question. Literally, not one person! I have been welcomed here by many people; I don’t recall being welcomed in Sweden in this way. Maybe it’s just a lucky coincidence. Maybe.


    If we take a look at some numbers, we might see one reason why immigrants are (or are not) wanted.


    In 2014, the unemployment rate for native-born Swedes was about 5.1%; the foreign-born unemployment rate was 15.5%. It was about the same in Denmark: 5.4% for native-born Danes and almost 12% for immigrants. In Finland, the unemployment rates were 7.5% and 16.3% for native and non-native born people. That makes sense: Foreign-born workers may not know the language or culture, they have limited networks, and they may not have the education or skills required to succeed.


    There's a different story in the U.S. In 2014, there were 25.7 million foreign-born people in the labor force, comprising 16.5% of all workers. The unemployment rate for foreign-born persons in the United States was 5.6%, while the jobless rate for native-born Americans was 6.3%. What!? The unemployment rate for foreigners is lower than for native-born citizens? How can this be?


    To me, the difference is that no one in the United States sees me as an extra person taking their social welfare benefits. Instead, they see me as another taxpayer pulling my own weight. There is opportunity here that does not exist in other countries. Of course, social and cultural norms are different in homogeneous societies like Sweden and Denmark, but I still believe that the most influential factor explaining how immigrants in different societies are treated is economic. Because of this, I worry that a Bernie Sander-style social democracy might make life in the United States more difficult, and less welcoming, for foreign-born residents like me.

    Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
  5. Terrorism, Trump, and the Moral Cowardice of Our Time

    It's September, and for most of us, it's a time to remember a beautiful, clear morning in 2001 when the world turned upside down.

    Click image for larger version. 

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    History is filled with people who think that their ignorance should trump your life.

    Since then, we've witnessed wars and terrorist atrocities, which seem only to get worse with each passing day. I interact daily with asylum-seeker clients whose lives have been disrupted by such events, and whose friends and loved ones have died (or more accurately, been murdered). The recent destruction of an ancient temple in Palmyra, Syria and the murder of the 81-year old chief archeologist there strikes home for me, as I visited those magnificent ruins when I was a young man.


    Members of Al Qaida, ISIS, and the Taliban deliberately kill innocent and defenseless people. They rape children. They destroy history. There really are no words strong enough to condemn their actions.


    But one word that I have often heard used to describe terrorists is "cowardly." I for one, do not think the terrorists are cowards in the normal sense of the word. Maybe killing innocent people is a cowardly act, but voluntarily going to fight in Syria or Iraq, or flying a plane into a building are not the actions of cowards. They are evil and misguided, but--at least to me--not cowardly.


    There is another, perhaps more profound, application of the label "coward" when it comes to such terrorists, however. It is the moral cowardice of harming another person without making the effort to understand that person's humanity. It takes courage--sometimes great courage--to understand people we view as different from ourselves. When the 9-11 hijackers flew their planes into the twin towers and the Pentagon, they were cowards in the sense that they had failed to consider the individual human beings who were their victims. This type of cowardice allows people to do terrible things. America has harmed "us;" therefore we are justified to harm "them." But this fails to account for the fact that there is no "them"--there are only people, living their lives day to day.


    Perhaps the terrorist can justify their actions to themselves: No one in the U.S. is innocent; they are all complicit in their country's systematic attack on Islam; God demands the destruction of the non-believer. And while the terrorists planned and prepared for their attack, I'd wager that none inquired into the lives they hoped to destroy. Did they spend time with the loving husband and father of a new baby girl? Did they visit and get to know two young daughters of a Georgetown professor who were on their way to Australia? Did they bother to meet the hard-working firefighter and father of eight who had devoted his life to serving his community? Of course they didn't. To meet and come to know your "enemy" destroys the very notion of us-versus-them. While it's easy to project your hate and anger and fear onto "the other," it is a whole lot more difficult to depersonalize and extinguish an actual human being when you have come to know her (you can learn about those who died on 9-11 at Legacy.com).


    For me, this is the greatest form of cowardice of our time. Though we live in a world that is more integrated than ever, we still manage to deny the humanity of our fellow human beings. Moral cowardice.


    Which brings me to Donald Trump. I am not saying that Mr. Trump is a terrorist, but he has something in common with terrorists. You guessed it: Moral cowardice.


    Mr. Trump--and the bevvy of Republican contenders racing to keep up with him--want to detain, deport, and deter many potential immigrants, including "illegals," refugees, asylum seekers, and H1B workers. Of course it's a whole lot easier to deport people you've labeled illegals, "rapists" and "killers." It's harder when you have to contend with actual human beings and their stories.


    Take the case of R-H-, a young man from Honduras. A gang member tried to date his sister, and when the parents refused, the gang murdered his mother, father, and sister. R-H- escaped and came illegally to the U.S., where he was detained. R-H- did not have a lawyer, and the Immigration Judge denied his asylum application and ordered him deported. He appealed pro se. I participate in the BIA Pro Bono Project--where we screen unrepresented cases and refer them to pro bono attorneys--and I read his case and recommended it for referral. Ultimately, R-H- was granted asylum (and finally released from detention).


    Now maybe you believe that all "illegals" like R-H- should be deported. But before you reach that conclusion, you have a moral (and intellectual) obligation to understand exactly what you are advocating. R-H- was the victim of horrific gang violence. If he were deported, he likely would have been murdered. It's a reasonable (though in my opinion, wrong) policy position to state that people like R-H- should be deported--our country has limited resources, we have to help "our own" before we help others, etc. But to create a straw man--an "illegal"--without knowing anything about the real person, and then to call for his deportation, is moral cowardice. Before you say, "Deport them all," you better know who it is that you are deporting and exactly what that means.


    The funny (or ironic) thing is, even the most anti-immigration people often have compassion for the immigrants they know. My friend was a fundraiser for Pat Buchanan, who is certainly no friend of immigrants. But when my friend's friend landed in removal proceedings (for assaulting a cop, no less), my friend referred him to me for help. After we won the case, my friend sent me a wonderful note: "You did the most important thing a person can do--you made me look good for recommending you." I love that, but the point is, even my friend who supports Pat Buchanan recognized the humanity in the immigrant he knew and wanted him to remain in the U.S. To look at an abstract group of "illegals" is one thing. To know the individual is quite another.


    Indeed, when Mr. Trump met with Dream Act activists two years ago, he told them, "You convinced me." In the face of hearing their stories, even The Donald wanted to help.


    To some degree, all of us are guilty of dehumanizing "the other." It's impossible not to. But when we advocate for positions that harm others without understanding--or even trying to understand--the potential harm, we fail as moral beings. Hopefully, our nation expects better than that from itself and from its presidential candidates.

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