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The Refugee Ball took place on Tuesday, January 17, 2017. It was wonderful to see hundreds of people from all different backgrounds and countries come together to celebrate America's humanitarian immigration system.
Economist, talk show host, women's rights advocate, and amazing singer, Amal Nourelhuda (originally from Sudan), performs at the Refugee Ball.
There were musicians from Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Tibet. There was a Persian rapper. Our emcee was a journalist/asylum seeker from Ethiopia. We had Lebanese, Tibetan, and Ethiopian food, and Syrian cookies. There was artwork by a young Honduran asylum seeker and an Iranian refugee. Speakers included the former Chairman of the Board of Immigration Appeals (who now has his own blog), an asylee from Azerbaijan, and the president and CEO of HIAS, a non-profit organization that assists refugees. We also had a special guest appearance by Congressman Jamie Raskin. All-in-all, not a bad way to spend an evening.
One message of the Refugee Ball is that asylum seekers and refugees contribute in valuable ways to our society. They bring their skills and talents to America, and we are stronger because of their presence here. Also, by offering asylum to those who work with us and those who share our values, we demonstrate to our allies that we are on their side; that we have got their back. This makes it more likely that people around the world will cooperate with us and work to advance the values that our nation aspires to: Democracy, freedom of speech, women's rights, LGBT rights, freedom of religion, equality, peace. When we have the cooperation of our allies, our country is safer and more secure, and our asylum system helps engender that cooperation.
And of course, granting protection to those in need of assistance is the right thing to do. I know that if my family members had to flee the United States, I would want more than anything for them to receive a friendly reception in their country of refuge. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Another message of the Ball is that advocates for asylum seekers and refugees remain committed to assisting people who have come to our country for protection. And although the incoming Administration may create a more difficult environment for our clients, our commitment to those seeking our country's protection will not wane.
For me, though, the most important message of the Ball was that of the courage and perseverance displayed by the refugees and asylum seekers who I saw there. Many of the people who participated in the event were themselves victims of terrible torture and persecution. But there they were at the Ball--singing and dancing, giving speeches, making art and food for us to enjoy. Each of them provides an example of how the human spirit can survive extreme adversity and go on to create beauty, and of how life can triumph over death. I can't help but be inspired by their examples.
So while we really do not know what to expect in the days and months ahead, we can draw strength from each other, and from the examples set by the refugees and asylum seekers themselves, who have endured great hardships, but who still have hope that America will live up to the high ideals that we have set for ourselves.
To those who participated in, supported, and attended the Refugee Ball, Thank you. Thank you for contributing your time, talent, energy, and money to supporting the cause of refugees and asylum seekers. Thank you for inspiring me, and for reminding me of why I work as an asylum attorney. I feel optimistic knowing that we are united in our goal of welcoming the stranger, and that we are all in this together to support each other.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
The inauguration of a new president is almost upon us. It's traditional to celebrate the democratic transition of power with lavish parties. They take place all over Washington, DC. Some are formal affairs attended by the President and other VIPs; others are much simpler and unpretentious.
This year, I know that many refugees, asylum seekers, and their advocates are nervous about the new Administration and what it might mean for them and their families. During the campaign, there was a lot of negative talk about immigrants and refugees. It's not surprising then, that many of us are not feeling in a celebratory mood.
But it seems to me that we need to come together to remind ourselves of why accepting refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants into our society is so important. We--advocates, clients, family members--draw strength from one another. For that reason, a group of us has organized a "Refugee Ball" for refugees, asylum seekers, their families, advocates, and supporters.
The purpose of the Ball is not to celebrate the new President; nor is it to denigrate him. Rather, we want to support each other and help demonstrate the value of refugees, asylees, and immigrants to the wider community. We also want to celebrate the core humanitarian values that underpin our refugee and asylum programs--values like compassion, generosity, friendship, diversity, inclusiveness, and due process of law.
With that in mind, it is my pleasure to invite you to attend the Refugee Ball, which will take place on Tuesday, January 17, 2017 at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, located at 600 I Street, NW, Washington, DC 20001.
Refugee, asylee, and immigrant vendors will provide food, music, and art. Also, immigration lawyers--including me--will be on hand to provide free consultations and “Know Your Rights” presentations. Events will start at 5:00 PM with the legal consults. Other activities will begin at 6:00 PM.
The Ball is free and open to the public, but please let us know if you plan to attend by responding on our Facebook page (click here for the link). We will update the Facebook page with more information as we get closer to the date.
Also, if you would like to support the Ball financially, please consider making a contribution (click here for the link), and spreading the word about this event. All proceeds will go towards the cost of the Ball, and any leftovers will be donated to local and international non-profits that support refugees.
Thank you, and I hope to see you there.
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
As the Syrian city of Aleppo falls under government control, the question of Syrian refugees has become even more urgent. Forces loyal to the government are summarily murdering civilians, and even the wounded cannot be evacuated due to government (and Russian) military action. Despite heartbreaking "goodbye messages" from civilians trapped in the conflict zone, I have little expectation that the world will do much to help. We have ignored genocides again and again, so why should we expect anything different here?
Which is easier to explain: The absence of Christian refugees, or the absence of Christian charity?
Accepting Syrian refugees into the United States has also been controversial. Donald Trump called them "a great Trojan Horse." I suppose the same could be said of the Jews fleeing Hitler on the ship St. Louis, which reached our shores but was refused permission to land. I am sure many of those men, women, and children were secret Bolsheviks plotting a Communist takeover. Lucky for us, they were rejected and returned to Europe, where over 250 of them perished in the Holocaust.
One gripe raised by those opposing the admission of Syrian refugees is that the refugees are disproportionately Muslim. In a recent concurring opinion, Judge Manion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, notes the mysterious absence of Christians from the pool of Syrian refugees arriving in the United States. See Heartland Alliance National Immigrant Justice Center v. DHS, 16-1840 (7th 2016). J. Manion writes:
I write separately for a… critical reason, which is [to express] my concern about the apparent lack of Syrian Christians as a part of immigrants from that country…. It is well-documented that refugees to the United States are not representative of that war-torn area of the world. Perhaps 10 percent of the population of Syria is Christian, and yet less than one-half of one percent of Syrian refugees admitted to the United States this year are Christian…. [Of] the nearly 11,000 refugees admitted by mid-September, only 56 were Christian. To date, there has not been a good explanation for this perplexing discrepancy.
Judge Manion's observation is supported by a recent report from the Pew Research Center, which found that in FY 2016:
[R]efugee status was given to 12,587 Syrians. Nearly all of them (99%) were Muslim and less than 1% were Christian. As a point of comparison, Pew Research Center estimated Syria’s religious composition to be 93% Muslim and 5% Christian in 2010.
The most accurate data I have found about Syrian refugees essentially lines up with the findings of Judge Manion and Pew: Of 12,541 Syrian refugees admitted into the U.S. in FY 2016, between 0.5 and 1% self-identified as Christian. It is a bit less clear how many Christians lived in Syria prior to the current war. Estimates range from 5.1% (Pew) to 10% (CIA). But no matter how you slice it, it's clear that the Syrian refugees entering the U.S. are not representative of the country's population--fewer Christians than expected are coming to our country as refugees. So what's going on here?
First, here is the conclusion that I don't accept--the one pushed by people opposed to Muslim immigration--that the Obama Administration is deliberately favoring Muslims over non-Muslims. I don't support this conclusion because, while a disproportionate majority of Syrian refugees are Muslim, the majority of refugees overall (from all countries), are not Muslim. In FY 2016, we admitted 38,901 Muslim refugees and 37,521 Christian refugees (out of a total of 84,995 refugees). In other words, in FY 2016, about 46% of refugees admitted to the U.S. were Muslim; 44% were Christian. (This was the first year of the Obama Administration where more Muslims than Christians were admitted as refugees).
A more plausible explanation for the absence of Syrian Christians was proposed by Jonathan Witt, an Evangelical writer and activist, and an Obama critic. Basically, he believes that Muslims are more likely than Christians to end up in refugee camps, and since refugees are generally selected for resettlement from the camps, Christians are disproportionately left out. This part sounds logical, but (to me at least) Mr. Witt takes his argument a bit too far:
As bad off as the Muslim refugees are, they aren’t without politically well-connected advocates in the Middle East. Many Muslim powerbrokers are happy to see Europe and America seeded with Muslim immigrants, and would surely condemn any U.S. action that appeared to prefer Christian over Muslim refugees, even if the effort were completely justified. By and large, they support Muslim immigration to the West and have little interest in seeing Christian refugees filling up any spaces that might have been filled by Muslim refugees.The deck, in other words, is heavily stacked against the Christian refugees. The White House has been utterly feckless before the Muslim power structure in the Middle East that is doing the stacking, and has tried to sell that fecklessness to the American people as a bold stand for a religion-blind treatment of potential refugees —religion tests are un-American! It’s a smokescreen.
Here, he's lost me. This conspiracy-minded nonsense might be more convincing if there were some evidence for it (and remember, FY 2016 was the first year of the Obama Administration where we resettled more Muslim than Christian refugees). The prosaic arguments may be less interesting, but they have the vitue of being more likely.
I have a few of my own theories as well. For one thing--and maybe this ties in with the first part of Mr. Witt's thesis--Syrian Christians were somewhat better off than Syrian Muslims. If they have more resources, maybe they were able to avoid the refugee camps by leaving in a more orderly way and by finding (and paying for) alternative housing. Also, Syrian Christians are generally not being targeted by the Assad regime. Indeed, in view of the threats they face from extremists, Syrian Christians are more likely to support the government--not because they have much affection for Bashar Assad, but because the alternative is even worse.
So there very well may be a reasonable explanation for the lack of Christians among Syrian refugees resettling in the U.S. But because the Administration has not explained the anomaly, we are (as usual) left with an information void. And that void is being filled by speculation from fringe writers like Mr. Witt, but also by federal court judges, like Judge Manion. The solution should be obvious: Those involved in the refugee resettlement effort should tell us what's going on. This would help satisfy many critics and it will help protect the refugee program going forward.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
Last month, a Somali refugee and college student drove his car into a crowd at his university, jumped out, and started stabbing people. He was quickly shot dead by a campus police officer. The assailant, Abdul Razak Ali Artan, apparently left Somalia, lived for a time in Pakistan, and was resettled as a refugee in the United States in 2014. After the incident, Donald Trump tweeted that Mr. Artan "should not have been in our country."
TV shows based on misunderstandings are hilarious; government policies, not so much.
Incidents like this--where a refugee or asylee commits a (probable) terrorist act--are exceedingly rare. As far as I know, the only other successful attack involving "refugees" was the Boston Marathon bombing, perpetrated by two brothers who came to the U.S. as derivatives of their parents' asylum case. Since 2001, the U.S. has admitted approximately 785,000 refugees and roughly 400,000 asylum seekers. So if all these numbers are accurate (a big "if", as discussed below), then the odds that any given refugee or asylee is a terrorist is 1 in 395,000 or 0.0000844%.
In looking at the question of refugees/asylees and terrorism, the main problem is that the numbers listed above are not accurate. First, there is no consistent way to count people entering and leaving the United States. The refugee numbers are probably more accurate (though it's unclear to me whether all aliens admitted for humanitarian reasons are included in the count), but asylum numbers are all over the map. Part of the problem is that different agencies (DHS and DOJ) deal with asylum applicants, and they seem to count people differently--sometimes derivative asylees are counted; other times, only the principal is counted. How do the agencies count people whose cases are pending? What about people granted other forms of relief (like Withholding of Removal or Torture Convention relief)? How are family members who "follow to join" the principal applicant counted? I have no idea about any of this, and there is no easily available data source to help. Not surprisingly, the dearth of data has opened the door to conspiracy theorists and anti-immigration advocates who claim we have an "open borders" immigration policy. But the absence of data also creates problems for fair-minded policy makers. How can we make appropriate decisions when we do not have a decent understanding of what is going on?
A second problem is that we do not have reliable information about how many non-citizens are involved in terrorist activities. Last summer, Senators Jeff Sessions (Donald Trump's current nominee for Attorney General) and Ted Cruz sent a letter to the Obama Administration claiming that at least 380 of 580 people convicted of terrorism charges in the U.S. between September 11, 2001 and December 31, 2014 are foreign born. According to the Senators, "Of the 380 foreign-born, at least 24 were initially admitted to the United States as refugees, and at least 33 had overstayed their visas." The letter further claims that since early 2014, 131 individuals have been "implicated" in terrorist activities. Of those, "at least 16 were initially admitted to the United States as refugees, and at least 17... are the natural-born citizen children of immigrants." Using these numbers and the (admittedly questionable) refugee and asylee numbers listed above, the odds that any given refugee or asylee is involved in terrorist activities is still pretty low: One refugee/asyee out of every 28,902 will be involved in terrorist activities (or about 0.0035% of refugees/asylees).
The Senators were only able to come up with their figures based on publicly-available sources (like news articles), since DHS did not release immigration information about the 580 individuals convicted of terrorist-related activities, or the 131 people "implicated" in such activities. Whether DHS's failure to release this information is prosaic (perhaps confidentiality or technical issues pose a challenge) or nefarious, we do not know, since apparently, the agency has not responded to the Senators' requests. The fact is, Senators Sessions and Cruz are correct: We need more data about the people who are entering our country, and we need to know whether refugees and asylees (and others) are committing crimes or becoming involved with terrorism. Not only will this better allow us to make appropriate policy decisions, but it will also help prevent the type of fake news that is currently filling—and exploiting—the information gap.
But of course, the situation is more complex than any statistics alone might show. Some people who become involved in terrorism are mentally ill individuals exploited by terrorists (or--sometimes--by over-zealous law-enforcement officers). In other cases, people providing support to a "terrorist" group overseas do not know that the group is involved in harmful activities, or they do not understand that the U.S government views the group as dangerous. Also, as I have discussed previously, the “material support” provisions of our anti-terrorism legislation are extremely broad, and so people who seem far removed from terrorit activities can get caught up by our overly-broad laws.
Nevertheless, we need to know more about foreign-born individuals--including asylum seekers and refugees--who are implicated in terrorist-related activities, and the basic starting point for any such analysis is the statistical data about who is coming here, how they are getting here, and whether they are accused or convicted of crimes or terrorist-related activities.
Assuming we do get some accurate data, the question then becomes, How do we evaluate such information? How do we balance concrete examples of non-citizens engaged in criminal or terrorist activities, on the one hand, with the benefits of our refugee program, on the other?
And by the way, despite what some anti-refugee advocates might argue, our refugee and asylum programs provide concrete benefits: They establish us as a world leader in the humanitarian realm, they demonstrate our fealty to those who have stood with us and who support our values (and thus encourage others to continue standing with us), they provide our country with diverse and energetic new residents who are grateful for our generosity and who contribute to our society. These programs also represent an expression of who we are as a people. As I have frequently argued, for us to abandon these programs--and the humanitarian ideals that they represent--due to our fear of terrorism is a victory for the terrorists.
But we also need to balance our humanitarian policies and our national security. We need to better understand the issues--so that the public can be more well-informed and so policy makers have the information they need to make good decisions. I hope the new Administration will shine some light on these issues, so that any changes to our refugee and asylum policies are based on accurate information, and not on conjecture or fear.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com