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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum


  1. Book Review: The Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry

    Gal Beckerman's new book, When They Come for Us, We'll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, has been widely touted as the definitive work on the subject, and earlier this month, it was crowned Jewish Book of the Year by the Jewish Book Counsel.  As far as I know, Mr. Beckerman is the youngest author (age 34) to receive such an honor. 
    Oy vey! It's hard not to kvell over this book.
    I just completed the book, and I fully agree that it deserves this high praise.  Mr. Beckerman eloquently explores the breadth and depth of the effort to free Soviet Jews, and makes a convincing argument that the movement launched the modern human rights era.  It's a fascinating story, which alternates between Soviet Jewish activists, American Jews, who until now have received little recognition, and national figures, such as Senator Henry Jackson, co-author of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which linked human rights and American foreign policy (over the objection of President Nixon and Henry Kissinger). 
    But more than this-and like any great book-it taught me something about myself.  I had not really thought about it before, but the effort to help Soviet Jews is what initially sparked my own interest in human rights and social justice.  The book also reminded me of another struggle taking place as we speak-the effort to pass the DREAM Act.
    First (since blogs are for navel gazing), a bit about me.  Like Mr. Beckerman, I had a "twin" Bar Mitzvah-In 1982, I was matched with a Jewish boy from the Soviet Union who was not permitted to have a Bar Mitzvah himself.  As my "twin," he was mentioned several times during the ceremony, and was symbolically Bar Mitzvahed with me.  Whether he ever learned of this, I don't know, and I basically forgot about him until I read Mr. Beckerman's book. 
    Years later, during my first job after college, I helped find jobs for refugees who had settled in Philadelphia.  About half of them were from the Soviet Union, the product of the struggle to save the Soviet Jews.  While it was an interesting and rewarding position, the job was fairly prosaic, and I did not know much about the context of what I was doing.  Again, Mr. Beckerman's book illuminated this chapter of my life. 
    Finally, while reading the book, I kept thinking about parallels between the Jews of the U.S.S.R. and DREAM Act students in the United States.  While Russian Jews wanted to leave and DREAM Act students want to stay, both groups faced (or face) arbitrary arrest at any moment, both lived (or currently live) in fear, both were viewed as dangerous outsiders, and both suffered these difficulties not because of something they did, but because of who they are. 
    I'm proud to say that the organized Jewish community-led by HIAS-has worked hard to help DREAM Act students.  It is a fitting continuation of the struggle to save Soviet Jews.  I hope Gal Beckerman's superb book will remind us of the power of an organized community to work for social justice, and of the ethical imperative that all of us have to continue the struggle.
    The best place to purchase the book (and read an interview with the author) is here.
    Originally posted on the Asylumist:
  2. DHS Plans Crackdown Against Smugglers in Central American

    Many African asylum seekers enter the United States at the Mexican border.  Their journey to the U.S. is long and circuitous.  In East Africa (where some of my clients come from), people travel from Ethiopia, Eritrea or Somalia to Kenya.  From there, they go to South Africa and Brazil using false passports, and then through South America (sometimes by boat up the Amazon River!), to Central America, and then Mexico and the U.S.  Along the route, they are passed from one smuggler to the next.  Its big business for the smugglers: I've heard the trip costs between $10,000.00 and $15,000.00, and sometimes more.
    A smuggler guides a couple illegal aliens across the border.
    Last year, Abrahaley Fessahazion, an Eritrean based in Guatemala pleaded guilty to helping smuggle illegal aliens to the United States for financial gain.  Mr. Fessahazion was caught after he came to the U.S. and filed a false claim for political asylum.  He faces up to 10 years in prison.
    Now, if the rumor mill is to be believed, DHS and at least one Latin American government are planning to arrest some additional smugglers in Central America.  DHS investigators have been interviewing smuggled aliens in the United States.  They have asked the aliens to identify photos of several smugglers based in Central American.  While most of the smugglers are from Latin America, at least one is African.  
    It seems that DHS's central concern involves the Somalis, who have long been viewed as a potential threat to national security (I've blogged about this issue here), and apparently DHS's interrogation of the smuggled aliens has focused on Somali migrants.   
    If the rumors are true, and certain Latin American governments are cooperating in the crackdown, life might be about to become difficult for the smugglers.
    Originally posted on the Asylumist:
  3. Deportation Leads to Abortion

    For many immigration attorneys, the people we can't help are the ones we remember the best.  I received a sad call last week and there was little I could do to assist.

    Apparently, the caller's husband had applied for asylum prior to the marriage.  He was denied and then failed to leave.  Later, he met the caller, they fell in love, and married.  Whether she knew about his immigration problems prior to the marriage, I do not know.  In any case, she got pregnant. 
    Two months into the pregnancy, the husband was detained by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), and quickly returned to his home country in West Africa, leaving his wife alone in the United States.
    The wife called me to ask about the possibilities for him to return, based on the marriage.  She told me that she was working seven days a week to support herself.  She felt that without her husband's help, she was incapable of taking care of a child.  She told me that since she was separated from her husband, she would probably not keep the baby.
    I advised her of the legal consequences of the husband's overstay and removal (he is barred from returning for 10 years), and discussed the possibility of him returning based on the marriage.  Although the couple could apply for a waiver to allow the husband to return to the U.S. in less than 10 years, I doubt he will return quickly--certainly not in time for the baby.
    I understand that the husband is likely to blame for his family's predicament, and I am not sure what, if anything, "the system" did wrong.  Maybe I am also being sensitive, having recently become a father myself.  Nevertheless, the caller's story is a sad example of an unintended consequence of the immigration system.    
    Originally posted on the Asylumist:
  4. Must Attorneys Always Ask Their Clients About FGM?

    In a strongly-worded dissenting opinion, Judge Harry Pregerson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit Court wrote that an immigration attorney provided ineffective assistance of counsel for failing to ask her client about whether the client had been subject to female genital mutilation ("FGM").
    In Teclezghi v. Holder, Nos. 07-70661 & 07-71463 (9th Cir. Jan. 4, 2011), Judge Pregerson writes:
    An attorney representing an asylum seeker has a duty to investigate all grounds upon which an applicant may be entitled to relief... [and must] inquire as to whether her female client has suffered female genital mutilation when (1) nearly 90 percent of women in the client's home country endure such a brutal procedure, and (2) it is well-settled that female genital mutilation constitutes persecution sufficient to warrant a grant of asylum.
    The Judge concludes by rejecting the majority's reasoning that an attorney should not be required to inquire about something as personal as FGM:
    The panel majority fails to recognize that most political asylum applications are intensely personal, often painful, and may involve questions of sexual torture, rape, and humiliation. It is entirely expected that clients may not want to readily reveal such circumstances to their attorneys. It is precisely because the subject matter of an asylum claim based on female genital mutilation is so intensely personal and our immigration system so complex that an attorney has a special responsibility to adequately explain to her female clients their rights to asylum and diligently investigate all grounds for relief. The panel majority's decision allowing attorneys to forego investigating intensely personal facts in an asylum claim diminishes the attorney's role in the asylum process. Our precedent tells us that competent attorney performance requires more. I believe that our court should instill a greater sense of professional responsibility in attorneys who represent asylum seekers.
    It's a powerful argument-and a cautionary tale for those of us who represent women from countries where FGM is widespread.  If Judge Pregerson's position were adopted, attorneys would be required to ask about FGM not just in asylum cases, but also for clients seeking other forms of relief.  And we would-I suppose-be required to file FGM-based asylum applications for all clients who have been victims of the practice.  I have mixed feelings about this.
    An anti-FGM poster in Kenya.
    One problem is that it takes considerable time to develop an asylum case; particularly a case based on FGM.  For private attorneys, we would need to charge money for this time.  For non-profit attorneys, more time on one case means taking fewer cases overall.  Thus, fewer asylum seekers would be represented. 
    Another problem is that adding an additional claim for relief may weaken the overall case.  It's a question of strategy, but generally, if I have a strong basis for relief, I would rather not include a second, weaker claim for relief.  The weaker application tends to distract from the stronger, and increase the odds that both applications will fail.  Under the regime outlined by Judge Pregerson, I might feel obliged to include the FGM claim, even if I felt it would distract from the main focus of the case (if only for CYA-cover your ***-purposes).
     On the other hand, if asylum might be available to a client based on FGM, the lawyer has a duty to at least explore that option.  I think it goes too far to label an attorney "ineffective" for failing to file an FGM asylum claim, especially where the attorney determines that such a claim is not the best strategy for the case.  However, where the attorney fails to ask about FGM when the client hales from a country where that practice is prevalent, there is a good argument that the attorney has provided ineffective assistance of counsel.
    Originally posted on the Asylumist:
  5. FAIR Gets It Wrong

    The Federation for American Immigration Reform recently issued a report called Refugee and Asylum Policy Reform.  I already blogged about flaws in the report's methodology and some points in the report I agree with.  For today, I want to discuss some points that I disagree with (i.e., where FAIR got it wrong).
    The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS)

    I wonder if this refugee family - reunited with help from HIAS - thinks the organization has outlived its purpose.

    The FAIR report basically attacks HIAS:
    A prime example of a refugee resettlement organization whose raison d'etre has become self-perpetuation is the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). The venerable organization that has helped Jews fleeing pogroms, the Holocaust and, more recently, oppression in the Soviet Union, has been confronted with a situation that might otherwise be considered a positive development: There [are] remarkably few Jewish refugees in need of resettlement. Without a real mission, HIAS has resorted to inventing one rather than declaring its mission accomplished and closing its doors. By its own admission, only a small percentage of the people resettled by HIAS are the people whom the organization ostensibly exists to serve.
    This statement is pretty ridiculous.  Today, there are over 14 million refugees in the world.  HIAS was created to help Jewish refugees.  Now that (thankfully) there are few Jewish refugees, HIAS uses its expertise to assist other people in need.  To anyone concerned about helping others, this seems like a no-brainer.  Apparently, though, FAIR doesn't get it. 
    Particular Social Group
    FAIR complains that the definition of "particular social group" has been expanded too far.  Specifically, the report mentions homosexuals, and argues that most cases of persecution based on sexual orientation involve persecution by private individuals where the government cannot or will not protect the individual from harm.  FAIR objects to this in principle:
    In essence, decisions of this type put the United States in the position of a safety valve whenever foreign governments fail to exercise their responsibilities to protect their own citizens. That may be a noble objective, but it is an unreasonable burden.
    First, while some cases of persecution of gays involve non-state actors, a number of countries persecute homosexuals, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, where the "offense" of homosexuality is punishable by death.  Second, protecting individuals who face harm or death is not an "unreasonable burden" (when is saving someone's life ever really an unreasonable burden?).  There are no statistics about the number of people granted asylum based on "particular social group," but my guess is that only a small percentage of asylum seekers fear persecution on account of their particular social group.  So even if we are concerned with the number of people winning asylum based on this protected ground, that number is fairly small.  Finally, the asylum law does not require state action-people who face persecution from non-state actors are eligible for asylum if their government cannot or will not protect them.  To the person who is persecuted or killed, it may not matter much whether he is killed due to government action or government inaction.  Dead, as they say, is dead.
    Asylum Should Be Temporary
    FAIR also believes that a grant of asylum should generally be temporary:
    Asylum protection should be temporary, maintaining the focus of the individual on the need to return to the home country to work for positive change.
    By this logic, we should have sent Einstein back to Nazi Germany to work for "positive change."  
    The hope, of course, is that asylum seekers will return to their country if conditions improve, but the reality is that most will not-even if it becomes safe to go back.  For one thing, it usually takes a long time for country conditions to change.  I represent many asylum seekers from Ethiopia.  That country has had the same repressive government for almost 20 years, and it does not look to improve anytime soon.  Also, people need to feel that they are safe.  To grant someone asylum, only to deport her later, leaves her in a frightful limbo, unable to move forward with her life or to feel secure.  Finally, when helping another person, it is important to respect that person.  We should respect asylees enough to allow them to make their own decision about whether it is safe to return.
    So I suppose that concludes my comments on FAIR's report.  While I disagree with many of the recommendations, the report raises points that are worth discussing, and I hope the conversation will continue.
    Originally posted on the Asylumist:
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