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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

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  1. Rwandan Woman Who Became US Citizen Is Accused of Genocide

    Beatrice Munyenyezi, 40, of Manchester, New Hampshire was indicted last week on two counts of lying to obtain her U.S. citizenship.  According to a report from the Associated Press, Ms. Munyenyezi left Rwanda in 1994 after the genocide that killed over 800,000 people.  She entered the U.S. as a refugee in 1998 and became a permanent resident one year later.  In 2003, she was sworn-in as a U.S. citizen.  In all her applications, Ms. Munyenyezi denied any involvement in the genocide.
    Now federal authorities have arrested her and issued an indictment.  According to a press release from the United States Attorney's Office:
    The Indictment alleges that MUNYENYEZI obtained her U.S. citizenship unlawfully after making material misrepresentations on a number of occasions before and after she came to the United States from the country of Rwanda. In particular, the Indictment alleges that MUNYENYEZI participated, committed, ordered, oversaw, conspired to, aided and abetted, assisted in and directed persecution, kidnapping, rape and murder during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. It is alleged that MUNYENYEZI misrepresented these facts in order to obtain immigration and naturalization benefits.
    If the blogosphere is to be believed, Ms. Munyenyezi's guilt is far from certain, and the U.S. government along with corrupt U.S. government agents are complicit in an international effort to frame her and other Hutus, while ignoring atrocities committed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (the Tutsi rebel group who put an end to the genocide).  While I can accept that Rwandan government leaders do not have clean hands, the effort to re-write history sounds pretty dubious to me.  At the time of the genocide, I was an intern in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration at the U.S. State Department.  We were closely following events in Rwanda, and I don't remember there being many questions about who was murdering whom.  That said, the U.S. government bears the burden of proving that Ms. Munyenyezi lied on her applications, and it will have to submit evidence of her involvement in the persecution.   
    Ms. Munyenyezi is not the only person in her family accused of human rights violations.  A United Nations tribunal has also charged her husband and her mother with involvement in the mass murder.  If convicted in the U.S., Ms. Munyenyezi faces up to 10 years imprisonment, followed by 3 years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine, along with revocation of her U.S. citizenship.
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  2. Journey to the U.S. Can Be Especially Dangerous for Women

    Asylum is one of the few mechanisms for people who enter the U.S. illegally to obtain legal status in our country, and many asylum seekers risk the difficult journey from their home countries, through South America, Central America, and Mexico, and into the United States.  The trip is dangerous for everyone, but women face particular hardships. 
    A recent report from the Immigration Policy Center by Kavitha Sreeharsha notes that "70% of women who cross without spouses or other [family members] are sexually assaulted during the border crossing."  "Advocates report that women are encouraged to take birth control pills before traveling across the border in anticipation of the sexual assault."  Probably as a result of this danger, the ratio of female to male asylum seekers who enter the country at the Southern border is very low (according to DHS, only about 17% of people apprehended at the U.S./Mexican border are female).
    In my own practice, I regularly see asylum seekers who have traveled from Africa and crossed into the United States illegally.  Some have been apprehended at the border and later released; others have avoided capture.  It's very rare for me to see female asylum seekers who entered the United States in this manner.  In fact, I can only think of one woman client who crossed the border without inspection.  She traveled from Africa to South America and then to Central America and Mexico.  She met different smugglers in each country.  Sometimes, she traveled with other Africans, but other times, she was alone.  She made the journey with no particular problems and then she crossed the Rio Grande River with a few dozen migrants.  Once she was in the United States, the smugglers separated her and another woman (and that woman's small children), and locked them in a house.  The smugglers raped my client.  After some days, she escaped and contacted the police.  The smugglers were never captured.
    My client's story illustrates the danger faced by women traveling alone along the smuggling route.  Of course, we hope that the countries where these smugglers operate will crack down on the practice, but such reforms seem a long way off in most places.  The story also illustrates the risks people will take to escape their problems and seek a better life in our country.  To paraphrase the old idiom: immigration is the sincerest form of flattery.
  3. Decision to Deny Asylum to "Son of Hamas" Is "Idiotic"

    We've reported before about Mossad Hassan Yousef, son of Hamas founding member Sheikh Hassan Yousef.  The younger Yousef converted to Christianity, worked undercover to stop terrorist attacks against Israel, and wrote a book about his experience.  He has been living in California for the last few years and his application for asylum was recently rejected because he supposedly provided "material support" to Hamas, a designated terrorist organization.  Mr. Yousef claims any "support" he provided was done in the course of learning about the organization in order to prevent terrorist attacks.  His case is currently before an Immigration Judge, who will review his claim for asylum de novo.
    Now, in an unprecedented move, a former Shin Bet (Israeli security) agent has come forward to verify Mr. Yousef's claim.  The Jewish Journal reports that Gonen Ben-Yitzhak confirmed that Mr. Yousef provided information that "prevent[ed] attacks that saved countless Israeli and Arab lives."  Mr. Ben-Yitzak will testify at Mr. Yousef's upcoming asylum hearing. 
    It is illegal for a former Shin Bet agent to publicly reveal his name, and Mr. Ben-Yitzak faces potential legal trouble in Israel when he returns:
    "It's my country, my land. I love the Shin Bet, and I love Israel. But I have to help my friend," he said of the San Diego hearing. "This is my duty -- to stand with him and say the truth. It's something I need to do. He always stood beside me. In the harshest days of the second intifadah, I called and asked about his opinion because his understanding about Hamas is unbelievable."
    The two men received awards at a dinner sponsored by the Endowment for Middle East Truth, a pro-Israel organization.  Other muckety-mucks at the dinner included Senator Sam Brownback, Congressman Brad Sherman, and Congressman Doug Lamborn.  The event was held at the U.S. Senate, leading Mr. Yousef to joke, "How did security let a terrorist like me into this building?" 
    Mr. Yousef's asylum hearing is scheduled for next week.  There seems little doubt that he has a well-founded fear of persecution in the Palestinian territory-not just for his efforts against Hamas, but also for his apostasy (he has publicly referred to Islam as a religion of hate).  The issue is whether his "support" for Hamas will disqualify him for asylum.  Mr. Ben-Yitzak's testimony should go a long way towards solving the "material support" problem.  And even if the Immigration Judge determines that Mr. Yousef supported Hamas, he should still qualify for relief under the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which would allow him to remain in the United States.
    When asked about the U.S. government's effort to deport Mr. Yousef, Mr. Ben-Yitzak, the former Shin Bet agent, said, "It's hard for me to understand -- very hard for me to understand."  Former CIA director James Woolsey was less diplomatic.  "My view is that the decision to deny him political refugee status was incredibly idiotic," Woolsey said.  "It's hard to think of a worse immigration decision in history.  It's fundamentally nuts."
  4. Help for the Stateless?

    According to a recent report, about 4,000 people known to be stateless are living in the United States.  Probably, many more are living here under the radar.  Refugees International reports that there are over 12 million stateless people world-wide: "Statelessness results from factors such as political change, border demarcation or secession, forced expulsion, discrimination, nationality based solely on descent, and laws regulating marriage and birth registration."  Stateless people have "limited access to health care and education; prospects for employment are poor, leading to generations of poverty; and their right to freedom of movement is routinely violated. Stateless people face social exclusion, harassment, and violence."
    Current U.S. law does not provide stateless people with any legal status.  Unable to return to their former countries, stateless individuals living in the United States risk being detained and must apply annually for permission to work.  They also face travel restrictions and are often required to report regularly to immigration officials-a requirement that can last indefinitely. 
    When the Dan Glickman of Refugees International testified before Congress last month, he gave the example of Tatianna, a stateless woman from the former Soviet Union:
    Tatianna is a 61 year-old mother and grandmother, a piano teacher who has lived in the United States for over 20 years.  She was born in Russia during Soviet times and eventually moved to what is now Ukraine.  In 1992, after being persecuted by the authorities for her political beliefs, she came to the United States with the younger of two sons and applied for asylum.  Their case was denied in 1997.  Following its independence Ukraine passed a law requiring people to have resided in Ukraine for two years following independence to be eligible for citizenship. Tatianna had fled before having lived in Ukraine for two years and she is therefore not recognized as a Ukrainian citizen. Russia doesn't recognize Tatianna as a citizen either because Russian nationality laws require individuals to have lived in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which Tatianna did not.
    This means that the United States had nowhere to return Tatianna after denying her asylum claim. Tatiana and her son are stateless.  No country recognizes Tatianna as a citizen. She has no nationality, and there is no legal pathway for her to acquire citizenship in the U.S.  She lives in limbo and is unable to fully participate in society.  She has no travel documents and no means to acquire them.  She has been separated from some of her closest family members for decades.  And although she and her son have paid taxes in the United States since they arrived 20 years ago, she is not eligible for social security.  Tatianna must check in with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) every month by telephone and every six months in person.  She never knows what might happen when she goes to DHS and lives in fear that she could be arbitrarily jailed.
    The proposed Refugee Protection Act addresses the problem of statelessness and provides a path for stateless residents of the U.S. to obtain their permanent residency and ultimately their citizenship.  Hopefully, support for the RPA will gain momentum and provide help to stateless people in the United States.
  5. Congressional Hearing on EOIR

    On June 17, the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law held an oversight hearing on the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR).  The hearing was called by Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) as part of a long-running effort to understand why the Immigration Courts and Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) are as backlogged, inefficient, and overwhelmed as they are. 


      Where the magic happens.
    While ranking member Steve King (R-IA) continued his crusade to find out what "really happened" in the asylum case of President Obama's aunt, the rest of the Subcommittee and witnesses got straight to the crux of EOIR's problems:  lack of resources, insufficient staffing and training of immigration judges, and a complete disconnect between EOIR's capacity to adjudicate cases and ICE's skyrocketing enforcement efforts.   
    First up was Juan Osuna, former Chairman of the BIA and current Associate Deputy Attorney General at the Department of Justice.  As the DOJ representative before the Subcommittee, he was obliged to highlight the positive changes made during the Obama Administration's stewardship of EOIR.  These efforts include the proposed hiring of 47 new immigration judges by the end of 2010, making the complaint process against IJs more transparent, improving the training regime for IJs, and having "meetings" with ICE to express EOIR and DOJ's discontent with the massive number of immigration court cases being initiated by ICE right now. 
    Mr. Osuna is right to be concerned about the astonishing increase in cases before the immigration courts.  He testified that there are a record 275,000 pending matters before EOIR.  Coupled with the decline of IJs actually hearing cases, this has resulted in an average wait-time of 439 days for a case to go to trial.  That's right--the average person who has a case in immigration court has to wait over a year for a hearing on the merits of his or her claim.  Meanwhile, armed with a gargantuan budget and an enforcement mandate, ICE keeps arresting, detaining, and issuing "notices to appear" to as many noncitizens as it possibly can.  EOIR has no control over this and clearly isn't keeping up.   
    As Representative Pedro Pierluisi (D-PR) pointed out, the overwhelming caseload and lack of support is creating a great deal of strain on immigration judges themselves.  Witness and Immigration Judge Dana Marks (also President of the National Association of Immigration Judges), noted that the average Federal district court judge handles 400 cases per year and has three law clerks to assist him.  The average immigration judge completes 1500 cases per year and gets ¼ of one law clerk.  Further, TRAC Immigration reports have indicated that an IJ gets an average of only 70 minutes to hear an immigration case.  Practically speaking, that means that in just over an hour, an IJ has to decide whether the law requires him to split up a family, keep someone detained, or send someone back to his home country to face persecution.  And the DOJ wonders why it has a hard time finding qualified, experienced immigration judges? 
    The laundry list of problems raised at the hearing could go on for pages, so I'll stop here.  I think it is clear enough that as a starting point, EOIR needs more resources if ICE is going to continue to funnel record numbers of people into deportation proceedings.  For other suggestions on how to reform the immigration court system, I recommend reading a recent ABA report called "Reforming the Immigration System: Proposals to Promote Independence, Fairness, Efficiency, and Professionalism in the Adjudication of Removal Cases." You can read the full ABA report here.
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