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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum


  1. The BIA Rules on Frivolous Asylum Claims

    The Board of Immigration Appeals earlier this week held that an Immigration Judge can make a determination that an asylum application is frivolous even in the absence of a final decision on the merits of that application. See Matter of X-M-C-, 25 I&N Dec. 322 (BIA 2010).  The Board also held that withdrawal of the alien's asylum application after the required warnings and safeguards have been provided does not preclude a finding that the application is frivolous.
    In Matter of X-M-C-, the alien filed an affirmative asylum application that contained false information.  After an interview at the Asylum Office in California, the case was referred to an Immigration Court.  During a court hearing, the alien admitted that her asylum claim and her testimony before the Asylum Officer were false.  She withdrew her application for asylum and applied for adjustment of status.  She also admitted to submitting fraudulent documents.  The IJ denied the adjustment of status holding that the later recantation of her story did "not waive the fact that a frivolous application has been filed."  The BIA found:
    [An] Immigration Judge's authority to determine that an alien has knowingly made a frivolous application for asylum is not limited to circumstances in which the Immigration Judge makes a final determination on the merits of the application. The relevant provisions of the Act and the regulations clearly indicate that an inquiry into whether an application is frivolous can be triggered once the application is "made" or "filed." 
    "Consequently," the Board held, "after a determination has been made that an asylum application is frivolous, a separate evaluation of the merits of the application is not necessary."
    The Board also determined that withdrawal of the asylum application does not prevent a determination that the application was frivolous:
    The plain language of section 208(d)(6) clearly provides that an asylum application can be deemed frivolous once it is "made" and the required warnings have been given. Allowing the preemptive withdrawal of an application to prevent a finding of frivolousness would undermine both the plain language of, and the policy behind, section 208(d)(6)--as well as the potency of the required warnings. An alien, such as the respondent, who not only filed a frivolous application but also testified falsely in support of that application to an asylum officer could escape the consequences deliberately chosen by Congress to prevent such abuse of the system.
    While applicants should be encouraged to recant false statements and withdraw false applications, the Immigration Judge and this Board are not prevented from finding that an application is frivolous simply because the applicant withdrew the application or recanted false statements after the appropriate warnings and safeguards were given, but prior to a decision on the merits.
    The paragraph quoted immediately above lays bare the dilemma of cases involving fraudulent asylum applications.  On the one hand, we want to encourage aliens to recant false statements.  On the other hand, Congress has plainly indicated that aliens who make false statements should be punished.  The alien who makes up a claim where there is none has earned such treatment.  But aliens who have legitimate claims often "enhance" their story because they feel (or are told) that they should do so.  Such aliens are--to me at least--much more sympathetic.  In general, IJs seem to distinguish between these two categories of fraudsters, treating the latter better than the former. 
    Matter of X-M-C- does not require frivolous findings and does not prevent IJs from distinguishing the different types of fraud.  It does, however, make clear that an alien cannot protect herself from a frivolous finding by withdrawing her asylum application.
  2. Cuban Dissidents Choose Between Spain and the United States

    Last month, Cardinal Jaime Ortega reached a deal with Raul Castro and the Cuban government to free 52 political prisoners who have been held since a 2003 government crackdown.  Under the agreement, the released Cubans would go to Spain and receive political asylum.  Twenty have already been freed and left Cuba for Spain, along with more than 100 relatives.  More are expected to travel to Spain over the next few months.

    The problem is, many of the Cuban dissidents would prefer to come to the United States, where they have relatives and community ties.  Originally, the political prisoners and their families believed that they could accept exile in Spain and then travel to the United States.  A State Department spokesman last month said that the Cubans would be "absolutely" welcome in the U.S.  Now, however, the State Department has informed dissidents that if they accept exile in Spain (and the legal status that comes with it), they would not be eligible for asylum in the U.S.  Instead, they would have to immigrate based on family or employer petitions, a slow process that may not be available to many of the dissidents.
    While such aliens would likely not qualify for asylum in the United States (since they are "firmly resettled" in Spain), they should qualify for permanent residency under the Cuban Adjustment Act.  This would require them to arrive in the United States and remain here for one year.  After a year, they could obtain their permanent residency.  Of course, not all of them would be able to come here, but those who want to live in the U.S. at least have a viable option. 
    The case of these Cubans raises a broader question about choosing a country to seek refuge.  Many asylum seekers travel through third countries before arriving in the U.S.  Indeed, I have represented some asylum seekers who have traveled across three continents and a dozen countries before they arrive in the U.S.  Why should we allow such people to seek refuge here when they have skipped over other countries where they could live safely?  It's a fair question. 
    For me, escaping from persecution is only part of the equation.  People are searching for a safe, stable place to re-start their lives.  They may not find that in a country that does not normally accept immigrants or where they have no friends or family.  Refugees also need community support and jobs.  They may need financial assistance, medical care, and mental health care.  Many countries-including many countries that refugees pass through-cannot offer these types of assistance.  For these reasons, some of the Cuban dissidents would rather remain detained in Cuba (while hoping to come to the U.S.) than relocate to Spain, a country where they have no family members or community support.
  3. Pre-election Leak Led to Aunt Zeituni's Asylum Grant

    In May 2010, an Immigration Judge in Boston granted asylum to President Obama's aunt, Zeituni Onyango.  The decision sparked protests from some who claimed (without evidence) that the President used his influence to help his relative.
    Now, the Boston Globe reports that the IJ's decision has been released in response to a Freedom of Information Act Request.  The 29-page decision is largely redacted, but the IJ's reasoning seems clear.  On November 1, 2008, shortly before the presidential election, the Associated Press reported that Barack Obama's Kenyan aunt was living in the U.S. illegally.  Regarding the source of this information, the AP wrote:
    Information about the deportation case was disclosed and confirmed by two separate sources, one of them a federal law enforcement official. The information they made available is known to officials in the federal government, but the AP could not establish whether anyone at a political level in the Bush administration or in the McCain campaign had been involved in its release.
    Based on this statement, the IJ found that "an official of the United States government disclosed the Respondent's status as an asylum applicant... to the public at large."  The IJ found that this disclosure--which clearly violated federal regulations--was a "reckless and illegal violation of her right to privacy which has exposed her to great risk."  He further found that this exposure distinguished the aunt from President Obama's other relatives living safely in Kenya because her asylum case was revealed in a "highly politicized manner."  (According to a recent AP article, DHS is investigating the leak.)
    Given the country conditions in Kenya, the IJ found that Ms. Zeituni would be a target and that she had "at least a 10% chance of future persecution."  The IJ granted asylum, but declined to rule on her applications for withholding of removal or relief under the UN Convention Against Torture.
  4. Refugee Success Stories

    The largest group of asylum seekers in the Washington, DC area-and the majority of my asylum cases-are from Ethiopia, so a recent story in the Washington Post caught my attention (ok, it actually caught my wife's attention and she emailed it to me, so she gets credit for this one).  Henok Tesfaye is an Ethiopian immigrant who started his own very-successful parking business, U Street Parking.  In some ways, Mr. Henok's story is typical of Ethiopian immigrants and asylees that I see my daily work.  Also, his story points to some universal lessons in refugee (and immigrant) resettlement and integration.
    Mr. Henok's story is typical because he came here at a young age with little money and few contacts, but with a strong desire to achieve success.  Many of the refugees I have met (and represented) have suffered severe traumas.  Nonetheless, they are optimistic people.  They have left the past behind and have come to the United States to build their future.  They come here with the same attitude as their predecessors, be they Puritans in search of religious liberty, Russian Jews fleeing the Cossacks, or Vietnamese boat people escaping a Communist regime.  Of course they sometimes carry with them baggage from the old country-traditions that don't always square with American values can be a problem-and they usually don't speak fluent English.  But the refugees I have known generally contributed greatly to our community.  It is impressive that such people, who arrive here with so little, are able to accomplish so much. 

    Immigrants like the Shmenge brothers have come to American with "a burning desire to be someone."
    Mr. Henok's story also points to some of the challenges faced by refugees (and immigrants) in the United States.  He was struggling until he finally obtained a loan from the Ethiopian Community Development Counsel, an organization that assists new Ethiopian arrivals in the Washington, DC area:
    ECDC serves as a welcoming presence as well as a bridge for dialogue and education. Through our programs, ECDC seeks to empower African newcomers; giving hope for their future and helping them quickly become self-sufficient, productive members of their communities in their new homeland.
    Groups like ECDC make it possible for refugees and immigrants to adjust more quickly to the United States.  Not all refugees have community-based groups they can turn to, but there are resources available, such as the Catholic Legal Immigration Network and the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society.
    Our country has a generous policy towards refugees and asylum seekers.  We should be proud that we help people fleeing persecution.  At the same time, however, we should remember that the refugees and immigrants who come here have helped enrich our nation.  Mr. Henok reminds us that this is true.
  5. EOIR Makes Court Information Line More Secure and More Annoying

    From an EOIR press release issued earlier today:
    The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) announced today the launch of a new, upgraded automated case information system, which is designed to assist respondents and their representatives and families in learning the current status of their proceedings. The toll-free number, 1-800-898-7180, has not changed, but a new local number, 240-314-1500, is in service. The system becomes effective August 23, 2010, and callers will need to be prepared to enter both the alien registration number and the date of the respondent's charging document.
    This development-at least on the immigration lawyer list serve I read-has been universally panned.  The problem is, aliens and their representatives often do not have the date of the charging document.  And if you do not have the charging document, it is not easy to get one.  You can file a FOIA request, which takes months (I think the "F" in FOIA stands for "Forever").  You can call up DHS counsel, but they are often not very responsive.  You can go to the Immigration Court to look at the file, which is too time-consuming for most advocates, especially those who work for not profit organizations.  Also, sometimes there is more than one charging document, and they might have different dates.

    "I said I don't have the dang charging document!"
    I suppose EOIR's intention-to make the court information more secure-is laudable (though I have never heard of anyone having a problem with the current level of security).  But by requiring information that may not be available to the alien, the agency is creating a situation where it will be more difficult for aliens and their attorneys to know their court dates.  This could cause aliens to miss their court dates, which would result in a removal order.  In short, it is another bureaucratic barrier thrown in front of the alien. 
    There are alternatives.  My favorite alternative is to leave the system alone.  As I mentioned, I have not heard about problems with the current system.  Another alternative is to remove the alien's name from the computer system (the current system spells the alien's name after you type in his A-number).  This would provide some level of security.  A third possibility would be to require some other information that the alien would know, like her birth date or her country of origin. 
    At this time, it is unclear whether EOIR vetted the new system with AILA or other advocacy groups.  Perhaps a short pause to consider alternatives and have a conversation with immigration attorneys would be in order.
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