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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

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  1. Third Circuit Grants Relief to Mentally Ill Respondent

    In a long running case that has received attention in the Guyanese press, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has reversed the BIA's denial of Torture Convention relief for a mentally ill man from Guyana. See Soobrian v. Attorney General, Case No. 08-4626 (3rd Cir. July 23, 2010).
    Ronald Soobrian came to the United States from Guyana in 1974 as a lawful permanent resident.  He was eight years old.  Over time, he developed a mental illness and was convicted of attempted assault, an aggravated felony, which landed him in removal proceedings.  Mr. Soobrian argued that if he were returned to Guyana, he would face persecution on account of his mental health, his status as a criminal deportee, and his Indo-Guyanese ethnicity.  His conviction made him ineligible for asylum (or any other relief), and so he sought Withholding of Removal and withholding under the United Nations Convention Against Torture ("CAT").  He also asked for an indefinite continuance so that his competency could be determined. 
    The IJ (in York, Pennsylvania) denied the motion for a continuance.  The IJ also denied the application for Withholding of Removal after he found that Mr. Soobrian did not face persecution "on account of" a protected ground.  However, he granted Ms. Soobrian's application for CAT relief, finding that it was likely that the police would arrest and torture him due to his mental illness.
    The BIA affirmed the denial of Withholding, but reversed the CAT grant, holding that there was "no evidence that the authorities intentionally create and maintain poor prison conditions in order to inflict torture."  Mr. Soobrian filed a Petition for Review in the Third Circuit.  Based on an unopposed motion, the case was remanded "for consideration of whether the class of mentally ill persons is a 'particular social group' for purposes of withholding of removal and to clarify the standard of review used to decide whether Soobrian established that he was 'more likely than not' to be tortured if removed."
    On remand, the IJ held that "mentally ill persons" could constitute a particular social group.  However, he found that the government of Guyana did not persecute mentally ill people; at worst, the government neglected them due to lack of resources.  He also found no evidence that the government could not or would not protect such people.  As such, he denied Withholding of Removal.  Once again, the IJ found that Mr. Soobrian would face arrest and torture in Guyana, and he granted CAT relief.
    On appeal, the BIA again affirmed the IJ's finding vis-a-vis Withholding of Removal.  The Board did not rule on whether "mentally ill persons" constitute a particular social group.  Instead, the Board found that even if this were a cognizable social group, the evidence did not support a finding that the government persecutes such people on account of their mental illness.  The BIA again reversed the CAT grant, holding under a de novo standard of review that "the evidence was not alone sufficient to demonstrate that his prospective torturer will have the required specific intent of inflicting severe pain or suffering." 
    In his second Petition for Review, Mr. Soobrian raised several issues, including (1) whether the BIA improperly disturbed the IJ's decision on Mr. Soobrian's CAT claim by reviewing the factual findings de novo, and (2) whether Mr. Soobrian should have been granted a mental competency evaluation to determine if he understood the nature of the proceedings.
    As to the CAT claim, the Third Circuit agreed with Mr. Soobrian and held that the BIA erred when it reviewed that claim de novo.  Whether or not Mr. Soobrian would face torture in Guyana is a mixed question of law and fact.  Under those circumstances, "the BIA must break down the inquiry into its parts and apply the correct standard of review to the respective components."  Because the Board did not give proper deference to the findings of the IJ, the Court granted Mr. Soobrian's Petition concerning the CAT claim.
    The Court also held that Mr. Soobrian's due process rights were not violated when the IJ refused him a continuance due to his mental health issues.  The Court reasoned:
    Under our immigration laws, there is only a passing reference to an alien's mental competency at a removal hearing.  If it is impracticable by reason of an alien's mental incompetency for the alien to be present at the proceeding, the Attorney General shall prescribe safeguards to protect the rights and privileges of the alien.
    The Court ultimately found that Mr. Soobrian had received sufficient procedural protections.  In dicta (and relying on a Tenth Circuit decision), the Court also found that "the statute and the regulation facially appear to require no procedural safeguards if an unrepresented, mentally incompetent alien is nevertheless able to be present at his removal proceeding." 
    Fortunately for Mr. Soobrian, his family members were present at the hearing to assist him, and he seems to have been represented by excellent legal counsel.  Most mentally ill respondents will not be so lucky.  For such aliens, the minimalist procedural protections endorsed by the Third Circuit do not bode well.
  2. Hirsi Ali Calls for a New Way to Evaluate Asylum Seekers

    Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a prominent critic of fundamentalist (and not so fundamentalist) Islam and the author of Infidel and Nomad, recently told The Australian that it was futile for countries to attempt to establish the bona fides of would-be refugees, not least because many asylum-seekers will say anything in order to qualify for asylum.  "Everybody lies," she said.  Indeed, she herself admitted to lying on her own application in order to gain asylum in The Netherlands.
    Instead of simply assessing whether an asylum seeker has a well-founded fear of persecution, Ms. Hirsi Ali proposes a sort-of cultural test:
    [We] have to change the paradigm. You have to say, "You're welcome, we need immigrants but there are many conditions. Here is the law, the culture, the customs. Here is what you agree to, and in exchange you get to live in a peaceful, prosperous society where you have all this opportunity. If you don't agree we will just return you."
    First, the problem of fraudulent asylum claims is widely acknowledged (I wrote about it here).  However, Ms. Hirsi Ali's statement that "everybody lies" on their asylum applications is simply wrong.  That would mean that no one who has been persecuted in their country has ever escaped and sought asylum abroad.  Maybe it's a small point-as she was likely speaking in general terms-but when we're talking about people who have been tortured and lost loved ones, it seems a bit insensitive and ungenerous.
    Second, while there may be reason for a cultural test in Australia (Ms. Hirsi Ali was speaking about asylum seekers in Australia), it seems less needed in the U.S.  Ms. Hirsi Ali is concerned about importing destructive cultural practices, such as female circumcision, forced marriage, and honor killings.  She associates these practices with Islam and would basically exclude asylum seekers who refuse to adopt a more Western lifestyle.  Most people seeking asylum in the U.S. are not from countries where these practices are common.  According to the Department of Justice, almost 35% of successful asylum seekers come from China.  The next largest groups-about 4% each-come from Ethiopia and Haiti.  While these countries certainly have problems (hence people from these countries seek asylum), the asylees from these places generally embrace Western values and do not bring with them the kinds of cultural baggage that concerns Ms. Hirsi Ali.  
    In addition, any type of "cultural test" for asylum seekers seems doomed to fail.  If, as Ms. Hirsi Ali says, people will "say anything," then certainly they will falsely claim to adopt Western values in order to win asylum.   
    Finally, under U.S. law, people who practice FGM or commit honor killings are not eligible for asylum (whether the adjudicator learns about these acts is another matter).  Asylum seekers who are found to have persecuted others (FGM is a form of persecution) or who have committed serious non-political crimes (like murder) may not receive asylum.  If asylees commit such crimes in the United States, they will be deported.  Asylees should be educated about these laws, and such laws need to be enforced.
    It seems that a cultural test as proposed by Ms. Hirsi Ali is not needed for asylum seekers in the United States.  We can better balance our human rights obligations with our desire to avoid negative cultural influences by educating new Americans, making it safe for people to report abusive cultural practices, and enforcing the law.
  3. Charles Taylor’s Son Attempts to Invalidate the Torture Convention in Order to Save Himself

    Attorneys who specialize in political asylum generally think of the United Nations Convention Against Torture ("CAT") as a defense to deportation.  If an alien does not qualify for asylum, he may qualify for relief under the CAT.  But a recent Eleventh Circuit decision reminds us that the CAT is a sword as well as a shield.

      Glamour shot of Chuckie Taylor
    On July 15, 2010, the Eleventh Circuit upheld the torture convictions and 97-year sentence imposed on the son of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who led a notorious paramilitary unit during his father's bloody rule.  According to the Associated Press, the younger Taylor, Charles McArthur Emmanuel, also known as Chuckie Taylor is- 
    a 33-year-old U.S. citizen born in Boston while his father was a student there, [and] was convicted in 2008 of torturing or ordering the torture of dozens of the Taylor government's political opponents with numerous gruesome techniques. These included electric shocks; bayonet stabbing; burning with cigarettes, clothes irons, melted plastic and scalding water; shoveling of biting ants on people's bodies; and imprisoning people in water-filled holes covered by iron bars.
    For his crimes, which are detailed in the Eleventh Circuit's decision, "Chuckie" Emmanuel was sentenced to 97 years in prison.  The Court notes that his was the first prosecution under the Torture Act and sets forth the basis for the appeal:
    Emmanuel, who is the first individual to be prosecuted under the Torture Act, 18 U.S.C. § 2340-2340A ("the Torture Act"), seeks reversal of his convictions on the ground that the Torture Act is unconstitutional. Primarily, Emmanuel contends that congressional authority to pass the Torture Act derives solely from the United States's obligations as a signatory to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Dec. 10, 1984, 1465 U.N.T.S. 85 (the "CAT"); he says the Torture Act impermissibly exceeds the bounds of that authority, both in its definition of torture and its proscription against conspiracies to commit torture.
    So let's get this straight, in an effort to avoid punishment for his crimes, Mr. Emmanuel-a man who tortured and murdered countless individuals-is attempting to limit or invalidate the CAT, a law used primarily to protect people who fear torture in their home countries.  Nice.  Fortunately, the Court soundly rejected his arguments:
    After thorough review, we conclude that all of Emmanuel's convictions are constitutional. The United States validly adopted the CAT pursuant to the President's Article II treaty-making authority, and it was well within Congress's power under the Necessary and Proper Clause to criminalize both torture, as defined by the Torture Act, and conspiracy to commit torture. Furthermore, we hold that... the Torture Act [applies] to extraterritorial conduct, and that [its] application in this case was proper.... Accordingly, we affirm Emmanuel's convictions and sentence in all respects.
    Mr. Emmanuel is currently serving his sentence in a federal prison in Kentucky.
  4. Moscow in the Hawkeye State

    The Iowa Press-Citizen reports on a Moscow couple who moved to Iowa, and applied for political asylum in the United States.  Irakliy Surguladze and Elena Boryuk came to Iowa with their children in 2007 to escape growing tension in Russia: she is Russian and he is Georgian.  Their two countries have had a history of problems, including the deportation of several hundred Georgians from Russia in 2006 and awar in 2008.
    Now, the couple is waiting for a hearing in their asylum case, which is scheduled for January 2011 in the Omaha, Nebraska Immigration Court--a court that opened its doors in October 2008 and hears cases from Nebraska and Iowa.
    According to an interview with the couple by the Press-Citizen:
    Life had been good for the growing family in Moscow, they said.  Both having earned advanced college degrees, Surguladze had been working as an engineer, while Boryuk had a good job with an Italian company.  He had obtained dual Russian-Georgian citizenship.  However, as tensions grew between their native countries, the family began looking for a way out, and in October 2006, they applied for political asylum at the United States Embassy in Moscow.
    They learned at the Embassy that they would have to travel to the U.S. to apply for asylum, so they obtained tourist visas and came to the United States.
    The Press-Citizen article does not make it clear, but apparently, the couple applied for asylum after they arrived, and their case was referred to an Immigration Judge (either that, or they were somehow placed in removal proceedings and filed a defensive asylum application). 
    One issue that the couple faces is that Mr. Surguladze has dual Russian-Georgian citizenship.  This means that he would need to prove that he cannot return to Russia or Georgia.  To get around this problem, perhaps Ms. Boryuk could serve as the lead respondent (it seems she has only Russian citizenship)--if she wins, her husband will receive asylum as her dependent.  Of course, this assumes that her case is as strong as her husband's.  
    Another problem they might face is proving that they cannot relocate within Russia (it's a big place).  If the IJ finds that they can live safely in some other part of Russia, they may be denied relief.  I once represented a Russian human rights worker from North Ossetia, a very troubled region.  We faced this same problem, but overcame it when we demonstrated that he could not obtain a propiska--a kind of residence permit--for any other part of Russia.
    It sounds like their case might be difficult, and I wish them good luck.
  5. What Not to Wear in Court

    From my friend, who has observed many court hearings, but prefers to remain anonymous:
    Imagine showing up to one of the most important meetings in your life, wearing a top cut so low that there is an eminent risk of "wardrobe malfunction" or maybe with pants hanging so low it's a miracle that you've not tripped as you entered the room.  
    While many people have learned much about courtroom etiquette from television, such as the notion to stand up when the judge enters the courtroom, an aspect that seems to be lacking is the need to dress appropriately.  As the weather becomes warmer and warmer, it seems to bring more and more examples into court of what not to wear as people's efforts to dress lightly clash with the more formal atmosphere in the court.
    Though there is no formal dress code when appearing before immigration court and immigration officers, asylum seekers and their witnesses should keep in mind that in order not to take away the focus from their own or another's testimony some of the following guidelines should be kept in mind:
    Hats, caps, bandanas or any head dress should not be worn unless they form part of one's religious attire.  Women should avoid wearing tube tops, tank tops, midriff, halter tops, short shorts or any other revealing clothing.  Clothing should not have obscene or profane language or illustrations, nor should one wear gang-related attire.  Clothing must cover all undergarments for both men and women.  It is also best to avoid wearing sports jerseys and brand promotional T-shirts.

    If you can wear it to a drag show, it's probably safe to say that you should not wear it in court.
    When it comes to shoes, one should avoid wearing flip flops (no matter how expensive they are) and no one should come to court in bare feet (You'd be surprised.)
    Avoid wearing heavy perfumes, as someone might be allergic, and the hearing or interview you have been waiting for so long might have to be postponed when that person becomes ill.
    It is a good idea to also remember that during summer, most buildings have central air and can be very cold, if not downright freezing.  Hearings, interviews, and even the wait for either can be very lengthy.  Carrying a sweater or jacket is a wise move, as this item can be removed if the court/interview room is warm.
    One of the best ways to think about what you should wear is to ask yourself: Is this something I would wear to my church, mosque, synagogue, temple or other place of worship.  If you can wear it there, chances are you can wear it to court.  And while fashion consultant might not be part of an attorney's formal job description, it would be good for the client to be reminded that dressing neatly and properly for court is an important part of the courtroom etiquette.
    Dressing properly for court is a way to show one's respect to the court and the proceedings; this same courtesy should be extended to USCIS officers.  After all, in the end, it is you who benefits.
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