Musings On Our Asylum System – After AG Sessions’ Remarks on ‘Dirty Immigration Lawyers’

Attorney General Sessions who has been hostile towards increased immigration and views the asylum system as a loophole for unauthorized entry into the US said in recent remarks that “over the years, smart attorneys have exploited loopholes in the law, court rulings, and lack of resources to substantially undermine the intent of Congress.”  He got even more animated as he went on his diatribe about how the credible fear interview process is being gamed by those who would otherwise be expeditious removed.  “We also have dirty immigration lawyers who are encouraging their otherwise unlawfully present clients to clients to make false claims to asylum providing them with the magic words needed to trigger the credible fear process,” he said.

Sure enough, there have been a few lawyers who have filed fraudulent asylum claims and have deservedly faced punishment through criminal convictions. However, the vast majority of these supposedly dirty immigration lawyers are some of the finest people I have known who work with passion to ensure due process, fairness and justice.  Mr. Sessions was appropriately rebuked by AILA President Annaluisa Padilla who said,  “Attorney General Sessions chose today to deride the American asylum system, the vulnerable populations who seek safety here, and the immigration attorneys who work tirelessly to ensure due process is afforded to everyone,”

The law surrounding political asylum is extremely complex, and one who fears persecution needs competent representation – and a lot of representation in the asylum arena is pro bono. An asylum applicant’s chances improve exponentially when he or she is represented by a good lawyer. Indeed, Judge Katzmann who spearheaded a study in 2010, and who is today the chief judge of the Court of Appeals of the Second Circuit, found that detained immigrants with attorneys were 500 percent more likely to win their cases than those without.  Judge Katzmann is more on the mark than Mr. Sessions. Representing asylum applicants with bona fide claims is one of the most honorable things that a lawyer can do. It is part of the ethical duty of a “dirty lawyer” to establish that the client has a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. This is especially true when the government is always represented by skilled counsel, and in order to level the playing field, an applicant also deserves equally skilled representation.

Mr. Sessions seemed to aim his ire against lawyers who attempt to broaden  asylum based on theories under the membership in a particular social group ground. Establishing that an applicant belongs to a social group is a legal minefield, and even if the persecution is based on the applicant being a family member of the one who is targeted, more has to be demonstrated in order to qualify for asylum. A case in point in the Board of Immigration Appeals recent decision in Matter of L-E-A, 27 I&N Dec. 40 (BIA 2017). Although persecution on account of membership is a family has been recognized as a basis for asylum, the BIA in Matter of L-E-A explicitly confirms this but also requires a nexus and further holds that applicants whose claims are based on membership in a particular social group composed of family members must “demonstrate that the family relationship is at least one central reason for the claimed harm to establish eligibility for asylum on that basis.” Id. at 40. As the BIA explains, “[i]f the persecutor would have treated the applicant the same if the protected characteristic of the family did not exist, then the applicant has not established a claim on this ground.” Id. at 43-44.

In L-E-A the respondent was a native and citizen of Mexico whose father owned a store in Mexico City that sold groceries and general merchandise. Members of a drug cartel approached the respondent’s father to ask if they could sell drugs in the store as they viewed it as a favorable distribution location. The respondent’s father refused. The members of the drug cartel approached respondent to see whether he would sell drugs for them at his father’s store. Upon respondent also refusing, the members of the cartel tried to grab him and put him in their car, but he was able to get away. The respondent left for the border and successfully crossed into the United States.

The BIA in L-E-A acknowledged that members of an immediate family may constitute a social group. There is a long line of cases that have suggested this, but L-E-A held so explicitly. See, e.g., Crespin-Valladares v. Holder, 632 F.3d 117, 128 (4th Cir. 2011); Al-Ghorbani v. Holder, 585 F.3d 980 (6th Cir. 2009); Torres v. Mukasey, 551 F.3d 616, 629 (7th Cir. 2008). The BIA has previously “explained that ‘persecution on account of membership in a particular social group’ refers to ‘persecution that is directed toward an individual who is a member of a group of persons all of whom share a common, immutable characteristic . . . such as . . .  kinship ties.” Matter of C-A-, 23 I. & N. Dec. 951, 955 (BIA 2006) (quoting Matter of Acosta, 19 I. & N. Dec. 211, 233-34 (BIA 1985)). “It has been said that a group of family members constitutes the ‘prototypical example’ of a particular social group.” INS, Asylum Officer Basic Training Course: Eligibility Part III: Nexus 21 (Nov. 30, 2001) (quoting Sanchez-Trujillo v. INS, 801 F.2d 1571, 1576 (9th Cir. 1986)). “There can, in fact, be no plainer example of a social group based on common, identifiable and immutable characteristics than that of the nuclear family.” Gebremichael v. INS, 10 F.3d 28, 36 (1st Cir. 1993).

The BIA could have concluded at this point, but then went onto state that there must also be a showing of nexus. In other words, a persecution claim cannot be established if there is no proof that the applicant or other members of the family were targeted because of that family relationship. If the persecutor would have treated the applicant the same if the protected characteristic of the family did not exist, then the applicant has not established asylum on this ground. The BIA provided an example of clear nexus based on family membership where the persecutor is seeking to harm the family members because of an animus against the family itself. An example given was the assignation of Czar Nicholas II, his wife and their five children after he abdicated the throne in 1917. This, according to the BIA, was a classic example, of the persecution based on family membership as one of the central reasons for the persecution.

Unfortunately, despite affirming that family was a social group, it did not work out favorably for the respondent in L-E-A. The BIA held that even if the persecutor harmed the respondent, but if it was done so as a means to an end, that in itself was insufficient to establish a claim, especially if the end is not connected to another protected ground. In L-E-A, according to the BIA, the cartel’s objective was to sell drugs in the store owned by his father, which is why they approached the respondent and harmed him. The central reason for the persecutor to harm the respondent was because the cartel wanted to increase profits by selling drugs in the store and there was no evidence to indicate that the persecutors had any animus against the family. The cartel would have gone after any family who owned a business there.

Jeffrey Chase , an astute blogger on asylum law, observed that the BIA missed an opportunity in L-E-A to simply affirm that showing persecution based on family was a sufficient nexus in itself. There was no need to also include a “means to an end” requirement. “Under the fact patterns we commonly see from Mexico and the “northern triangle” countries of Central America, claims based on family as a particular social group will continue to be denied, as such fears will inevitably be deemed to be a means to some criminal motive of gangs and cartels (i.e. to obtain money through extortion or as ransom; to increase their ranks; to avoid arrest) as opposed to a desire to punish the family itself.”

Mr. Sessions would also cynically welcome the outcome in L-E-A, although he would have been probably happier if the BIA had not acknowledged family as a social group!  L-E-A provides an ability for the adjudicator to deny asylum claims based on family under a means to an end analysis, especially those fleeing Central America based on gang based violence. The Trump administration, consistent with Mr. Session’s remarks, has proposed restricting asylum claims of young people from Central America in exchange  for preserving DACA, in addition to many other onerous demands. In any event, the lawyer representing the asylum applicant has an ethical obligation to convincingly demonstrate that the family relationship was the central reason for the persecution. That could have been the outcome in L-E-A too, as it was reasonable to infer that the cartel went after the respondent because his father owned the store, but the lawyer must now take pains to distinguish the facts of her case from L-E-A. Indeed, the lawyer must show like in the case of the Romanovs after the Russian revolution that there was an animus against the family that caused the persecution. 

Contrary to Mr. Session’s assertion, there is a great need for an ethical lawyer to advance the best possible argument on behalf of his client in the hope that the law could change that would be consistent with the definition of social group in the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol. The term “particular social group” was added as an afterthought and was considered to be of broader application than the combined notions of racial, ethnic, and religious groups and that in order to stop a possible gap in the coverage of the U.N. Convention, this ground was added to the definition of a refugee. See Matter of Acosta, supra. Consistent with this view, the BIA in Matter of Acosta interpreted the phrase “persecution on account of membership in a particular social group” to mean persecution that is directed toward an individual who is a member of a group of persons all of whom share a common, immutable characteristic. The shared characteristic might be an innate one such as sex, color, or kinship ties, or in some circumstances it might be a shared past experience such as former military leadership or land ownership. Over the years, the Acosta definition of “immutable characteristic” has been qualified to also require that the group is “defined with particularity” and is “socially distinct.”  See Matter of M-E-V-G, 26 I&N Dec. 227 (BIA 2014) (“Society can consider persons to comprise a group without being able to identify the group’s members on sight”) and Matter of W-G-R-, 26 I&N Dec. 208 (BIA 2014). Even then, some Circuit courts have rejected this new definition.

If Mr. Sessions was not so blinded by his animus against asylum seekers, he may appreciate the lawyer’s role in interpreting and advancing the definition of a social group to protect people fearing persecution if they are unable to establish a nexus on account of race, religion, nationality or political opinion.  The challenge has become even greater after the Acosta definition was limited by also requiring that the social group is defined with particularity and is socially distinct.  This includes those who were unable to seek protection in their countries if they suffered domestic violence or because of their sexual orientation. The lawyers that Mr. Sessions derides are not exploiting loopholes but protecting people from harm, unjust imprisonment or death. If this is what Mr. Sessions means by a dirty immigration lawyer, then lawyers endeavoring to broaden protections for vulnerable people under our asylum system ought to feel extremely proud.

From Bad to Worse: Why We Should Not Let the Trump Administration’s Outrageous Immigration Demands Make the SUCCEED Act Seem Like a Reasonable Alternative

Following the Trump Administration’s decision in September to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, President Trump suggested in a Tweet that Congress should “legalize DACA” within the next six months. There have been a number of proposals for how to address the status of the “Dreamers” who would otherwise be left by the termination of DACA without protection from removal, or work authorization, despite having lived in the United States since their childhood.

The Democratic Party’s leadership in Congress, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, has supported passage of the bipartisan Dream Act of 2017, S.1615/H.R. 3440. The Senate version of the Dream Act is co-sponsored not only by leading Senate Democrats such as Minority Leader Schumer and Dick Durbin (D-IL), but also by several Republican Senators including Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Jeff Flake (R-AZ), and Cory Gardner (R-CO). The House version is co-sponsored by nearly all House Democrats as well as several Republicans: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL-27), Mike Coffman (R-CO-6), Jeff Denham (R-CA-10), David Valadao (R-CA-21) and Joe Barton (R-TX-6).

The Dream Act of 2017 would allow conditional permanent residence for those who have been in the United States since before age 18, have been continuously present here for at least 4 years before the law is passed, lack any significant criminal record, and meet an educational criterion: applicants for conditional residence would need to be admitted to an institution of higher education, have obtained a high school diploma or GED, or be enrolled in an educational program leading to the attainment of such a diploma or GED. The conditions on permanent residence could then be removed following the attainment of a degree from an institution of higher education, at least two years of progress towards a bachelor’s degree, 2 years of honorable service in the U.S. Armed Forces, or at least 3 years of employment that comprised at least 75% of the time the applicant had a valid employment authorization, along with passage of the same civics and English tests required under section 312 of the INA for naturalization.

The Dream Act of 2017 is currently the subject of a discharge petition which could force a vote on it in the House of Representatives, if the signatures of a majority of the members of the House can be obtained. (The discharge petition technically applies to a rule that would allow the discharge of another bill from committee and its amendment with the text of the Dream Act of 2017, because of procedural issues relating to the required waiting period before a discharge petition can be filed.) Currently, 218 signatures would be needed to comprise a majority of the usually 435-member House because there is only one vacancy, although after the impending resignation of Representative Tim Murphy (R-PA) takes effect on October 21, there will be two vacancies, and 217 signatures will suffice for a majority until at least one of the vacancies is filled by a special election. So far, the discharge petition has 195 signatures. Of those, 194 signatures are from Democrats, and only one is from a Republican, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO).  Even the other four House Republican co-sponsors of the Dream Act have been thus far unwilling to buck their leadership and sign the discharge petition.

As the American Immigration Council has explained, various members of Congress have introduced variations on the Dream Act, some more restrictive and at least one more generous. Recently, the “SUCCEED Act”, S. 1852, sponsored by James Lankford (R-OK), Thom Tillis (R-NC), and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) attracted significant media attention. The SUCCEED Act was then overshadowed by the Trump Administration’s release Sunday night of a long list of extreme demands regarding other aspects of immigration law that the Administration wishes to see radically changed in conjunction with any resolution of the status of DACA recipients.

The Administration’s demands, which would do immense damage to the U.S. immigration system in a variety of ways, have already been condemned by, among others, immigrants’ rights groups and the Democratic leadership in the House and Senate. Minority Leaders Schumer and Pelosi were quoted by the New York Times as observing that “The administration can’t be serious about compromise or helping the Dreamers if they begin with a list that is anathema to the Dreamers, to the immigrant community and to the vast majority of Americans.” Former AILA President David Leopold aptly described the Administration’s demands as “read[ing] like a white supremacist wish list,” including as it does a crackdown on refugee children; gutting other aspects of asylum law; removing due process to allow people to be deported more quickly and detained indefinitely if their countries will not take them back; building Trump’s infamous border wall; penalizing local governments who decline to detain people at DHS’s request without probable cause; deporting purported “gang members” that US authorities have already shown a tendency to believe include anyone with a tattoo; and replacing the family-based immigration system with a purportedly “merit-based” one, among many other things.   There is a danger that compared to this list, virtually anything else might come to seem like a reasonable compromise position.

It is important, however, not to be lured by the aggressive atrociousness of the Administration’s recent wish list into mistaking the SUCCEED Act for a reasonable compromise. As the Center for American Progress and National Immigration Law Center have already observed, the SUCCEED Act, as well, contains deeply troubling features.

The most obvious problems with the SUCCEED Act relate to its treatment of the Dreamers themselves. Applicants would need to spend 10 years in conditional permanent resident status, and then another 5 as lawful permanent residents, before naturalizing—even if they qualified for what would otherwise be an exemption from the normal wait time before naturalization, such as that given to those in active military service during a time of hostilities under INA §329. Even upon becoming lawful permanent residents, they would be unable to sponsor family members.  And as conditional permanent residents, they would have to waive all rights to seek “any form of relief or immigration benefit under this Act or other immigration laws other than withholding of removal under [INA] section 241(b)(3), or relief from removal based on a claim under the Convention Against Torture” if they were found to have “violate[d] a term for conditional permanent resident status”.

The SUCCEED Act does not stop, however, at imposing onerous conditions on the Dreamers who are its ostensible subjects. It also provides that all future applicants for nonimmigrant visas (other than certain diplomatic visas and other very limited exceptions) will be required to waive all rights to contest removal, and all rights to seek common forms of immigration relief including adjustment of status, if the visa-holder “(1) violates a term or condition of his or her nonimmigrant status; or “(2) fails to depart the United States at the end of the alien’s authorized period of stay.”  That is, anyone who is thought to have exceeded the parameters of their work authorization, or overstayed their admission by a single day, could be removed without a hearing before a neutral adjudicator and without the right to apply for most forms of immigration relief.

Defenders of the SUCCEED Act might point out that similar restrictions, although not quite as onerous in regard to relief from removal, already apply to those admitted under the Visa Waiver Program. Visa Waiver admissions under INA §217, however, are only for visitors from certain qualifying countries who will be admitted to the United States for 90 days. Nonimmigrants admitted on visas, on the other hand, can legitimately stay in the United States for a much longer time, becoming integrated into American society in ways that it would be highly inappropriate to disrupt without even a hearing or the opportunity to apply for relief.

An H-1B nonimmigrant temporary worker can be authorized to remain in the United States for six years, and for substantially more time, pursuant to the American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act (“AC21”) if an application for labor certification was filed more than one year before the expiration of H-1B status or an I-140 petition has been approved but adjustment of status is not yet possible. Given current immigrant visa number backlogs, many H-1B visa-holders, particularly those born in India or China, can remain in H-1B status for well over ten years pursuant to AC21.  O-1 aliens of extraordinary ability in the sciences or arts, E-1 treaty traders, or E-2 treaty investors are not subjected to any strict time limit, and can renew their nonimmigrant status for decades on end if they continue to qualify for it.

Such H-1B, O-1, E-1 or E-2 nonimmigrants may have lawfully resided in the United States for a decade or more, and perhaps had children here who are U.S. citizens. Under current immigration law, if there is an allegation that they have violated their status in some way, and the government seeks to remove them from the United States as a result, they can resist the charge before an Immigration Judge (unless they are stopped at an airport and subjected to expedited removal proceedings, although in the event this occurs after a brief trip abroad, federal court review may be available as I have previously discussed). In the event of minor, short-term overstays and status violations, such nonimmigrants may still be able to adjust their status under INA §245(k), which provides limited forgiveness for up to 180 days of unauthorized employment or status violation in the context of employment-based adjustment, or if they acquire an immediate relative who is a U.S. citizen. The SUCCEED Act would take away these options for future nonimmigrants, subjecting such long-term nonimmigrant residents to summary removal without eligibility for adjustment of status. By prohibiting such nonimmigrants from “contesting removal”, it could also prevent them from seeking cancellation of removal for nonpermanent residents under INA §240A(b) even if they have been in the United States for more than 10 straight years and have U.S. citizen children who would suffer exceptional and extremely unusual hardship if their parents were removed. (Although §240A(b) is not specifically listed among the forms of relief for which nonimmigrants would be ineligible, it would be impossible to seek it as a practical matter if one was removed without full removal proceedings pursuant to a forced waiver of the right to contest removal.)

It is one thing to say that a tourist or business visitor who comes to the United States for 90 days without a visa can be subjected to summary removal upon overstay or violation of that brief visit status. It is quite another thing to subject long-term legal residents to such treatment, and make them agree to it before they are permitted to come to the United States as a nonimmigrant worker or in some other long-term nonimmigrant status.  This lesser-known feature of the SUCCEED Act is another reason why it should not be enacted.

There is a saying that one should not let the best be the enemy of the good. Equally, though, one should not let the worst be the facilitator of the merely bad.  The SUCCEED Act may not be as horrible as the wish list recently published by the Trump Administration, but it is nonetheless bad enough that it should not be accepted as a supposed compromise.