The BIA's Withdrawn Amicus Invitation

The BIA recently withdrew as moot its invitation for amicus briefs on the following issue: whether an applicant who filed a late application for asylum based on two separate grounds (i.e. religion and coercive population control), and who demonstrated changed conditions as to the religion-based claim to allow for late filing, could have their asylum claim considered as to both grounds.  My question is why the Board felt the need to invite briefing on this issue in the first place?

In the 1990s, several high profile events caused Congress to address the issue of asylum reform.  An early version of a House bill addressing the subject would have required an asylum application to be filed within 30 days of arrival in this country.  The bill’s sponsors believed that asylum applications filed by individuals who had been in this country several years lacked legitimacy, and were being filed as a dilatory tactic in removal proceedings, or affirmatively simply as a way to obtain employment authorization.   I remember explaining to members of Congress (including one of the three sponsors of the bill) that it took potential asylum seekers well in excess of 30 days just to get an initial appointment with pro bono groups such as the one I volunteered with at the time.  If the organization accepted the case, it would take additional time to place it with a law firm (which would usually have to first determine that representation was free of any conflicts of interest).  That was all before the pro bono attorney had even met with the client for the first time.  Furthermore, the filing deadline was being considered in conjunction with a sped-up asylum adjudication process under which asylum officers would issue a final decision on asylum claims within 60 days of receipt.  This meant that asylum applicants really needed to file their documentation along with the application.  But for a refugee forced to suddenly flee their country, compiling supporting documentation from overseas can take time.  Advocacy efforts succeeded in persuading Congress to extend the original 30-day filing deadline to the present one year.

However, an additional concern remained.  When meeting with members of Congress on this issue in the 1990s, I raised the following hypothetical: what if a lawful F-1 student receives a call from home during their third year of college, informing the student that their brother was arrested, the police were asking about the student’s own whereabouts, and warning the student to not return home.  The student in this scenario is a legitimate refugee, but the one-year deadline has long passed.  Congress therefore created an exception to the one-year deadline for changed conditions that give rise to a well-founded fear of persecution.  And in the case before the BIA, the respondent satisfied this exception by establishing changed conditions arising more than one year after the last entry to this country that gave rise to a fear of persecution on account of the respondent’s religion.

Apparently, in addition to the new religion claim, the respondent had a preexisting basis for claiming asylum based on China’s coercive population control policies.  Having been allowed to apply for asylum, the respondent sought to include the older basis for asylum as well as the new ground.  It is not clear what the argument might be for not allowing this.  As the respondent was already found eligible to file an asylum application based on the religion claim, allowing the coercive population control claim would not bestow on the respondent any additional benefits beyond those already obtained through the accepted religion-based asylum claim.  Thus, allowing both grounds to be considered would not encourage the late filing of fraudulent applications for the purpose of obtaining employment authorization.  Furthermore, as the respondent was already pursuing the religion-based asylum claim in removal proceedings, allowing consideration of the additional ground would not serve any dilatory purpose.  The length of time required to complete the removal proceedings before the immigration judge would be the same whether the claim was based on one or two grounds.  Thus, allowing both grounds to be considered would not run afoul of either of the concerns that Congress meant to address in establishing the one year filing deadline.  It is thus entirely unclear why the BIA would consider barring the second ground from consideration.

There are legitimate reasons why one might not file an asylum claim within one year of entry.  In some instances, the refugee was simply not aware of the filing deadline; it is possible that he or she did not even learn of the relief of asylum until well after arrival.  Some refugees may be forced to stay with family or friends living in remote areas where legal advice is not readily available.  But even in urban centers, pro bono resources are presently stretched to their limits, and many lack the funds upon arrival to retain private attorneys.  Some with legitimate fears of persecution might have chosen not to apply due to unfavorable case law, a lack of supporting documentation, or a variety of other legal considerations.

The decision as to whether or not to come forward and apply for asylum, and possibly expose oneself to the risk of deportation, is a complicated one.  But once the decision has been made, it is to the advantage of all to hear any and all bases for asylum at once.  Besides from the administrative efficiency of such an approach, the Board needs to realize that a person’s fears and risks of harm are not so clearly compartmentalized.  An asylum claim begins with the applicant’s subjective fear of persecution.  Various fears may overlap or provide context.  For example, would an asylum claimant who had already experienced traumatic persecution at the hands of China’s government for violating the family planning policies be more likely to possess a genuine subjective fear of future persecution by the same governmental authorities on account of their religion?  Or would the applicant be objectively more likely to be singled out for religious persecution where the government had previously targeted them on population control grounds?

Although it became moot in the case presently before the Board, the issue is likely to be a recurring one.  As the Board’s recent asylum decisions have left much to be desired, it is hoped that when its members eventually consider this issue in a precedential decision, they will reach the correct result.

Copyright 2017 Jeffrey S. Chase.  All rights reserved.

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