I received a request to discuss the following hypothetical: an asylum-seeking couple has a U.S. citizen child. Because of the need for both parents to work, they send the child to their country of origin. The question is what impact the asylum seekers’ decision to send the child to the country of feared persecution has on their well-founded fear of persecution. If the asylum claim is based on past persecution, does the decision in any way rebut the presumption of a future fear of persecution? In claims based solely on prospective persecution, does the decision impact whether the parents have a genuine subjective fear of persecution?
Applicants who suffered past persecution
Where the parents suffered past persecution, the sending of the child to the parents’ country of origin does not rebut the presumption of future fear as a matter of law. 8 C.F.R. § 1208.16(b)(1)(i) provides two ways in which the presumption may be rebutted: through a showing (by a preponderance of evidence) of (1) “a fundamental change in circumstances such that the applicant’s life or freedom would not be threatened,” or (2) the applicant’s ability to avoid the threat of future harm by relocating to another part of the country. I am not aware of binding case law addressing children sent to the country of origin. However, circuit case law has considered the return of the asylum seekers themselves. In Kone v. Holder, 596 F.3d 141 (2d Cir. 2010), an immigration judge had ruled that the asylum seeker’s own return to the country of origin rebutted the presumption of well-founded fear arising from the past persecution. The circuit court reversed, noting that the IJ’s “cursory analysis” failed to make a finding of either a fundamental change in circumstances or the possibility of internal relocation as required for a rebuttal finding by 8 C.F.R. §1208.16(b)(1)(i). The circuit court thus concluded that the IJ’s finding “suggests the erroneous belief that voluntary return trips are sufficient, as a matter of law, to rebut the presumption of future persecution to which [the asylum seeker] is entitled.” The court referenced the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Boer-Sedano v. Gonzales, 418 F.3d 1082. In that case, the Ninth Circuit held that “the existence of return trips standing alone” could not rebut the presumption; such return trips could be considered “as one factor, among others, to rebut the presumption.”
If the presumption of well-founded fear is not rebutted by the return of the asylum seeker, it certainly is not rebutted by the return of the child. The decision to send the child, and the manner in which the child was treated, could be considered as a possible factor in determining whether a fundamental change in circumstances occurred or the possibility of internal relocation exists. However, it is a factor that must be considered in the context of the feared harm. For example, where the feared persecution is specific to the asylum applicant alone, or of a type that could not be visited on the child (i.e. the return of a male child where the feared harm is female genital cutting or forcible abortion), the return is not likely to have much significance. But the factfinder may find greater meaning where the claimant fears widespread attacks on members of her race, tribe, or religion, yet sends a child possessing the same trait to stay with family members similarly at risk.
However, even then, the courts have looked at the specific circumstances involved. In Mukamusoni v. Ashcroft, 390 F.3d 125-26 (1st Cir. 2004), a rape victim returned to Rwanda to pursue the free education available to her in that country; after departing, she returned one more time to obtain her transcript to allow her to continue her studies in the U.S. The court concluded that under the circumstances, the returns did not undermine the applicant’s claimed fear of future persecution, noting that “[f]aced with no viable means of support otherwise, people take risks in the face of their fears.”
2. Applicants whose fear is prospective only
The USCIS Asylum Officer Training materials on “well-founded fear” do not mention the return of children. However, they do address two related topics: the impact of the return of the asylum seeker him/herself to the country of feared persecution; and the persecution (or lack thereof) of individuals closely related to the applicant. Regarding the former, the USCIS materials rely on circuit court decisions to conclude that whether the applicant’s own return indicates a lack of subjective fear of persecution or alternatively “does not necessarily defeat the claim” is circumstance-specific, and depends on why the applicant returned, and what occurred when they did. See USCIS, RAIO Combined Training Course, Well-Founded Fear Training Module (June 15, 2014) Section 9, pp.22-24. The USCIS training materials note that the Ninth Circuit has held that the return of an asylum seeker “did not undercut the genuineness of her fear” where the purpose of the return was to retrieve her child after the death of the child’s custodian, or, in another case, to aid his uncle and sister who had been arrested. Id. at 22. The USCIS materials also look to what happened upon the asylum seeker’s return. The materials reference yet another Ninth Circuit case, Karouni v. Gonzales, 399 F.3d 1163 (9th Cir. 2005), in which an asylum applicant returned once to his country to attend to his dying father, but cut his trip short because of his fear of persecution, leaving before the father’s funeral. The applicant returned a second time to attend to his dying mother, but had to delay the trip due to a fear of persecution so that he did not return until the mother had already passed away. The court concluded that these visits did not undermine the applicant’s fear.
Regarding the treatment of relatives, the USCIS training materials provide a hypothetical in which an asylum applicant’s sister is arrested based on her political opinion. The materials state that such arrest should be considered in determining the applicant’s own fear where, e.g. the sister lived in the same city and was active in the same political party as the applicant. However, the sister’s arrest need not be considered if the two were not close, lived in different regions, and were not members of the same party. See Id. section 6, pp. 18-19.
In transposing this approach to the example of children sent to the country of feared persecution, the inquiry would be into whether a connection exists between the child and the applicant’s reason for fearing persecution. When I was an immigration judge, ICE trial attorneys would sometimes comment in such cases that “no refugees sent their children back to Nazi Germany.” Of course, if the asylum applicant based his or her fear on a comparably extreme situation, i.e. that anyone who was a member of their race, nationality/ethnicity/tribe, or religion would be at grave risk, and that family remaining in the country were hiding in fear of discovery, then sending one’s child back to that country to stay with those relatives could open an inquiry into whether the applicant possessed a genuine subjective fear of persecution. However, where that is not the basis of the fear, the question would be what, if any, risk extends to the child? Furthermore, even if such risk was found to exist, as noted above, the reason for sending the child would be weighed against the risk. Whether the feared persecutors were aware of the children’s return, and if so, what their reaction was might also be considered, depending on the specific circumstances.
Copyright 2017 Jeffrey S. Chase. All rights reserved.