The Proper Role of Immigration Judges as Asylum Adjudicators

I would like to expand on the topic raised in my response to the BIA’s recent precedent decision in Matter of W-Y-C- & H-O-B-.  In the U.S. system, what tensions exist between an immigration judge’s role as an independent judge within an adversarial system, and his or her overlapping role as an adjudicator of asylum claims?

As we all know, the 1980 Refugee Act was enacted to put the U.S. in compliance with the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees (to which the U.S. acceded through the 1967 Protocol).  For that reason, numerous courts through the years have found the UNHCR Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status to provide “significant guidance in construing the Protocol” and a useful instrument “in giving content to the obligations the Protocol establishes,” as the U.S. Supreme Court stated in INS v. Cardoza-Fonseca.  The BIA has referenced the UNHCR Handbook in at least ten precedent decisions, as have numerous circuit courts.

Paragraphs 66 and 67 of the Handbook state the following:

66. In order to be considered a refugee, a person must show well-founded fear of persecution for one of the reasons stated above. It is immaterial whether the persecution arises from any single one of these reasons or from a combination of two or more of them. Often the applicant himself may not be aware of the reasons for the persecution feared. It is not, however, his duty to analyze his case to such an extent as to identify the reasons in detail.

67. It is for the examiner, when investigating the facts of the case, to ascertain the reason or reasons for the persecution feared and to decide whether the definition in the 1951 Convention is met with in this respect... (emphasis added.)

Not surprisingly, this approach is employed by the USCIS Asylum Office.  Created in the implementation of the 1990 asylum regulations, the office’s first director, Gregg Beyer, previously worked for UNHCR for more than 12 years.  The Asylum Officer Basic Training Manual (“AOBTM”) on the topic of nexus states that although the applicant bears the burden of proving nexus, the asylum officer has an affirmative duty to elicit all relevant information, and “should fully explore the motivations of any persecutor involved in the case.”  The AOBTC therefore directs the asylum officer to “make reasonable inferences, keeping in mind the difficulty, in many cases, of establishing with precision a persecutor’s motives.”

The AOBTC also cites the 1988 BIA precedent decision in Matter of Fuentes.1  In that case, the Board held that “an applicant does not bear the unreasonable burden of establishing the exact motivation of a ‘persecutor’ where different reasons for actions are possible.  However, an applicant does bear the burden of establishing facts on which a reasonable person would fear that the danger arises on account of” a protected ground.

In Canada, the Immigration and Refugee Board takes the view that “it is for the Refugee Division to determine the ground, if any, applicable to the claimant’s fear of persecution.”  The U.S. is unusual, if not unique, among western nations in not also delegating this responsibility to immigration judges. Also, note that the IRB references the “Refugee Division;” like many countries, Canada’s equivalent of immigration courts is divided into immigration and refugee divisions, in recognition of the special obligations and knowledge that asylum determinations require.  The U.S. immigration court system does not have a separate refugee determination division; asylum claims are heard by the same judges and under the same conditions as all other types of immigration cases.  Furthermore, as noted above, U.S. immigration judges hear cases in an adversarial setting, in which judges assume a passive, neutral role.

The role of asylum adjudicator carries responsibilities that are at odds with the the role of neutral arbiter.  Asylum adjudicators are required to share the burden of documenting the asylum claim; the UNHCR Handbook at para. 196 states that “in some cases, it may be for the examiner to use all of the means at his disposal to produce the necessary evidence in support of the application.”2  And, as discussed above, once the facts are ascertained, it is the adjudicator who should identify the reasons for the feared persecution and determine if such reasons bear a nexus to a protected ground.

During the Department of Justice’s asylum reform discussions in the early 1990s, Gregg Beyer stated that the idea of separate asylum judges was considered, but ultimately rejected.  To my knowledge, EOIR has never conducted an in-depth analysis of the conflicts between the judge’s responsibilities as an asylum adjudicator and his or her role as a neutral arbiter in adversarial proceedings.  I discussed the Board’s incorrect holding in Matter of W-Y-C- & H-O-B- under which genuine refugees may be ordered returned to countries where they will face persecution because the asylum applicants lacked the sophistication to properly delineate a particular social group, a complex legal exercise that many immigration attorneys (and immigration judges) are unable to do.  The problem also extends to other protected grounds.  Would an unrepresented asylum applicant (who might be a child) understand what an imputed political opinion is?  Would most asylum applicants be able to explain that actions viewed as resisting the authority of a third-generation gang such as MS-13 might constitute a political opinion?  Regulations should be enacted making it the responsibility of immigration judges to consider these questions.  Additionally, immigration judges, BIA Board Members and staff attorneys should be required to undergo specialized training to enable them to identify and properly analyze these issues.

Notes:

1. 19 I&N Dec. 658 (BIA 1988).

2. See also the BIA’s precedent decision in Matter of S-M-J-, 21 I&N Dec. 722 (BIA 1997), which I have referenced in other articles.

Copyright 2018 Jeffrey S. Chase.  All rights reserved.

 

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