"Like Water Seeping Through An Earthen Dam"

In addressing 44 newly-hired immigration judges earlier this week, their new boss, Jeff Sessions, demonstrated not only his usual level of bias (to a group charged with acting as impartial adjudicators), but a very strange grasp of how our legal system works.

Sessions told the new class of judges that lawyers “work every day - like water seeping through an earthen dam - to get around the plain words of the INA to advance their clients’ interest.  Theirs is not the duty to uphold the integrity of the Act.”

Later in his remarks, Sessions opined that “when we depart from the law and create nebulous legal standards out of a sense of sympathy for the personal circumstances of a respondent in our immigration courts, we do violence to the rule of law and constitutional fabric that bind this great nation.”

To me, the above remarks evince a complete misunderstanding of how our legal system works.  

In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Katzenbach v. McClung, a landmark civil rights case.  In order to find that the federal Civil Rights Act applied to a local, family-owned barbecue restaurant in Alabama, DOJ attorneys persuaded the Supreme Court that there was federal jurisdiction under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause because of segregation’s impact on interstate commerce.  I’m no Constitutional law expert, but I’m not sure that when its authors afforded Congress the power “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States,” that this is what they had in mind.  Was creatively interpreting the Commerce Clause in order to end segregation “like water seeping through an earthen dam” to get around the clear words of the Constitution?  Did ending segregation constitute, in Sessions’s opinion, doing violence to the rule of law out of a sense of sympathy for the black victims of Alabama’s racist policies?

Every positive legal development is the result of an attorney advancing a creative legal argument, often motivated by a sense of sympathy for unfair treatment of a class of individuals in need of protection.  Many landmark decisions have resulted from such attorneys offering the court an unorthodox but legally sound solution to a sympathetic injustice.  This is actually how the legal system is supposed to operate.  Our laws are made by Congress, and not the Executive branch.  When Congress drafts these laws, they and their staffers are well aware of the existence of lawyers and judges and their ability to interpret the statutory language.

Had Congress not wanted our asylum laws to be flexible, allowing them to be interpreted in myriad ways to respond to changing types of persecution carried out by different types of actors, it could have said so.  When the courts found that victims of China’s coercive family planning policies did not qualify for asylum, Congress responded by amending the statutory definition of “refugee” to cover such harm.  In the four years following the BIA’s conclusion that victims of domestic violence qualified for asylum, Congress notably did not enact legislation barring such grants.  To the contrary, after Jeff Sessions issued his decision with the intent of preventing such grants, a Republican-led Congressional committee unanimously passed a measure barring funding for government efforts to carry out Sessions’ decision, a clear rebuke by the legislative branch of Sessions’s view that such claims are illegitimate. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/gop-led-house-committee-rebuffs-trump-administration-on-immigrant-asylum-claim-policy/2018/07/26/3c52ed52-911a-11e8-9b0d-749fb254bc3d_story.html?utm_term=.809760180e2a.

Interestingly, Sessions finds it perfectly acceptable to use unorthodox interpretations of the law when it serves his own interests.  For example,  he argues that he is upholding “religious liberty” in defending the right of bigots to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals. https://www.advocate.com/politics/2018/7/30/sessions-launches-new-lgbt-assault-religious-liberty-task-force.   The conclusion drawn from this inconsistency is that Sessions does not oppose creative interpretations of the law; he rather believes that the only proper interpretation of the law is his.

One of the problems with this approach is that Sessions doesn’t actually know anything about the law of asylum.  And yet he somehow feels entitled to belittle the analysis of the leading asylum experts in academia, the private bar, USCIS, ICE, and EOIR, all of whom have repeatedly found victims of domestic violence to satisfy all of the legal criteria for asylum.  In its 1985 decision in Matter of Acosta, (a case that Sessions cited favorably in his controversial decision), the BIA noted that the ground of “particular social group” was added to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees (which is the basis for our asylum laws) “as an afterthought.”  The BIA further noted that “it has been suggested that the notion of ‘social group’ 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 refugee.”  (The full decision in Acosta can be read here:  https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/eoir/legacy/2012/08/14/2986.pdf).

As a young attorney, I learned (from the late, great asylum scholar Arthur Helton) that at the last moment, the Swedish plenipotentiary to the 1951 Convention pointed out that there were victims of Hitler and Stalin in need of protection who did not fall under the other four Convention grounds of race, religion, nationality, or political opinion.  A fifth, catch-all ground was therefore proposed to serve as a “safety net” in such cases.  In other words, the reason the particular social group category was created and is a part of our laws was because the Convention’s drafters, perhaps “like water seeping through an earthen dam,” created an intentionally nebulous legal standard out of a sense of sympathy for victims of injustice.  The ground was therefore created to be used for the exact purpose decried by Sessions.

Because of the strength of such legal authority, Sessions’s decision in Matter of A-B-, in spite of dicta to the contrary, actually still allows for the granting of domestic violence and gang violence-based asylum claims.  The decision criticized the BIA’s precedent decision in Matter of A-R-C-G- for reaching its conclusion without explaining its reasoning in adequate detail.  However, where the record is properly developed, a legally solid analysis can be shown to support granting such claims even under the standards cited by Sessions.

This is what makes Sessions comments to the new class of immigration judges so disturbing. Having appointed judges whom his Justice Department has found qualified, he should now leave it to them to exercise their expertise and independent judgment to interpret the law and determine who qualifies for asylum.  But in declaring such cases to lack validity, belittling private attorneys innovative arguments, and equating the granting of such claims to doing violence to the rule of law, Sessions aims to undermine right from the start the judicial independence of the only judges he controls.  EOIR’s management has demonstrated that it has no intention of pushing back; instead, it asks how high Sessions wants the judges to jump.

Knowing this, how likely is one of the 44 new judges to grant asylum to a victim of domestic violence who has clearly met all of the legal criteria?  New immigration judges are subject to a two-year probationary period.  It’s clear that a grant of such cases under any circumstances will be viewed unfavorably by Sessions.  In a highly publicized case, EOIR’s management criticized a judge in Philadelphia whose efforts at preserving due process they bizarrely interpreted as an act of disobedience towards Sessions, and removed the case in question and more than 80 cases like it from the judge’s docket.

So if a new judge, who may have a family to support, and a mortgage and college tuition to pay, is forced to choose between applying the law in a reasoned fashion and possibly suffering criticism and loss of livelihood, or holding his or her nose and adhering to Sessions’s views, what will the likely choice be?

Sessions concluded his remarks by claiming that the American people “have spoken in our laws and they have spoken in our elections.”  As to the latter, Americans voted against Trump’s immigration policies by a margin of 2.8 million votes.  As to the former, Congress has passed laws which have been universally interpreted by DHS, EOIR, and all leading asylum scholars as allowing victims of domestic violence to be granted asylum based on their membership in a particular social group.  It is time for this administration to honor the rule of law and to restore judicial independence to such determinations.

Copyright 2018 Jeffrey S. Chase.  All rights reserved.

U.S. Open Photos

The BIA vs. the Supreme Court?