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Immigration Law

From the Heights of Kasinga...Paul W. Schmidt Reflects

Hon. Paul W. Schmidt, Nov. 12, 2020

"FROM THE HEIGHTS OF KASINGA TO THE DEPTHS OF AMERICA’S DEADLY STAR CHAMBERS: Will The Biden Administration Tap The New Due Process Army To Fix EOIR & Save Our Nation?

I.  INTRODUCTION — ABROGATION OF ASYLUM LAWS IN THE FACE OF EXECUTIVE LAWLESSNESS & RACIAL BIAS IS A NATIONAL DISGRACE

In Matter of Kasinga, I applied the generous well-founded fear standard for asylum established by the Supreme Court in Cardoza-Fonseca to reach a favorable result for a female asylum applicant. It was based on a particular social group of women of the tribe who feared persecution in the form of female genital mutilation, or “FGM.” I sometimes think of this as the “high water mark” of asylum law at the BIA.

Since then, proper, generous application of asylum laws to serve their intended purpose of flexibly, fairly, and consistently extending protection to those facing persecution has been steadily declining. The Trump Administration essentially overruled Cardoza-Fonseca and abolished asylum law without legislative change.

Both Congress and the Court have failed to stand up to this egregious abuse of the law, constitutional due process, and simple human decency that presents a “clear and present danger” to our nation’s continued existence.

Indeed, the performance of the Court in the face of the Administration’s overt assault on asylum has been so woeful as to lead me to wonder whether any of the Justices, other than Justice Sonia Sotomayor, have actually read the Cardoza-Fonseca decision. Certainly, most of them have failed to consistently and courageously carry forth its spirit and to grapple with their legal and moral responsibility for letting a lawless Executive trample the constitutional and human rights, as well as the human dignity, of the most vulnerable among us.

How did we get to this utterly deplorable state of affairs and what can the Biden Administration do to save us? Will they act boldly and courageously or continue the tradition of ignoring abuses directed against asylum seekers and the deleterious effect it has on our society and the rule of law?

I guarantee that racial justice and harmony will continue to elude us as a nation unless and until we come to grips with the ongoing abuses in the Immigration Courts — “courts” that no longer function as such in any manner except the misleading name!

II.   BACKGROUND

To understand what has happened since Kasinga, here’s some background. In U.S. asylum law, there generally has been an “inverse relationship” between geography and success. The further your home country is from the U.S., the more generous the treatment is likely to be.

Thus, folks like Kasinga from Togo, or those from Tibet, Ethiopia, China, or Eritrea, with relatively difficult access to our borders, tend to do relatively well. On the other hand, those from Mexico, Haiti, Central America, and South America, who have easier access to our borders, tend to be treated more restrictively.

This reaction has been driven by a hypothesis with limited empirical support, but which has been accepted in some form or another by all Administrations, regardless of party, since the enactment of the Refugee Act of 1980. That is, the belief that human migration patterns are driven primarily by the policies and legal regimes in prosperous so-called “receiving countries” like the U.S.

Thus, generous and humane asylum policies will encourage unwanted flows of asylum seekers across international borders. And, of course, we all know that nothing threatens the national security of the world’s greatest nuclear superpower more than a caravan or flotilla of desperate, unarmed asylum seekers and their families trying to turn themselves in at the border or to the Border Patrol shortly after arrival.

Conversely, restrictive policies including rapid, unfair rejection, border turn-backs, mass detentions, criminal sanctions, family separation, denials of fair hearings, walls, border militarization, and hostile, often racially and religiously charged rhetoric, will cause asylum seekers to “stay put” thus deterring them and reducing the number of applications threatening our national security. In other words, encourage legitimate asylum seekers to “perish in place.” Often, these harsh policies are disingenuously characterized as being, at least partially, “for the benefit of asylum seekers” by discouraging them from undertaking dangerous journeys and paying human smugglers only to be summarily rejected upon arrival.

This “popular hypothesis” largely ignores the effect of conditions in refugee sending countries, including both geopolitical and environmental factors. For example, the current migration flow is affected by the practical difficulties of travel in the time of pandemic and by economic failures and cultural and political changes resulting from unabated climate change, not just by the legal restrictions that might be in place in the U.S. and other far-away countries.

It also factors out the “business narratives” of human smugglers designed to manipulate asylum seekers in ways that maximize profits under a variety of scenarios and to take maximum advantage of mindlessly predictable government “enforcement only” strategies.

Indeed, there is plenty of reason to believe that such policies serve largely to maximize smugglers’ profits, extort more money from desperate asylum seekers, but with little long-term effect on migration patterns. The short-term reduction in traffic, often hastily mischaracterized as “success” by the government, probably reflects in part “market adjustments” as smugglers raise their rates to cover the increased risks and revised planning caused by more of a particular kind of enforcement. That “prices some would-be migrants out of the market,” at least temporarily, and forces others to wait while they accumulate more money to pay smugglers.

It also likely increases the number of asylum seekers who die while attempting the journey. But, there is no real evidence that four decades of various “get tough” and “deterrence policies” — right up until the present — have had or will have a determinative long term effect on extralegal migration to the U.S. It may well, however, encourage more migrants to proceed to the interior of the country and take “do it yourself” refuge in the population, rather than turning themselves in at or near the border to a legal system that has been intentionally rigged against them.

Regardless of its empirically questionable basis, “deterrence theory” has become the primary driving force behind government asylum policies. Thus, the fear of large-scale, out of control “Southern border incursions” by asylum seekers has driven all U.S. Administrations to adopt relatively restrictive interpretations and applications of asylum law with respect to asylum seekers from Central America.

Starting with a so-called “Southern border crisis” in the summer of 2014, the Obama Administration took a number of steps intended to discourage Central American asylum seekers. These included: use of so-called “family detention;” denial of bond; accelerated processing of recently arrived children and adults with children; selecting Immigration Judges largely from the ranks of DHS prosecutors and other Government employees; keeping asylum experts off the BIA; taking outlandish court positions on detention and the right to counsel for unrepresented toddlers in Immigration Court; and dire public warnings as to the dangers of journeying to the U.S. and the likelihood of rejection upon arrival.

These efforts did little to stem the flow of asylum seekers from the Northern Triangle. However, they did result in a wave of “Aimless Docket Reshuffling” (“ADR”) at the Immigration Courts that accelerated the growth of backlogs and the deterioration of morale at EOIR. (Later, Sessions & Barr would “perfect the art of ADR” thereby astronomically increasing backlogs, even with many more judges on the bench, to something approaching 1.5 million known cases, with probably hundreds of thousands more buried in the “maliciously incompetently managed” EOIR (non)system).

Success for Central American asylum applicants thus remained problematic, with more than two of every three applications being rejected. Nevertheless, by 2016, largely through the heroic efforts of pro bono litigation groups, applicants from the so-called “Northern Triangle” – El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala – had achieved a respectable approval rate ranging from approximately 20% to 30%.

Many of these successful claims were based on “particular social groups” composed of battered women and/or children or family groups targeted by violent husbands or boyfriends, gangs, cartels, and other so-called “non-governmental actors” that the Northern Triangle governments clearly were “unwilling or unable to control.”

III.   CROSSHAIRS

Upon the ascension of the Trump Administration in 2017, refugee and asylum policies became driven not only by “deterrence theory,” but also by racially, religiously, and politically motivated “institutionalized xenophobia.” The initial target was Muslims who were “zapped” by Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban.” Although initially properly blocked as unconstitutional by lower Federal Courts, the Supreme Court eventually “greenlighted” a slightly watered-down version of the “Muslim ban.”

Next on the hit list were refugees and asylees of color. This put Central American asylum seekers, particularly women and children, directly in the crosshairs.

In something akin to “preliminary bombing,” then Attorney General Jeff Sessions launched a series of false and misleading narratives against asylum seekers and their lawyers directed at an audience consisting of Immigration Judges and BIA Members who worked at EOIR and thus were his subordinates.

Without evidence, Sessions characterized most asylum seekers as fraudulent or mala fide and blamed them as a primary cause for the population of 11 million or so undocumented individuals estimated to be residing in the U.S. He also accused “dirty immigration lawyers” of having “gamed” the asylum system, while charging “his” Immigration Judges with the responsibility of “assisting their partners” at DHS enforcement in stopping asylum fraud and discouraging asylum applications.

IV.    THE ATTACK

While not directly tampering with the “well-founded fear” standard for asylum, with Sessions leading the way, the Administration launched a three-pronged attack on asylum seekers.

First, using his power to review BIA precedents, Sessions reversed the prior precedent that had facilitated asylum grants for applicants who had suffered persecution in the form of domestic abuse. In doing so, he characterized them as “mere victims of crime” who should not be recognized as a “particular social group.” While not part of the holding, he also commented to Immigration Judges in his opinion that very few claimants should succeed in establishing asylum eligibility based on domestic violence.

He further imposed bogus “production quotas” on judges with an eye toward speeding up the “deportation railroad.” In other words, Immigration Judges who valued their jobs should start cranking out mass denials of such cases without wasting time on legal analysis or the actual facts.

Later, Sessions’s successor, Attorney General Bill Barr, overruled the BIA precedent recognizing “family” as a particular social group for asylum. He found that the vast majority of family units lacked the required “social distinction” to qualify.

For example, a few prominent families like the Rockefellers, Clintons, or Kardashians might be generally recognized by society. However, ordinary families like the Schmidts would be largely unknown beyond their own limited social circles. Therefore, we would lack the necessary “social distinction” within the larger society to be recognized as a particular social group.

Second, Sessions and Barr attacked the “nexus” requirement that persecution be “on account of” a particular social group or other protected ground. They found that most alleged acts of domestic violence or harm inflicted by abusive spouses, gangs and cartels were “mere criminal acts” or acts of “random violence” not motivated by the victim’s membership in any “particular social group” or any of the other so-called “protected grounds” for asylum. They signaled that Immigration Judges who found “no nexus” would find friendly BIA appellate judges anxious to uphold those findings and thereby retain their jobs.

Third, they launched an attack on the long-established “nongovernmental actor” doctrine. They found that normally, qualifying acts of persecution would have to be carried out by the government or its agents. For non-governmental actions to be attributed to that government, that government would basically have to be helpless to respond.

They found that the Northern Triangle governments officially opposed the criminal acts of gangs, cartels, and abusers and made at least some effort to control them. They deemed the fact that those governments are notoriously corrupt and ineffective in controlling violence to be largely beside the point. After all, they observed, no government including ours offers “perfect protection” to its citizens.

Any effort by the government to control the actor, no matter how predictably or intentionally ineffective or nominal, should be considered sufficient to show that the government was willing and able to protect against the harm. In other words, even the most minimal or nominal opposition should be considered “good enough for government work.”

V.   THE UGLY RESULTS

Remarkably, notwithstanding this concerted effort to “zero out” asylum grants, some individuals, even from the Northern Triangle, still succeed. They usually are assisted by experienced pro bono counsel from major human rights NGOs or large law firms — essentially the “New Due Process Army” in action. These are the folks who have saved what is left of American justice and democracy. Often, they must seek review in the independent, Article III Federal Courts to ultimately prevail.

Some Article IIIs are up to the job; many aren’t, lacking both the expertise and the philosophical inclination to actually enforce the constitutional and statutory rights of asylum seekers — “the other,” often people of color. After all, wrongfully deported to death means “out of sight, out of mind.”

However, the Administration’s efforts have had a major impact. Systemwide, the number of asylum cases decided by the Immigration Courts has approximately tripled since 2016 – from approximately 20,000 to over 60,000, multiplying backlogs as other, often older, “ready to try” cases are shuffled off to the end of the dockets, often with little or no notice to the parties.

At the same time, asylum grant rates for the Northern Triangle have fallen to their lowest rate in many years 10% to 15%. Taken together, that means many more asylum denials for Northern Triangle applicants, a major erosion of the generous “well-founded fear” standard for asylum, and a severe deterioration of due process protections in American law. Basically, it’s a collapse of our legal system and an affront to human dignity. The kinds of things you might expect in a “Banana Republic.”

VI.  WILL BIDEN FIX EOIR OR REPEAT THE MISTAKES OF THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION?

The intentional destruction of U.S. asylum law and the weaponization of EOIR in support of the White Nationalist agenda have undermined the entire U.S. justice system. It actively encourages both dehumanization (“Dred Scottification”) and institutionalized racism all the way up to a Supreme Court which has improperly enabled large portions of the unlawful and unconstitutional anti-migrant agenda.

The Biden Administration can reverse the festering due process and human rights disaster at EOIR. Unlike improving and reforming the Article III Judiciary, it doesn’t need Mitch McConnell’s input to do so.

Biden can appoint an Attorney General who will recognize the importance of putting immigration/human rights/due process experts in charge of EOIR. He can replace the current BIA with real appellate judges whose qualifications reflect an unswerving commitment to due process, expert application of asylum laws in the generous manner once envisioned by the Supreme Court in Cardoza-Fonseca, implementing “best” practices, judicial efficiency, and judicial independence.

Biden can return human dignity to an improperly weaponized system designed to “Dred Scottify” the other. He can appoint better qualified Immigration Judges through a merit-based system that would encourage and give fair consideration to the many outstanding candidates who have devoted their professional lives to fighting for due process, fundamental fairness, and immigrants’ rights, courageously, throughout America’s darkest times!

That, in turn, will create the necessary conditions to institutionalize the EOIR reforms through the legislative creation of an independent, Article I Immigration Court that will be the “gemstone” of American justice rather than a national disgrace! One that will eventually fulfill the noble, now abandoned, “EOIR Vision” of “through teamwork and innovation being the world’s best tribunals, guaranteeing fairness and due process for all.”

The Obama Administration shortsightedly choose to “freeze out” the true experts in the private advocacy, NGO, academic, clinical teaching, and pro bono communities. The results have been beyond disastrous.

In addition to killing, maiming, and otherwise harming humans entitled to our legal protection, EOIR’s unseemly demise over the past three Administrations has undermined the credibility of every aspect of our justice system all the way to the Supreme Court as well as destroying our international leadership role as a shining example and beacon of hope for others.

The talent in the private sector is out there! They are ready, willing, and very able to turn EOIR from a disaster zone to a model of due process, innovation, best practices, fair, efficient, and practical judging, and creative judicial administration. One that other parts of the U.S. judicial system could emulate.

Will the Biden Administration heed the call, act boldly, and put the “right team” in place to save EOIR? Or will they continue past Democratic Administrations’ short-sighted undervaluation of the importance of providing constitutionally required due process, equal justice, and fundamental fairness to all persons in the U.S. including asylum applicants and other migrants.

I’ve read a number of papers and proposals on how to “fix” immigration and refugee policies. None of them appears to recognize the overriding importance of making EOIR reform “job one.”

For once, why can’t Democrats “think like Republicans?” When John Ashcroft and Kris Kobach and later Jeff Sessions and Stephen Miller set out to kneecap, politicize, and weaponize the U.S. justice system, what was their “starting point?” EOIR, of course!

The Obama Administration’s abject failure to effectively address and reverse the glaring mess at EOIR left by the “Ashcroft reforms” basically set the table for Sessions’s even more invidious plan to weaponize EOIR into a tool for xenophobia and White Nationalist nativism. The problems engendered by allowing the politicization and weaponization of EOIR have crippled the U.S. justice system far beyond immigration and asylum law.

Without a better EOIR, fully empowered to lead the way legally and insure and enforce compliance, all reforms, from DACA, to detention reform, to restoration of refugee and asylum systems will be less effective, more difficult, and less enduring than they should be. Equal justice for all and an end to institutionalized racism cannot be achieved without bold EOIR reform!

It would also take some of the pressure off the Article III Courts. Time and again they are called upon, with disturbingly varying degrees of both willingness and competence in the results, to correct the endless stream of basic legal errors, abuses of due process, and inane, obviously biased and counterproductive policies regularly flowing from EOIR and DOJ. Indeed, unnecessary litigation and frivolous, ethically questionable, often factually inaccurate or intentionally misleading positions advanced by the DOJ in immigration matters now clog virtually all levels of the Article III Federal Courts right up to the docket of the Supreme Court!

So far, what I haven’t seen is a recognition by anyone on the “Biden Team” that the experts in the private bar who have been the primary fighters in the trenches, almost singlehandedly responsible for preserving American justice and saving our democracy from the Trump onslaught, must be placed where they belong: in charge of the effort to rebuild EOIR and those who will be chosen to staff it!

Continue to ignore the New Due Process Army and their ability to right the listing American ship of state at peril! It’s long past time to unleash the “problem solvers” on government and give them the resources and support necessary to use practical scholarship, technology, best practices, and “Con Law/Human Rights 101” to solve the problems!

No “magic list,” stakeholders committees, or consensus-building groups can take the place of putting expert, empowered, practical problem solvers in charge of the machinery. We can’t win the game with the best, most talented, most knowledgeable, most courageous players forever sitting on the bench!

The future of our republic might well depend on whether the Biden-Harris Administration can get beyond the past and take the courageous, far-sighted actions necessary to let EOIR lead the way to a better future of all Americans! We can only hope that they finally see the light. Before it’s too late for all of us!

Due Process Forever! Complicity & Complacency, Never!"