Use this button to switch between dark and light mode.

Proposed Asylum Bar Regs Are At Odds With International Law (And Why That Matters)

May 16, 2024 (7 min read)

Hon. Jeffrey S. Chase, May 16, 2024

"In 2003, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees published Guidelines for applying the bars to asylum known internationally as the “exclusion clauses” (because they exclude an applicant from being recognized as a refugee under international law).  Addressing the proper procedure for applying these bars, the UNHCR Guidelines state:

 Given  the  grave  consequences  of  exclusion,  it  is  essential  that  rigorous  procedural  safeguards are built into the exclusion determination procedure. Exclusion decisions should  in  principle  be  dealt  with  in  the  context  of  the  regular  refugee  status determination  procedure  and  not  in  either  admissibility  or  accelerated  procedures, so  that  a  full  factual  and  legal  assessment  of  the  case  can  be  made.1

This week, the Biden Administration published a proposed rule seeking to do precisely the opposite of what UNHCR advises.2  The rule would empower USCIS asylum officers to apply certain bars to asylum eligibility up front, at the border, as part of a preliminary admissibility determination. The goal is to effect the immediate deportation of certain asylum seekers, foreclosing their ability to have their eligibility for asylum decided by an Immigration Judge pursuant to a full-fledged hearing.

Advocates have already pointed out the dangers of the proposed approach, which will require quick decisions on highly complex issues at a point at which applicants very rarely have access to lawyers or evidence; their responses should be read.3  However, I would like to focus here on the rule’s conflict with international law, and why this is problematic.

Since 1804, the Supreme Court’s decision in Murray v. The Schooner Charming Betsy 4 has required domestic statutes to be interpreted consistently with international law whenever possible.5

This general requirement carries a particular urgency in its application to refugee law. The purpose of the 1951 Refugee Convention (which applied to those made refugees by World War II), and the 1967 Protocol (which extended the 1951 Convention’s definitions and protections to all) was to create a single, universal refugee standard to replace the patchwork of protections that reflected individual states’ own political preferences and biases. 

This is not a small matter. International refugee law scholars James C. Hathaway and Michelle Foster have warned that “[i]nconsistency and divergence in interpretation of the Convention definition would clearly undermine the principled goal of ensuring a single, universal standard for access to refugee protection.”6 They further quote a decision of the Australian Administrative Appeals Tribunal in support of this contention: “[i]nconsistency is not merely inelegant; it brings the process of deciding into disrepute, suggesting an arbitrariness which is incompatible with commonly accepted notions of justice.”7

Congress apparently agreed with this approach when enacting the 1980 Refugee Act. In its landmark 1987 decision in INS v. Cardoza-Fonseca, the Supreme Court pointed this out:

If one thing is clear from the legislative history of the new definition of "refugee," and indeed the entire 1980 Act, it is that one of Congress' primary purposes was to bring United States refugee law into conformance with the 1967 United Nations Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, 19 U.S.T. 6223, T.I.A.S. No. 6577, to which the United States acceded in 1968.8

And in adhering to Congress’s clear intent, the Supreme Court in Cardoza-Fonseca looked for guidance in interpreting the 1980 Refugee Act to UNHCR, citing its Handbook first issued in 1979 as an important tool for interpreting the Convention’s provisions. In a footnote, the Court found that while it was not binding, “the Handbook provides significant guidance in construing the Protocol, to which Congress sought to conform. It has been widely considered useful in giving content to the obligations that the Protocol establishes.”9 

As leading scholar Deborah E. Anker has noted, “One of the most important developments in U.S. asylum law is the weight that U.S. authorities – including the USCIS Asylum Office, the Board, and the federal courts – give to the UNHCR’s interpretation of the refugee definition contained in its 1979 Handbook….” Anker noted that UNHCR has issued other interpretive documents since 1979 that “complement and expand on the Handbook.”10 I would argue that those other documents (which include the 2003 guidelines addressing the exclusion clauses that is quoted above) are deserving of the same interpretive weight.

So given (1) the Supreme Court’s Charming Betsy doctrine mandating conformity with international law whenever possible; (2) the stated intent of Congress to bring U.S. asylum law into conformity with international refugee law (as recognized in Cardoza-Fonseca); and (3) the purpose of the 1951 Convention to “ensure a single, universal standard” for refugee status, according great weight to UNHCR guidance in interpreting the Convention provides the best means of adhering to all of the above requirements.

However, another leading scholar, Karen Musalo, provided a recent reminder of how far U.S. law has strayed from international law standards for determining nexus (i.e. when persecution is “on account of” a statutorily protected ground), and in determining the validity of  particular social groups. Musalo posits that realignment with international standards would resolve the erroneous interpretations that have arisen under present case law, and would remove unwarranted barriers to protection that presently exist.11 But with its new proposed regulations, the government instead seeks to veer even further off course in its procedures for determining bars to asylum eligibility.

In December 2020, I presented in a blog post a “wish list” for the incoming Biden Administration. One of the items on my list was to create a “Charming Betsy” regulation requiring adherence to international law refugee standards. It included the hope “that the Biden Administration would codify the Charming Betsy doctrine in regulations, which should further require the BIA, Immigration Judges, and Asylum Officers to consider UNHCR interpretations of the various asylum provisions, and require adjudicators to provide compelling reasons for rejecting its guidance.”12

I am not so naive to expect that a regulation like this will be proposed anytime soon. But I do believe that the direct contradiction of the proposed regs with international law guidance should be included in comments and talking points by those both inside and outside of government. Through these rules, the Biden Administration seeks to engage in the type of politically-motivated action that the Refugee Convention and 1980 Refugee Act sought to eliminate. For the above reasons, such action would violate the intent of Congress, our treaty obligations, and over two centuries of U.S. case law.

Moving forward, whether an asylum-related law, rule, policy, or case holding conforms with international law should instinctively be the first question asked by all of us. When refugee protection is viewed in such neutral, legal terms, the urge to politicize decisions will be lessened.

As those scholars referenced above have been saying far longer and more articulately than myself, it is only when international law becomes normalized in the process that our asylum law will function as it should.

Copyright 2024 Jeffrey S. Chase. All rights reserved.


  1. UNHCR, Guidelines on International Protection: Application of the Exclusion Clauses: Article 1F of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 4 Sept. 2003, (emphasis added).

  2. Application of Certain Mandatory Bars in Fear Screenings, 89 FR 41347 (May 13, 2024),

  3. See, e.g., American Immigration Council, “The Biden Administration’s Proposed Regulations On Asylum Bars: An Analysis,” (May 10, 2024),; Human Rights First Press Release  (May 9, 2024)

  4. 6 U.S. 64 (1804).

  5. See Weinberger v. Rossi, 456 U.S. 25, 32 (1982) (noting that construing federal statutes to avoid violating international law has “been a maxim of statutory construction since the decision” in Charming Betsy).

  6. James C. Hathaway and Michelle Foster, The Law of Refugee Status (Second Ed.), (Cambridge, 2014) at 4.

  7. Hathaway and Foster, supra at n.18 (quoting Brennan, J., in Re Drake and Minister of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs (No. 2) (1979) 2 ALD 634 (Aus. AAT, Nov. 21, 1979) at 639.

  8. 480 U.S. 421, 436-37 (1987).

  9. Id. at 439.

  10. Deborah E. Anker, Law of Asylum in the United States (2023 Ed.) (Thomson Reuters) at 20-21.

  11. Karen Musalo, “Aligning United States With International Norms Would Remove Major Barriers to Protection in Gender Claims,” International Journal of Refugee Law (2024).

  12. Jeffrey S. Chase, “A Wish List for 2021,” (Dec. 14, 2020)."

Jeffrey S. Chase is an immigration lawyer in New York City.  Jeffrey is a former Immigration Judge and Senior Legal Advisor at the Board of Immigration Appeals. He is the founder of the Round Table of Former Immigration Judges, which was awarded AILA’s 2019 Advocacy Award. Jeffrey is also a past recipient of AILA’s Pro Bono Award. He sits on the Board of Directors of the Association of Deportation Defense Attorneys, and Central American Legal Assistance.