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The Next-Level Shamelessness of the COVID Security Regs: Jeffrey S. Chase

January 03, 2021 (9 min read)

Jeffrey S. Chase, Jan. 3, 2021

"On December 23, EOIR and USCIS published final rules designed to brand most people a “security risk,” and thus ineligible for asylum.  The rules won’t become effective until January 22 (i.e. after the Biden Administration is in office), so will presumably be pulled back before they hurt anyone other than the reputations and careers of those responsible for their publication.  Nevertheless, it seems worthwhile to refute the present administration’s claimed justification for such a rule.  First, there will certainly be other bad administrations in our future, and as we’ve seen with the present one, they might look to the past for inspiration.

Furthermore, even without the rule going into effect, individual immigration judges will still be faced with interpreting the clause it invokes on a case-by-case basis.  I’m hoping the following analysis will prove useful, as I’m pretty sure it wasn’t covered in the judges’ training.

But most importantly, the assaults of the past four years on facts and reason have taught us the need to constantly reinforce what those presently in charge hope to make us forget: that there are laws passed by Congress; that the Judiciary has created strict rules governing their interpretation, and that executive agencies are not free to simply ignore or reinvent the meaning of those laws to their own liking.

The regulations in question seek to take advantage of the present pandemic to render any asylum seeker who either exhibits symptoms of the virus, has come in contact with it, or has traveled from or through a country or region where the disease is prevalent ineligible for asylum.  The administration seeks to justify this by claiming that there are reasonable grounds for regarding the above a danger to the security of the United States.

The “danger to the security of the United States” bar to asylum1 which the new regulations reference derives from Article 33(2) of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which serves as the international law basis for our asylum laws.  That treaty (which is binding on the U.S.) states that the prohibition against returning refugees shall not apply to those “whom there are reasonable grounds for regarding as a danger to the security of the country in which he is, or who, having been convicted by a final judgment of a particularly serious crime, constitutes a danger to the community of that country.”

However, Article 33(2) applies to those who have already been recognized as refugees, and have then committed crimes in the country of refuge, which is not the class to whom the new regulations would apply.  The bases for excluding those seeking refugee status for reasons arising prior to their arrival are found under Article 1D through 1F of the 1951 Convention.  The prohibitions found there cover three groups: those who are already receiving protection or assistance (Article 1D); those who are not considered to be in need of protection (Article 1E); and those “categories of persons who are not considered to be deserving of international protection (Article 1F).2   Individuals posing a danger to the community fall into the final category.

No ground contained in the 1951 Convention excludes those in need of protection for health-related purposes.  To understand why, let’s look closer at the Convention’s use of the word “deserving” as it relates to refugee protection.  In 1997, UNHCR published a note providing additional insight into the Article 1F “exclusion grounds.”  Explaining that “the idea of an individual ‘not deserving’ protection as a refugee is related to the intrinsic links between ideas of humanity, equity, and the concept of refuge,” the note explains that the primary purpose of the clauses “are to deprive the perpetrators of heinous acts and serious common crimes, of such protection.”  The note explains that to do otherwise “would be in direct conflict with national and international law, and would contradict the humanitarian and peaceful nature of the concept of asylum.”

The European Council on Refugees and Exiles covered this same issue in its 2004 position paper on Exclusion from Refugee Status.  At page 8, the ECRE stated that the “main aim” of Article 1F was not “to protect the host community from serious criminals,” but rather to preserve the integrity of the international refugee system by preventing it from being used to “shelter serious criminals from justice.”  These sources make it extremely clear that the intent was certainly not to exclude someone who might have been exposed to a virus.

In including six exceptions to eligibility in our asylum statute,3 Congress followed the lead of the 1951 Convention, as all six domestic clauses fall within the three categories listed in paragraph 140 of the UNHCR Handbook as listed above.  Of the six grounds listed under U.S. law, the last one, regarding persons firmly resettled in another country prior to arrival in the U.S., is covered by the Convention categories of those already receiving assistance or not in need of assistance.

The remaining five exceptions under U.S. law fall within the category of those not considered to be deserving of protection (Article 1F).  The statute lists those categories as: (i) persecutors of others; (ii) persons posing a danger to the community of the U.S. by virtue of having been convicted of a particularly serious crime; (iii) persons whom there are serious reasons to believe committed serious nonpolitical crimes prior to their arrival in the U.S.; (iv) persons whom “there are reasonable grounds for regarding…as a danger to the security of the United States,” and (v) persons engaged in terrorist activity.

Agencies may only apply their own interpretation to the term “as a danger to the security of the United States” to the extent such term is ambiguous.  But the courts have instructed that in determining whether a statute is in fact ambiguous, traditional tools of construction must be employed, including canons.4  The Supreme Court has recently applied one such canon, ejusdem generis, for this  purpose.5   In its decision, the Court explained that “where, as here, a more general term follows more specific terms in a list, the general term is usually understood to ‘ “embrace only objects similar in nature to those objects enumerated by the preceding specific words.”’”6

Former Attorney General Barr himself recently applied the ejusdem generis canon to the term “particular social group,” stating that pursuant to the canon, the term “must be read in conjunction with the terms preceding it, which cabin its reach…rather than as an “omnibus catch-all” for everyone who does not qualify under one of the other grounds for asylum.”7

A very similar canon to ejusdem generis  is noscitur a sociis (the “associated words” canon).  Whereas ejusdem generis requires a term to be interpreted similarly to more specific terms surrounding it in a list, noscitur a sociis applies the same concept to more specific terms across the same statute.8

In 8 U.S.C. § 1158(b)(2)(A), the more general term “danger to the security of the United States” is surrounded by the more specific terminology describing the accompanying grounds of asylum ineligibility.  When thus “cabined” by the more specific classes of persecutors of others, those convicted of serious crimes, and those engaged in terrorist activities, it is clear that Congress intended a “risk to security” to relate to similar types of criminal activity, and not to health grounds.  As the intent of Congress is clear, the term “threat to the security of the United States” is not open to any interpretation the agencies might wish to apply to it.  Yet in its published rule, EOIR and USCIS here create the type of “omnibus catch-all” that the Attorney General himself has elsewhere declared to be impermissible.

The rule is further at odds with circuit case law in its application to those who simply “may” pose a risk.  The Third Circuit has found the statutory language of the clause in question to unambiguously require that the asylum-seeker pose an actual, rather than merely a possible, threat to national security.9  Even if it were assumed that COVID could somehow fit into the category of security risk, simply having traveled from or through an area where the virus is prevalent doesn’t establish that the individual presents an actual risk.

There is also the issue of the transient nature of the risk. In the same decision referenced above, the Third Circuit relied on the Refugee Act’s legislative history to conclude “that Congress intended to protect refugees to the fullest extent of our Nation’s international obligations,” allowing for exceptions “only in a narrow set of circumstances.”10  This is obviously a correct reading where exclusion can lead to death, rape, or indefinite imprisonment.  The other classes deemed undeserving of asylum are defined by more permanent characteristics.  In other words, the attribute of being a terrorist, a persecutor, or a serious criminal will not wear off in two weeks time.  To the contrary, any risk posed by one exposed to COVID-19 is likely to pass within that same time frame.  Wouldn’t the “fullest extent” of our obligations call for simple quarantining for the brief period in question?

These issues were all raised in comments to the proposed regs.  And of course, dubious reasons were employed to dismiss these arguments.  For example, the agencies acknowledged the need for the danger posed be an actual rather than a merely possible one.  But somehow, that requirement was dismissed by the inadequate excuse that the danger posed by a pandemic is “unique.”

The rule stands as one of the final examples of the extremes this administration will go to in order to circumvent our asylum laws and turn away those entitled to avail themselves of our immigration courts in order to determine if they are entitled to protection.  As demonstrated here, the degree to which this administration veered from the actual intent of the statute in interpreting the security bar wouldn’t have been much greater if it attempted to deny asylum to those wearing white after Labor Day.11  The law must not be twisted or ignored by executive branch agencies when it conflicts with an administration’s policy objectives.


  1. 8 U.S.C. § 1158(b)(2)(A).

  2. UNHCR Handbook at ❡ 140.

  3. 8 U.S.C. § 1158(b)(2)(A).

  4. See, e.g., Arangure Jasso v. Whitaker, 911 F.3d 333, 338-39 (6th Cir. 2018).

  5. See Epic Sys. Corp. v. Lewis, 138 S. Ct. 1612, 1625 (2018).

  6. Ibid (citing Circuit City Stores, Inc. v. Adams, 121 S.Ct. 1302, 149 (2001); National Assn. of Mfrs. v. Department of Defense,138 S.Ct. 617, 628–629 (2018)).

  7. Matter of L-E-A-, 27 I&N Dec. 581, 592 (A.G. 2019).

  8. Thanks to Prof. Jaclyn Kelley-Widmer for sharing her expertise on these terms. See Jaclyn Kelley-Widmer and Hillary Rich, “A Step Too Far: Matter of A-B-, Particular Social Group, and Chevron,” 29 Cornell J. of Law and Public Policy 345, 373 (2019).

  9. Yusupov v. Att’y Gen. of U.S., 518 F.3d 185, 201 (3d Cir. 2008).

  10. Id. at 203-204.

  11. If it had done so, EOIR would undoubtedly have defended the move through the traditional, completely acceptable, totally normal method of issuing a “Myths vs. Facts” sheet. The document might contain the following entry: “Myth: EOIR issued a rule banning asylum to anyone wearing any color at any time. Fact: That’s completely absurd! Only those wearing white (which technically might not even be a color) are banned, and even then, only after Labor Day. As Pantone lists 1,867 colors, white consists of .05 percent of all colors one could wear. And that’s only if white is in fact a color. And, again, only after Labor Day.” "

Copyright 2021 Jeffrey S. Chase.  All rights reserved.  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.