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Taking a Sledgehammer to Asylum: Jeffrey S. Chase

June 24, 2020 (8 min read)

Jeffrey S. Chase, June 23, 2020

"The Trump Administration has repeatedly acted to damage our country’s asylum laws.  Its latest move, expressed in 161 pages of proposed regulations, does so with a sledgehammer.  The proposal claims that “as an expression of a nation’s foreign policy, the laws and policies surrounding asylum are an assertion of a government’s right and duty to protect its own resources and citizens, while aiding those in true need of protection from harm.”  Note how “aiding those in true need of protection from harm” comes last.  The proposal supports the preceding statement with a case that not only had nothing to do with asylum, but predated by eight years the enactment of the 1980 Refugee Act, which continues to serve as our country’s law of asylum.

It was necessary to reach back so far because the Refugee Act actually stands for the opposite proposition, placing the protection of those in need above foreign policy considerations.  The Refugee Act replaced our Cold War-influenced refugee preferences with an obligation to provide protection to those from any country fearing persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

The Department of Justice tried to limit the impact of this monumental change at its outset by interpreting the new legal standard as restrictively as possible.  In 1987, the Supreme Court rejected the Department’s interpretation of the term “well-founded fear,” finding that the meaning the Department applied to the term was not the one intended by Congress.  The Court found it clear that the primary purpose of Congress was to bring U.S. law into conformity with the 1967 Protocol on the Status of Refugees.  It therefore looked for guidance to UNHCR and legal scholars, and concluded that the standard passed by Congress allowed for as little as a ten percent chance of persecution in order to merit asylum.

More than three decades later, District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan put a stop to the Department’s attempt to exclude victims of domestic violence and gang violence from asylum protection at the credible fear stage.  In a lengthy, detailed decision whose reasoning the Sixth Circuit recently adopted for full asylum determinations, the court reiterated that Congress, and not the Attorney General, creates our asylum laws, and that Congress intended for those laws to conform to the Protocol’s more expansive view.

It was because of that more expansive view that the Protocol, and its predecessor, the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, avoided the type of strict definitions the proposed regulations seek to impose.  One renowned scholar explained the drafters’ intent “to introduce a flexible concept which might be applied to circumstances as they might arise; or in other words, that they capitulated before the inventiveness of humanity to think up new ways of persecuting fellow men.”1  It is this built-in flexibility that the latest proposal takes exception to.

Of course, it is still Congress, and not the executive branch, that enacts our asylum laws.  And should the present proposal become a final rule before this administration is done, it will be the reassertion of that reality by the courts that will save those seeking refuge here.

I plan to address the different sections of the proposals in installments.  I begin with the proposal to redefine “political opinion.”

The last few months have taught us that, under the Trump Administration, everything is political.  Even the decision to wear a mask and self-isolate out of consideration to our neighbors has been cast as an expression of political opinion.  The virus itself was first depicted as a Democratic hoax; once its existence could no longer be denied, it had to be given a nationality and portrayed as part of a foreign plot.  This is a virus we are talking about.

The Administration saw political allies in armed and angry mobs who somehow portrayed temporary rules designed to protect us all by slowing the spread of disease as a denial of their basic human rights.  And then the same administration branded as political enemies those protesting the very real and systemically ingrained deprivation of their basic human rights solely because of the color of their skin.  The irony is not lost in this very same government that politicizes everything now imposing a very narrow, strict view of what can be called political opinion for asylum purposes.

Regulations may define or clarify laws, but may not rewrite them.  And the courts need only defer to the Department’s interpretation where the language of the law itself is ambiguous.  Courts may go to great lengths and employ all tools of construction at their disposal before deeming a statute ambiguous.

Looking to the Refugee Act, the courts will find that  in the 40 years since its passage, the only amendment relating to its definition of political opinion expanded the meaning of that term.  In 1996, the Republican-controlled Congress amended the refugee definition to read that coercive abortion and sterilization procedures constitute persecution on account of the victim’s political opinion.  Neither the wording of the statute nor its application by the BIA require any inquiry into the motives or beliefs of the victim of the coercive family planning policy.  In other words, a woman need not declare in an online manifesto that she will become pregnant as a statement of protest against an oppressive government’s policy.  One at risk of abortion for any pregnancy by law fears persecution on account of her political opinion.

The proposed regulations acknowledge this.  However, they fail to reconcile how the rest of the proposed language on this topic, the first attempt ever to restrict by either statute or regulation what may constitute a political opinion, is consistent with Congress’s adoption of such an expansive view of political opinion to allow even an accidental pregnancy to satisfy the term’s definition.

The Department provides a weak justification for interjecting itself into the matter in the first place, claiming that the evolving state of case law makes it just too difficult for immigration judges to apply the law consistently.  Any pretense of providing clarification vanishes upon attempting to decipher the proposed guidance on the topic.  Under the proposed rule, immigration judges, asylum officers, and the BIA will be precluded from granting asylum based on a political opinion “defined solely by generalized disapproval of, disagreement with, or opposition to criminal, terrorist, gang, guerilla, or other non-state organizations absent expressive behavior in furtherance of a cause against such organizations related to efforts by the state to control such organizations or behavior that is antithetical to or otherwise opposes the ruling legal entity of the state or a legal sub-unit of the state.”  What could be clearer than that?

As its sole example of the confusion that purportedly warrants the administration stepping in, the proposal cites two recent decisions.  The first (which we can assume the administration doesn’t like) is the Second Circuit’s recent decision in Hernandez-Chacon v. Barr, holding that in resisting rape by an MS-13 member, the asylum applicant expressed “her opposition to the male-dominated social norms in El Salvador and her taking a stance against a culture that perpetuates female subordination and the brutal treatment of women.”  

The other case referenced was a 15 year old Fourth Circuit decision, Saldarriaga v. Gonzales, which the Department describes as holding that “disapproval of a drug cartel is not a political opinion.”  In its attempt to demonstrate that immigration judges sitting in the jurisdictions of the Second and Fourth Circuits might reach different results, the Department conveniently omits a much more recent Fourth Circuit decision, Alvarez Lagos v. Barr, which found unrefuted evidence that the Barrio 18 gang imputed an anti-gang political opinion to the asylum-seeker’s nonpayment of extortion and flight to the U.S.  Including that decision would have cleared up the purported confusion used to justify the new rules, so the proposal simply ignored it.

But even accepting the Department’s view that different circuits might take different views on this topic, and that somehow, it's the responsibility of someone like Stephen Miller, as opposed to the Supreme Court, to resolve such conflict, would applying that garbled definition cited above (and no, it does not become clearer with repeated reading) change the outcome of Hernandez-Chacon?  Because in the view of the court, the asylum applicant in that case did not simply express a generalized disapproval of a gang.  Her opposition to systemic injustice perpetuating brutality against women, who are viewed as a subordinate class, is an expression of something much larger, in which the government is implicated.

Grasping at additional straws, the Department also pointed to one sentence in a BIA decision from 1996, Matter of S-P-, stating the need in that case to examine whether the persecutors were motivated at least in part by their belief that the asylum applicant held political views “antithetical to the government.”  This, according to the administration, is proof that only views antithetical to the government can be political opinion.  However, in that case, the asylum seeker had been arrested, detained for six months, interrogated, and tortured by the government, specifically, government soldiers.  So in determining whether such persecution was on account of the applicant’s political opinion, in that particular case, the Board obviously focused on whether those soldiers thought the victims views were anti-government.  The sentence in no way intended to state that under all circumstances must political opinion be one that is directly aimed at the government.  By analogy, the BIA didn’t say that only women can be members of particular social groups because in one gender-based case, it analyzed whether the social group elements were “fundamental to the individual identity of a young woman.”  See Matter of Kasinga, 21 I&N Dec. 357, 366 (BIA 1996).  The point is, the Board used the language necessary to decide the case before it, and for the Department to now pretend otherwise is disingenuous.


  1.  Atle Grahl-Madsen, The Status of Refugees in International Law 193 (1966)."

Copyright 2020 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.