Archive for the 'immigration policy' Category

Refugees, 2013: Changing faces, changing places, changing policies

This week’s Economist has a fine summary of how refugees have grown in number and diversity, and the international community’s response to these changes. Among things to note is the continuing trend observed a few years ago in a JAMA commentary (and critiqued by a skeptic or two… oops) of urban resettlement, which UNHCR now says it prefers to people resettling in refugee camps. UNHCR is also more explicit about its policy encouraging local political integration and even economic development as solutions in long-term refugee crises. These efforts are mirrored by changes in policies of countries who receive the most refugees (overwhelmingly in the developing world).

David Apollo Kazungu, Uganda’s Commissioner for Refugees, says it no longer makes sense to treat refugees as a humanitarian issue. “Those who stay for years throw up developmental problems for us, such as how to find enough land, water and jobs for everyone,” he argues. Uganda has already tried to improve the lot for the nearly 200,000 refugees it hosts by placing them in settlements rather than camps, and by giving them land to farm.

Within this discussion is the acknowledgement that forced migration and voluntary (or economic) migration are not entirely separate phenomena. Read the entire article here.

Sacrificing the Violence Against Women Act in order to prevent protecting immigrant women

In recent years, more and more Immigration Courts in the Unites States have been granting political asylum to women who are victims of domestic violence and can’t get protection in their own countries. This is not really news (it was covered in these pages a couple years), but the issue seems to have raised a bit of a ruckus in the hallowed halls of the U.S. Senate recently.

Like most bills, the U.S. Federal Violence Against Women Act of 1994 needs to reauthorized every now and again in order to fund its various activities. Activities the bill funds generally are along the lines of domestic violence prevention programs and provision of forensic “rape kits” to ensure that proper evidence is collected following sexual assaults. During the reauthorization process a few edits can be made. This year’s reauthorization almost didn’t make it out of committee when all Republican Senators on the Judiciary Committee voted to keep it from a vote on the Senate floor. What was the problem? From today’s New York Times Editorial page:

The main sticking points seemed to be language in the bill to ensure that victims are not denied services because they are gay or transgender and a provision that would modestly expand the availability of special visas for undocumented immigrants who are victims of domestic violence .

Senators on the Judiciary Committee were evidently willing to sacrifice protections for all women in order to prevent protections for battered undocumented immigrant women. The bill made it through committee, and now it will go to the floor. Think this is over?

Mustering the 60 votes needed to get the bill through the full Senate will not be easy, even though previous reauthorizations were approved by unanimous consent. Recalcitrant Republicans should be made to explain to voters why they refuse to get behind the federal fight against domestic violence and sexual assaults.

A reader’s guide to asylum coverage in the wake of DSK: Another look at the numbers

The sordid tale of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the Sofitel maid from Guinea has ironically put the United States asylum system on trail in the popular press. On July 11, 2011, the New York Times ran an article on a “shadowy industry dedicated to asylum fraud.” The Times piece and an associated “Room for Debate” supports the general thesis that there is “evidence of widespread fraud” in the asylum system. In the August 1st edition of the New Yorker magazine, Suketu Mehta tells the story of “Caroline,” an asylum seeker from Congo who admits to lying in order to make her already justifiable asylum claim more convincing; Mehta’s story was picked up on July 25th by National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, which connected it explicitly to the DSK story. Both New Yorker and New York Times stories cite numbers from a report by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review. The use of this report to support the idea that fraud is widespread displays a general ignorance of the asylum system and commits a major oversight of what the numbers really say about recent trends in asylum claims.

The numbers and the asylum process

The Times piece cites a figure that immigration courts in the U.S. granted (approved) 51% of cases as evidence of the system’s credulity. Setting aside assumptions about what the “true fraud percentage” should be for the moment, this figure makes sense if you think the asylum system is a single process. However, ever since the 1996 Immigration Reform Act, when asylum was tightened in order to prevent fraud, getting asylum has been a two-tiered process, one called Affirmative asylum, and one called Defensive asylum. The Affirmative process is the initial review of applicants’ cases by an Asylum Officer during a single Asylum Interview. Asylum Officers are experts in conditions of the applicant’s country, and are charged with approving cases that are consistent with facts on the ground in applicants’ countries, and to deny cases that lack sufficient evidence or are suspect. Here is the DOJ’s description int he report cited by the Times and New Yorker:

Aliens who file affirmatively with DHS [Department of Homeland Security], but whose requests are not granted, may be placed in removal proceeding and referred to the appropriate immigration court for further review of the case.

In other words, the Affirmative process is designed to identify and approve the easy cases and refer the rest on to Immigration Court (see below). According to the DOJ’s report, the approval rate in the Affirmative system was 61% in 2010, lower in the five years prior.

Defensive applications for asylum are processed in Immigration Court. Immigration Court is the redheaded stepchild of the U.S. justice system, with no stated rules of evidence and dockets that would make a Criminal or Civil Court judge nauseous. Asylum cases in Immigration Court generally proceed over two or three meetings over the course of two years (lately even longer), leaving applicants in legal limbo in the meantime. The Defensive process is designed to be adversarial, with a prosecutor poking holes in the applicants’ cases and applicants – or applicants’ lawyers – defending their cases. According to the DOJ’s report, approval in the Defensive system was 35% in 2010, and it has been at this rate (between 34-37%) since 2006.

The Times article notes that rates of approval are up – but according to DOJ they are only up in the system designed to deal with the easy cases.  Rates have held steady, at just over a third, in the system designed for the cases with insufficient documentation – and, speaking to the interest of the recent media coverage, presumably more likely to be fraudulent. Bottom line: The part of the system most likely to handle fraudulent cases rejects two-thirds of cases, and that proportion has not changed substantially in years.

There’s a larger problem, of course, in stating that any percentage of approvals is evidence of fraud: There’s no way of knowing what the “true fraud percentage” really is. The Times piece admits this, but suggests that the rates in the DOJ report are too high, singling out New York City approval rates of 76% in 2010. The New York rate comes from the division of total completions in New York in 2010 by receipts (Table 6 in the DOJ report), and is, first of all, wrong — completions are not grants, and if you look at the chart you’ll see that the same math in other districts where completions outnumbered receipts would result in rates that are greater than 100% — but is more fundamentally misleading in that it assumes that 24% is an underestimate of a true percentage that just can’t be seen in these numbers. The DOJ report was a simple review of approvals and denials, not an experimental study or even an observational study of asylum fraud. There is no way to justify the description that fraud is “widespread” from the report cited in the article. The New Yorker article is a little bit better in its use of numbers, but Mehta’s portrayal on NPR interview that “most of these stories” asylees tell include “a little bit of untruth” is completely unknowable from the evidence he gathered. He hung around one woman, whose story may or may not be like “most” others. Her story is  compelling but that does not make it representative.

The story the DOJ numbers do support

Now, how about those numbers actually displayed in the DOJ report that the article cites? Consider the following, directly from the DOJ report:

As shown in Figure 14 below, asylum receipts declined by 42 percent and asylum completions declined by 30 percent from FY 2006 to FY 2010.

Here’s Figure 14, below:

It’s a little fuzzy here, but the story is clear: Since 2007, asylum claims (“receipts”) and completed cases (both approvals and denials) have dropped by a little less than half.  Completely ignored by the Times and the New Yorker, fewer and fewer people are claiming asylum, and those that are wait longer to have their cases completed. Why might this be? Has stepped up immigration enforcement resulted in more legitimate cases not getting to the U.S.? Or are the numbers simply a result of the economic downturn? And why the marked difference in receipts and completions  in 2010? Hm, there’s a story.


There’s another larger story about asylum’s place in the immigration debate in the DOJ report, though you’d have to contextualize it a bit: In 2010, among completed cases, approved and denied cases together accounted for just under 20,000 cases nationally. For those concerned that asylum provides a “free pass” for undocumented immigrants, consider this: Of an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., those attempting to get in through asylum in 2010 accounted for approximately 0.17% (that’s 20,000 divided by 12 million), or less than one fifth of one percent.

Defining forced migration: Report from the Northwestern University Conference on Human Rights

The Northwestern University Conference on Human Rights (NUCHR) is in its 8th year, and this year’s topic is Human Rights in Transit: Issues of Forced Migration. NUCHR is probably the best student-organized conference on human rights issues, addressing a given topic over a three days of lectures, study sections, and speeches. NUCHR involves college students from around the US through a lengthy application process which attracts hundreds. Successful applicants become NUCHR “Delegates,” with assigned working groups and specific areas in which they become experts. After a day and half here, I can tell you that this is really one top-notch group of thinkers and doers, at any level of the academic hierarchy.

Today’s panels were “Defining Forced Migration” and “The Displaced: The Psychological and Cultural Effects of Forced Migration” (which is why yours truly is here — I was a panelist in the latter). Defining Forced Migration featured legal scholars Deborah Anker of Harvard Law School Immigration and Refugee Clinical Program, Howard Adelman from the Griffith University in Brisbane (Australia), Susan Gzesh of the Human Rights Program at University of Chicago, and Maureen Lynch of Refugees International in Washington, DC. It’s always instructive for refugee service providers (and people who think a lot about providing refugees services, like me) to hear legal perspectives on our field. Anker made the point that refugee law is first and foremost “palliative, not political” — meaning that it is primarily designed to relieve tension instead of solve the difficult situations that cause displacement — and so it’s place in the “human rights regime” (which is political) is tenuous. I have often thought that refugee healthcare — also primarily palliative — is in a similar bind; while healing may have political consequences in that it may make people able to more easily demand that their rights be respected, it is not the case that healing is in and of itself a political act (not usually anyways). When people ask me about “health and human rights” I usually tell them that what I do is health, rarely human rights.

Howard Adelman gave a comprehensive history of refugee policy, and said something I had been completely ignorant of: the first refugee policies in international law were Wilsonian (as in Woodrow Wilson) efforts to bolster the idea of nation states by transferring minority ethnic groups out of one state to others. In other words, their goal was to make homogenous states and these “ethnically pure” states would somehow be less likely to have internal conflicts. It wasn’t until after World War II (during which ethnic purity had some rather nasty consequences) that refugee law began to shift to protection of individuals who would be persecuted if they returned to their home countries. This was primarily designed with Cold War refugees in mind. Adelman also pointed out that the “right of return” — a value at the intersection of human rights and refugee rights — has never been successfully implemented by anything other than force (e.g., Tutsis in Rwanda); most peacefully negotiated returns have involved only a few, mostly older refugee returnees and many who came home, sold their stuff, and went back to their (richer) host countries (e.g., Bosnian refugees). Adelman’s history lesson leaves us with some sobering contemplation about where we go from here — although exactly what we should do differently isn’t quite clear.

The war next door, and the US’s newest refugee population

Refugees made the front page of the Sunday New York Times this morning, and above the fold at that; but you might be surprised to learn the origin of the US’s fastest growing refugee population: Mexico. Drug wars in the northern state of Juárez along the border with Texas are sending thousands fleeing north.

In El Paso alone, the police estimate that at least 30,000 Mexicans have moved across the border in the past two years because of the violence in Juárez and the river towns to the southeast. So many people have left El Porvenir and nearby Guadalupe Bravos that the two resemble ghost towns, former residents say.

Similar to Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s, drug-related violence in Mexico has displaced thousands; unlike Colombia, many displaced Mexicans are seeking shelter outside of their country. Although a few incidents of drug-related violence have occurred on the US side of the Rio Grande, Texan border towns like El Paso and Fort Hancock remain remarkably peaceful. This combined with regional family ties and a long history of border crossings (and borders crossing; Texas to California and north to Oregon and Wyoming were, after all, part of Mexico for 300 years before they were part of the US) make fleeing north an obvious choice.

The Times article, written by James C. McKinley, Jr., presents several cases that will sound familiar to anyone who has worked with war-affected populations. New arrivals report sleep disturbances (and being able to get some sleep for the first time in weeks), pervasive anxiety symptoms, and that their children only play one repetitive macabre game, in this case called “sicarios” — hitmen.

So, are we welcoming Mexican forced migrants with open arms?

“This is an emergency situation, a war,” said Jorge Luis Aguirre, a journalist who himself has asked for asylum after his life was threatened in 2008 in Ciudad Juárez. “It’s a question of life and death for these people.”

But few Mexicans are granted asylum. Over the last three federal fiscal years, immigration judges heard 9,317 requests across the country, and granted only 183.

Fort Hancock has had a surge in applications in March and April, officials said. All told the number of people asking for asylum at ports of entry along the border alone has climbed steadily, to 338 for the federal fiscal year ended last October, from 179 two years before.

With much of the last twenty years spent preventing illegal immigration from Mexico, it is of course not surprising that immigration authorities would find asylum claims by all Mexicans suspect. But with the recent recession in the US, cross border immigration has decreased to some of the lowest levels in years. The refugees from the Mexican borderlands are not coming for economic reasons, they are running for their lives.

They are being met in this country by a harsh anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican climate. Not far to the west, the Arizona legislature has passed the most stringent immigration enforcement law in the US, one that asks and allows local police to determine whether someone is in US illegally using “reasonable suspicion” alone. Although police chiefs and civil libertarians (as well as immigrant advocacy groups) have spoken out against the bill, Governor Jan Brewer is expected to sign it into law within the next few weeks.

ICE systematically hid the truth on immigrant deaths in detention

The other big story relevant for readers of this blog is the New York Times’ expose on Immigration & Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) systematic cover-up of persistent medical malfeasance in immigration detention facilities. The negligent healthcare available in immigration facilities has long been known and protested by a number of us, but only in the past few years with a number of publicized deaths has it got media attention.

I won’t go into this much, as you can connect to the article here . Make sure you watch the video along the sidebar, “What happened to Boubacar Bah?” I first saw the footage a few months ago (most of it has made the rounds of those of us concerned about detention conditions); it is chilling that this can happen in a land which calls itself a “land of immigrants.” Oh, and if you think this is some holdover from the previous administration, think again: ICE has been on a tear lately, detaining immigrants left and right, and several — one of them a patient of mine, in fact — have significant health problems.

Cambodia 2009: Khmer Rouge and expelling asylum seekers… for a price

2009 will be remembered in Cambodia as the year of the first Khmer Rouge Tribunal. Duch (born Kang Kek Lew), head of the torture center S-21 during the Khmer Rouge was put on trial, causing considerable consternation for some, and some small measure of consolation for many who lived through that era (1975-79). This soul-searching, however, seems to have had little effect on the Cambodian government, as was recently shown by Cambodia’s expulsion of Uighur asylum seekers in exchange for foreign investment from China. (More background here.) Twenty Uighurs had sought asylum in Cambodia following China’s crackdown following the unrest in western China this past July. For those of you who don’t know, the Uighurs are a Turkic Muslim minority in China, and have in the past few years resisted aspects of Beijing’s development strategy of the Xinjiang Uighur Autnomous Region (which, of course, is not really autonomous), involving encouraging Han Chinese from the East to “go west.” Incidently, Xiinjiang’s Governor, the architect of the repression of protests this summer, had a similar job before this one: head of the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

Why did the Uighurs go to Cambodia? If you look on a map of Asia, it’d be hard from them to go farther and remain on the mainland. Well, Cambodia is one of only a very few countries in the region to have signed UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The others in East Asia are Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and… China. (Central Asia has a few signatories, though I might think twice before applying for asylum in Kazakhstan; South Asia, surprisingly to me, has none.) During the Khmer Rouge millions fled Cambodia to neighboring states as refugees (neighboring states that were not particularly welcoming), and many sought asylum around the world. So it makes sense that if any country in the Asia were going to be sensitive to the needs of refugees and asylum seekers it would be Cambodia. And there are, therefore, asylum seekers from around the world who have successfully sought asylum in Cambodia.

But China is the biggest investor in Cambodia, and therefore has a voice in Cambodian affairs. The Chinese are calling the twenty Uighurs criminals (of course, in a country that doesn’t allow protest, protestors are criminals), so Cambodia calls them “illegal aliens,” and expels them. Two days after the expulsion, Cambodia signed a deal with China for $850 million.

April 2017
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