By Paul Wickham Schmidt

Exclusive for Courtside

Jan. 29, 2020

The Second Circuit’s decision in Hernández-Chacon v. Barr exposes deep fundamental constitutional flaws in our Immigration Court system. While the instructive language on how many women resisting gangs could and should be qualifying for asylum (and many more should be getting relief under the CAT) is refreshing, the remedy, a remand to a failed and constitutionally defective system, is woefully inadequate. 

Indeed, just recently, a fellow Circuit, the Seventh, ripped the BIA for contemptuously disobeying a direct court order. Maybe the Board will pay attention to the Second Circuit’s directive in this case, maybe they won’t. Maybe they will think of a new reason to deny as all too often happens on Circuit Court remands these days. 

I actually have no doubt that the Immigration Judge involved in this case, who recognized the dire situation of women in El Salvador, and grated CAT withholding, will “do the right thing” and grant asylum with the benefit of Judge Chin’s opinion. But, today’s BIA has a number of dedicated “asylum deniers” in its ranks; individuals who as Immigration Judges denied approaching 100% of the asylum claims coming before them, some of them notorious with the private bar for particular hostility to claims from women from the Northern Triangle.

That appeared to be their “selling point” for AG Billy Barr in elevating them to the BIA: Create the same reliable “Asylum Free Zone” at the BIA that has been created by these judges and others like them in other parts of the country. It’s a great way to discourage bona fide asylum claims, which. appears to be the key to the “Barr plan.”

One might ask what Billy Barr is doing running something purporting to be a “court system” in the first place. Outrageous on its face! The short answer: Article III complicity and dereliction of Constitutional duty! But, I’ll get to that later.

What if a panel of “Three Deniers” gets the case on remand? Will Ms Hernandez-Chacon finally get justice? Or, will she and her pro bono lawyer Heather Axford once again have to appeal to the Second Circuit just to force the BIA to finally “get the basics right?”

Individual case remands, even published ones, fail to address the serious underlying issues plaguing our Immigration Courts and threatening the very foundations of our justice system: 1) lack of fundamental knowledge of asylum law on the part of the BIA and the Immigration Courts; 2) an unconstitutional system run, and sometimes staffed, by biased, unethical anti-asylum zealots who consistently send out false or misleading messages; and 3) the inherent unfairness in a system that denies adequate access to counsel and permits the use of coercive detention and outright statutory and constitutional abrogation to consistently harm asylum seekers and others seeking justice.

I. Glaring Lack Of Asylum Legal Competence & Expertise

The Second Circuit noted three major errors in the BIA’s analysis: 1) failing to recognize that the respondent was advancing a “political persecution” argument; 2) misuse  of the concept of “victimization” as a pretext for denying a potentially valid asylum claim; and 3) failure to recognize and address the respondent’s “imputed political opinion.”

None of these mistakes is new. Advocates would tell you that the BIA and Immigration Judges make them all the time.

Nor is getting these things right “rocket science.” Really, all it would take is a body knowledgeable in and committed to the fair and generous interpretation of asylum law intended by the 1951 Convention from which our law stems and reinforced by the Supreme Court in INS v. Cardoza-Fonseca in 1987. The correct view has also been reflected in the Second Circuit’s own published jurisprudence, which the Board again ignored in this case.

For example, the Second Circuit instructed the BIA “that that the analysis of what constitutes political expression for these purposes ʺinvolves a ʹcomplex and contextual factual inquiryʹ into the nature of the asylum applicantʹs activities in relation to the political context in which the dispute took place.ʺ Castro v. Holder, 597 F.3d 93, 101 (2d Cir. 2010) (quoting Yueqing Zhang, 426 F.3d at 548).” 

This is hardly a new concept.  For example, Yueqing Zhang was published in 2005, a decade and a half ago, and reinforced by the Second Circuit on several occasions since then. Yet, both the BIA and Immigration Judges continue to ignore it when it suits their purposes. So, why would the Second Circuit believe that the Immigration Courts had suddenly “gotten religion” and would now pay attention to their admonitions on asylum law? 

As pointed out by the Second Circuit, the “mere victim” rationale, often insidiously used by the BIA and some Immigration Judges as an “easy handle” to summarily deny asylum claims, is a disingenuous hoax. All successful asylum applicants are “victims” even if not all “victims” necessarily qualify for asylum. Refugees, entitled to asylum, are a very large subset of “victims.” In this and many other cases, the BIA totally “blew by” the well established, statutorily required “mixed motive” analysis that is “Asylum Law 101.”

Also, the BIA’s failure to recognize and consider the well-established doctrine of “imputed political opinion” is inexcusable in a supposedly “expert” tribunal.

The “Article III blowoff” documented in this case is virtually inevitable in a system where the “judges” at all levels, are subject to arbitrary, unethical, and unconstitutional “performance quotas” and receive “performance evaluations” influenced by biased political officials with an interest in the outcome of cases. Indeed, former Attorney Session essentially told “his” judges that it’s “all about production.” Fairness, Due Process, and scholarship that individuals are entitled to before a tribunal simply don’t enter into the equation.

The Immigration Judge in this case has an outstanding reputation and actually did a careful job in many respects. A competent appellate tribunal would have caught the judge’s mistake on political opinion and remanded for further consideration. The case never should have reached the Second Circuit (think efficiency and why the Immigraton Courts have built unmanageable backlogs).

Moreover, an error like this by a competent and careful judge indicates the need for further positive guidance to judges on recognizing valid asylum claims. Why hasn’t the BIA published precedents reinforcing the very points made by Judge Chin in his Hernández-Chacon opinion and showing how they apply to granting asylum in real life, recurring situations, particularly those involving women from the Northern Triangle?

Instead, and in direct contradiction of the law and controlling jurisprudence, Attorney General Sessions in Matter of A-B- gave an unethical, misogynistic, and intentionally factually distorted suggestion that most women’s claims arising from persecution at the hands of gangs and abusive partners in the Northern Triangle should be “denied” on any available ground, whether warranted or not. Some Immigration Judges have correctly viewed this as “mere dicta.” But, others have viewed it as a potentially “career enhancing tip” about how “the big boss” wanted asylum seekers from the Northern Triangle treated: like dirt, or worse.

Dehumanization has always been a “key part of the plan” for Sessions, his acolyte Stephen Miller, and others of like mind in this Administration. Why have the Article III courts enabled, and in some cases approved, this neo-fascist approach to the law and humanity? That’s a great question to which the answer is not obvious. What’s the purpose of life tenure in office if it doesn’t promote courage to stand up for the rights of vulnerable individuals against invidious  intentional Government tyranny ands systemic abuses?

By ignoring the “pattern or practice” of failure by the BIA and the Immigration Courts to institutionalize the Second Circuit’s many years of prior commands for fair asylum adjudication, while ignoring the glaring, intentional barriers to fair judicial performance put in place by the political controllers of this system, the Second Circuit and the other Article IIIs simply advertise their own fecklessness and also, to some extent, intellectual dishonesty.

II. Institutional Bias Against Asylum Seekers

Both Attorney General Barr and his predecessor Jeff Sessions are biased “cheerleaders” for DHS enforcement; they are totally unqualified to act in a quasi-judicial capacity or to supervise quasi-judicial adjudicators. Their participation in and interference with fair and impartial decision making is a clear violation of Due Process and a mockery of judicial and legal ethics.

A private lawyer who so blatantly “thumbed his or her nose” at prohibitions on conflicts of interest undoubtedly would face discipline or disbarment. Yet, the Second Circuit and their fellow Circuits, as well as the Supremes, have failed to act on these obvious ethical improprieties by the DOJ and its leadership that have a direct negative impact on constitutional Due Process.

Under Trump, Attorneys General have issued number of anti-asylum “precedents” reversing prior law and practice. New Immigration Judges are selected by the Attorney General almost exclusively from the ranks of prosecutors and other Government attorneys. Those with private sector experience or experience representing migrants and asylum seekers are systematically excluded from the judiciary. How is this a fair system?

The Administration and DOJ spew forth an endless stream of anti-immigrant and anti-asylum, propaganda. They also use “performance work plans”and “numerical quotas” to drum into “judges” their responsibility to follow and implement “agency policies” rather than fairly and impartially consider the cases coming before them. This message certainly does not encourage fair and impartial adjudication. The “default message” clearly is “deny, deny, deny.”

One very fundamental problem resulting from this institutional bias against asylum seekers: The BIA’s (and now AG’s) “precedents” providing guidance to Immigration Judges fail to set forth rules and circumstances for granting asylum in meritorious cases. The need for such rules should be obvious from the Supreme Court’s 1987 decision in INS v. Cardoza-Fonseca (directing the BIA to implement a generous interpretation of “well-founded fear” standard for asylum) and the BIA’s initial response to Cardoza in Matter of Mogharrabi (directing that asylum could be granted even where the objective chance of persecution is “significantly less than . . . probable”). Most, if not all, Circuit Courts of Appeals followed suit with a series of decisions criticizing the BIA for an “overly restrictive reading” of asylum law, not true to Cardoza and their own precedent in Mogharrabi, in many unpublished cases.

But, quite intentionally in my view, the BIA and Attorney General have now strayed far from these judicial admonitions and abandoned the BIA’s own precedent in Mogharrabi. Instead, today’s administrative “precedents” read like a “how to course” in denying asylum claims. Indeed, from examining these one-sided precedents (no individual has prevailed in an “Attorney General precedent” under this Administration — DHS wins every time), one comes away with the pronounced view that asylum could almost never be granted by an Immigration Judge, no matter how great the harm or compelling the circumstances.

I once participated in an academic conference attended by Circuit Court of Appeals Judges from across the country. Most were astounded to learn how many asylum cases were actually granted by Immigration Judges. From their review of unfailingly negative BIA decisions (skewed, of course, by the Government’s inability to appeal from the BIA, another problem with the current system) they had the impression that asylum was denied nearly 100% of the time (which actually does happen in some Immigration Courts these days, as noted above).

The only way to describe this is “gross institutional corruption” starting at the top with the DOJ and the Attorney General. Even now, under these intentionally restrictive rules, more than 30% of asylum cases are granted at merits hearings before Immigration Judges, although with the lack of effective positive guidance from the BIA those rates are highly inconsistent among judges.

Within the last decade, the majority of cases were actually being grantedas the system was slowly progressing toward toward realizing the “spirit of Cardoza and Mogharrabi” However, that progress intentionally was reversed by improper political pressure to deny more Central American cases (a message that actually began under the last Administration and has been “put on steroids” by the current Administration).

III. An Inherently Unfair System

Notwithstanding the need for careful record building and detailed fact-finding as described by the Second Circuit, individuals are not entitled to appointed counsel in Immigraton Court. Through use of intentionally coercive and inhumane detention and “gimmicks” like “Remain in Mexico” the Administration strives to deny fair access to pro bono counsel and to prevent individuals from preparing and documenting complex cases.

The Article IIIs recognize the complexity of asylum cases, yet fail to “connect the dots” with the intentional systemic impediments to fair preparation and presentation thrown up by the government. The “hostile environment” for aliens and their counsel intentionally created in Immigration Court by the DOJ also works to discourage individuals from pursuing claims and getting representation.

The whole system is essentially a judicially-enabled farce. Does the Second Circuit, or anybody else, seriously think that Ms. Hernandez-Chacon would have gotten this far without the time-consuming and outstanding assistance of her pro bono lawyer, Heather Axford, of Central American Legal Assistance in Brooklyn, NY? She’s one of the top asylum litigators in the nation who used to appear before me in Arlington at the beginning of her amazing career!

How many of those “detained in the middle of nowhere,” told to “Remain in Mexico,” or, worse yet, orbited to “failed states” by Border Agents under bogus “Safe Third Country Agreements” have access to someone like Heather Axford? (It doesn’t take much imagination after reading the truth about how women are treated in El Salvador to see the outright fraud committed by the Trump Administration in entering into bogus “Safe Third Country” agreements with El Salvador and other dangerous, failing states). About none! How can the courts allow a system to keep out grinding out systemic abuse to vulnerable human beings without insisting that the essentials for fair hearings be put in place and maintained?

IV.  Conclusion

When obvious legal, analytical, and institutional problems remain unfixed more than a decade after they surfaced, the system is broken! The current Immigration Court system is patently unfair and unconstitutional. By ignoring the glaring systemic unfairness, Article III Courts become part of the problem and subject themselves to charges of fecklessness and dereliction of duty.

It’s long past time for the Article IIIs to take decisive actions to end the national disgrace and humanitarian disaster unfolding in our Immigration Courts daily. History is watching your actions and will be your judge! 

Due Process forever; Complicit courts never!

© Paul Wickham Schmidt 2020. All Rights Reserved.