Written by: Steven Thal & Duane W. Krohnke
The U.S. Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) has proposed a rule that would significantly shorten the time for asylum seekers to file their paperwork for asylum and to amend that paperwork. Given our experience working with such individuals, I filed with the EOIR a comment objecting to that proposed rule. Here is that comment followed by another objection by a Minnesota lawyer and friend, Duane W. Krohnke.
Steven Thal’s Objection to the Proposed Rule
I have been practicing immigration law since 1982 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I also am a past Chair of the Immigration Section of the Minnesota State Bar Association. I have served as a past Chair of the Minnesota/Dakotas American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) Chapter and previously served as its Vice Chair and Secretary/Treasurer. I have served on the AILA Essential Workers Committee, AILA Immigration Works Committee. The law firm I established currently has three full-time associate attorneys involved in our practice.
First, I endorse the comments on this proposed rule made by my friend and fellow Minnesota attorney, Duane W. Krohnke.
Second, although my two associates and I along with other full-time Minnesota immigration attorneys represent some asylum seekers on a pro bono basis, the demand for such services exceeds our collective ability to do so. Therefore, we need the assistance of non-immigration attorneys to be pro bono lawyers for other asylum seekers after these lawyers have obtained education about asylum law from Advocates for Human Rights. In short, the only way that asylum applicants in the Twin Cities and Minnesota can obtain a pro bono attorney is through organizations like Advocates.
Third, I would add that it would be nearly impossible to meet the proposed deadlines in this proposed rule given the difficulty in reaching clients who are in detention in remotely held jail facilities, especially since ICE can move these individuals without prior notification. Just getting a G-28 Notice of Appearance of Attorney signed is a logistical nightmare. Gathering evidence, locating witnesses, obtaining supporting evidence cannot be accomplished effectively within the short times in the proposed rule.
Duane W. Krohnke’s Objection to the Proposed Rule
“I am writing to oppose EOIR’s proposed rule to curtail human rights of asylum seekers by limiting timelines for applications and unlawfully restricting the type of evidence presented. The rule represents yet another attempt to restrict the right of people to obtain protection from persecution and torture—rights that the U.S. has agreed to meaningfully implement. By putting up nearly-insurmountable obstacles in that process, this proposed rule violates the rights of asylum seekers and, therefore, U.S. and international law. For the following reasons, I request that this rule be withdrawn in its entirety.”
I. “The 15-day filing deadline for asylum- and withholding-only removal proceedings will contravene our international and domestic laws.”
”The proposed rule will violate our obligations under the UN Refugee Convention and U.S. law by impinging on the ability for people in asylum- and withholding-only proceedings to adequately prepare their case. The rule proposes to require filing within 15 days of the person’s first hearing. For most in asylum- and withholding-only proceedings, this will be an impossible task as many are recently-arrived in the U.S., lack sufficient language skills to prepare a filing that must be in English, lack the resources to pay the now-required $50 fee, and are unlikely to secure reliable counsel on that timeline. Asylum seekers are entitled to present their case and be represented by counsel. This new rule infringes on those rights and must be withdrawn. Moreover, the rule will unduly impact attorneys and service providers—particularly nonprofit providers—who will be overburdened and unable to find pro bono counsel willing to complete applications on such a timeline”
II. “The proposed restrictions on evidence are a blatant attempt to deny asylum protections and improperly restrict due process.”
“The proposed changes to evidence are unlawful and blatantly targeted to discourage asylum applications. This violates our obligations under the UN Refugee Convention as well as U.S. law.”
“The proposed rule proposes to make all evidence other than U.S. government reports presumptively unreliable. Such change would allow immigration judges to discount local and international news sources, reports by both local and international nongovernmental organizations and even United Nations reports. The only evidence under the new rule that would be presumed credible would be reports prepared by the U.S. Government, i.e., opposing counsel in an asylum case.”
“This rule is unjustified and must be withdrawn as local and international sources provide nuanced and expert analysis that the U.S Government reports often lack due to capacity, know-how and diplomatic pressures. Moreover, because U.S. Government reports will be prepared by the same branch as the opposing counsel in asylum cases, the rule violates basic understandings of due process rights by presumptively finding one side credible. And, the rule allows immigration judges to introduce their own evidence into the record, further violating due process by eliminating their role as a neutral arbiter.”
III. “The proposed 30-day timeframe for correcting errors will deny asylum to those who need protection, thereby contravening international and domestic law on nonrefoulment.”
“The proposed rule further violates asylum seekers’ rights by restricting their ability to file an application. The proposed rule, though espousing efficient processing of applications, removes the requirement that EOIR return an application within 30 days of filing or presume it properly filed. Yet, it then gives the asylum seeker only 30 days to correct any deficiencies and will deem abandoned and deny any application not corrected in that time. This rule is a clear attempt to allow the Government to deny bona fide asylum claims under the guise of procedural efficiencies. Moreover, it will violate our international nonrefoulment obligations by denying asylum applications due to procedural defects rather than substance and, therefore, returning people to countries in which they will be persecuted or tortured.”
IV. “The proposed 180-day case completion timeline and restrictions on continuances improperly penalizes asylum applicants for the court’s inefficiencies.”
“The proposed rule passes-on to the applicant the inefficiencies and failure of EOIR to provide sufficient resources—while eliminating case management techniques such as administrative closure—by requiring applications be adjudicated within 180 days absent a very limited set of exceptional circumstances. The rule will mean in practice that bona fide asylum applicants are denied and removed to countries in which they will face persecution or torture because they will be foreclosed from requesting continuances to sufficiently prepare their case. By essentially barring continuances and demanding immigration judges adjudicate cases on impossible timelines given backlog and complexity of asylum cases—as well as the myriad new restrictions and processing requirements created over the past four years— the proposed rule will result in improperly decided cases, increasing the rate of appeals and threatening to deny those who truly need our protection. Such a timeline will also present immense challenges to attorneys and pro bono service providers who will be challenged to represent clients to the best of their abilities without the ability to request time to prepare. This infringes on the due process rights of asylum clients and should be withdrawn.”
V. “My Personal Experience As a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer Demonstrates the Utter Insanity of this Proposed Regulation.”
“In the mid-1980s I was a partner in a major Minneapolis law firm with 20 years of experience representing fee-paying clients in business litigation. I had not studied immigration law in law school or thereafter and had no knowledge of that field in general or refugee and asylum law in particular. But for various professional and personal reasons, I decided that I wanted to be a pro bono lawyer for an asylum seeker from Central America.”
“Fortunately for me and many other Minnesota lawyers, then and now, a Minnesota non-profit organization—[Minnesota] Advocates for Human Rights—provided a course in refugee and asylum law for lawyers like me and the support of experienced immigration lawyers that enabled me and others, then and now, to become pro bono asylum lawyers.”
“With that support from this system and my law firm, I thus embarked in the mid-1980’s on my first pro bono case for a Salvadoran asylum seeker and tried the case in the Immigration Court with the assistance of an experienced immigration attorney. We lost the case, but filed an appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals, and under the laws at that time our client maintained his work permit and continued to live and work in the Twin Cities.”
“Thereafter with the assistance of [Minnesota] Advocates for Human Rights I was a pro bono attorney for another Salvadoran asylum seeker, whose case prompted me in April 1989 to go to that country, at my own expense, to do some investigations in his case and learn more about that country more generally. This trip was during the Salvadoran Civil War and on the day that I arrived her attorney general was assassinated with a car bomb. That subsequent week, therefore, was tense and dangerous, but to my surprise turned out to be the most important religious experience of my life as I started to learn about the courageous work of Archbishop (now Saint) Oscar Romero, the Jesuit priests at the University of Central America (six of whom were murdered by the Salvadoran military later that same year), Bishop Menardo Gomez of the Lutheran Church of El Salvador and many others. Afterwards my second Salvadoran client was granted protection by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.”
“In the 1990s I was a successful pro bono lawyer for an Afghan’s affirmative application for asylum and later for U.S. citizenship. Thereafter until my retirement in 2001 I also had success as a pro bono attorney for asylum seekers from Colombia, Somalia and Burma. All of this was made possible by the assistance of Advocates for Human Rights and experienced immigration lawyers and by the support of my law firm.”
“As a result of this experience, I can testify that asylum seekers in the U.S. desperately need the assistance and guidance of able pro bono attorneys since almost all such individuals do not have the financial resources to retain fee-based attorneys.”
“Moreover, I can testify to the time constraints associated with such pro bono representation.”
“First, organizations like Advocates have procedures to screen potential asylum applicants and identify those who appear to have credible claims and then seek to find an a competent attorney who is willing to represent, pro bono, such applicants. These organizations also have to develop and produce at least annual programs to educate potential pro bono attorneys about refugee and asylum law and develop other ways to recruit such lawyers to volunteer their services to asylum seekers. That takes time and effort and financial support by charitable contributions from the community. Advocates for Human Rights continues to be successful in these efforts.”
“Second, once an attorney agrees to take such a case, pro bono, he or she needs to fit that case into his or her caseload and obligations to existing clients, especially fee-paying clients. Once the attorney starts working on the pro bono asylum case, he or she may identify documents that need to be obtained from another place in the U.S. or foreign country and/or need to be translated from a foreign language into English. An interpreter may be needed for conferences with the client or other witnesses. Eventually the attorney must prepare documents for the asylum application and appear with the client in Immigration Court or at interviews on affirmative claims. In addition, the case may require the attorney to travel to another location. All of these actions by an attorney are necessary to provide competent advice and service to the pro bono client and all have their time requirements.”
“Third, these time pressures on the relevant non-profit organizations and pro bono asylum attorneys are even more intense now in the midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic disruptions and complications.”
“In short, it would be impossible under the proposed regulation for asylum seekers to obtain the competent pro bono representation they so desperately need. The proposed regulation is utter insanity.”
For the foregoing reasons, we call on the Department to withdraw the proposed rule in its entirety.
 Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), Procedures for Asylum and Withholding of Removal (Sept. 23, 2020).