Entire jurisdictions in the United States have become so hostile to asylum seekers and their representatives that the U.S. government, and its immigration court system, is failing to deliver on its international and national obligation to protect them. The asylum-seekers who end up in one of these hostile jurisdictions, which advocates call “asylum-free zones,” face numerous challenges to obtaining humanitarian protection as a result.
To highlight this troubling trend, on December 9, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR), held a public hearing focused on the prevalence of asylum free zones in certain immigration courts around the country. In these asylum free zones, it is virtually impossible for asylum-seekers to obtain, or even seek, asylum due to a culture of intimidation by the Courts and the lack of competent counsel.
The petitioners presented numerous crushing examples of jurisdictions with abysmal approval rates. Two of these asylum-free zones are Atlanta, Georgia, and Charlotte, North Carolina.
Petitioners at the Commission told of the disproportionately low asylum grant rates in these jurisdictions (less than 2 percent in Atlanta and less than 13 percent in Charlotte), and troubling practices in the courts (judges rolling their eyes, disparaging statements from the bench, a practice of not recording the entirety of the hearings, giving asylum seekers representing themselves only 1 to 2 weeks to prepare their applications).
According to the petitioners, many asylum seekers in these jurisdictions do not even appeal after Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), the immigration court system, denies their asylum case because they know the case will go back before the same judge, and because they have been made to understand that the process is fundamentally unfair. The petitions said EOIR discourages asylum seekers by failing to believe in the validity of the claim, or not allowing them to even file their applications for relief in the first place. At one point, a petitioner noted, “[the Court] often serves as a second prosecutor.”
Numerous organizations from around the country, spearheaded by the Centers of Excellence, petitioned the IACHR for this hearing and made certain asks. They included:
- Issuing a public statement acknowledging concerns about these asylum-free zones;
- Conducting visits to immigration courts around the country to investigate disproportionately low asylum rates;
- Production of a report on the disparity among jurisdictions.
During the hearing, the government responded by noting various efforts it has made to address concerns like these in the past and that they take these concerns very seriously. The Commissioners also had an opportunity to speak during the hearing. One of them said:
“I do not believe you can have these asylum-free zones in a democracy. Article 27 recognizes a right to asylum. I believe there cannot be a state in which judges refuse to apply international standards while others do. This is a very troubling situation.”
It is heartening to see that an international body dedicated to the protection and promotion of human rights in the Americas has acknowledged that it is simply unacceptable to have asylum-free zones in the United States. We hope that EOIR and the U.S. government will take note, and move to address these violations and to ensure that asylum-seekers in the United States, regardless of where they end up, get a fair chance to present their case in court in a meaningful way.
Photo by Phil Roeder.