by Alexandra Dufresne

Alexandra Dufresne is a Trustee of Asylos. She is an American lawyer specialising in refugee, immigration, and child law and policy. She taught seminars in law and policy at Yale from 2006-2015 and currently teaches law at several Swiss institutions of higher learning.

In the U.S., claims for asylum and other forms of human rights protection (Special Immigrant Juvenile status, withholding of removal, and relief under the Torture Convention) are often won or lost on the facts, not the law. When I taught refugee law in the classroom, my students and I focused on developing cutting-edge legal arguments. But when we represented refugees before the Immigration Court, we quickly learned to focus, above all, on questions of proof. 

“A meticulously-documented record can often make the difference between security and danger -- even life and death . . . ”

A meticulously-documented record can often make the difference between security and danger -- even life and death -- for women, men, and children who seek refuge outside their home country. In the U.S., the burden of proving “a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion” lies squarely on the asylum seeker, not the government, and “corroboration” of an asylum seeker’s testimony is almost always required. 

But asylum officers and Immigration Judges are human too. They will sometimes interpret protection law generously to avoid deporting someone to certain death, as an Immigration Judge did when we showed him, through meticulously-researched documentary evidence, that our client who needed dialysis would die within a matter of weeks if deported to Haiti. Yet when faced with thousands of potentially meritorious claims, it is still too easy for decision-makers to reject applications because of unclear, incomplete, or inconsistent factual records.

“The devil is in the details … Relying on general reports is not enough.”

I had the luxury of representing clients at a clinic at Boston College Law School, where large teams of students researched the human rights information necessary to support our clients’ testimony. The exhibits we submitted numbered in the hundreds of pages, painstakingly indexed to every detail in our clients’ affidavits. The U.S. government provides generalized human rights information through its State Department Human Rights reports, and a quick Google search will turn up human rights information from leading NGOs like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. But the devil is in the details. In most protection cases in the U.S., adjudicators expect extensive documentation of the specific persecution risks that an individual faces as well as evidence that the persecution feared is “on account of” one of the grounds set forth in the Refugee Convention. Determining whether these standards have been met is a detailed, individualized, fact-intensive inquiry. As a result, relying on general reports is not enough. For example, it is not enough to submit a report that shows that gangs in Honduras kill innocent people. Rather, one should endeavor to submit documentation that shows that “In x town between the dates of y and z, gang xx killed yy people on account of zz and threatened to kill others in the same situation--a credible threat, which local authorities are unable to address, as evidenced by sources xxx and yyy."

Our clients were lucky. Many asylum seekers in the U.S. do not have access to counsel, as there is no right to a government-appointed attorney in immigration proceedings, even for children or individuals without money, education, or English language skills. Those who are able to afford private counsel or find a pro bono clinic to help them are often represented by lawyers with enormous caseloads. Given the responsibility of helping as many people as possible with very limited resources, these lawyers are sometimes forced to take a “cookie cutter” approach to country conditions research.

“Many asylum-seekers in the U.S. don’t have access to counsel, as there is no right to a government-appointed attorney in immigration proceedings.”

This is where Asylos comes in. The highly trained volunteers at Asylos -- often PhD students or postdoctoral fellows -- are the equivalent of the teams of law students who prepared our client’s cases, except that Asylos volunteers often have the added advantage of country of origin expertise and language knowledge. Asylos makes the difference between a generic, lackluster factual record and a comprehensive, meticulously documented factual record that addresses the most pressing questions and doubt the adjudicator is likely to have. This helps to ensure that asylum determinations are fair and accurate, based on the most comprehensive, reliable, and up-to-date information.  

Not every client whom Asylos helps wins. Immigrants in need of protection face so many barriers: detention, lack of counsel, trauma, fear, language barriers, poor translation, cultural misunderstandings, difficulties securing documentation from the home country, and loss of documents. Not every asylum seeker has a strong case on the merits. And U.S. protection law is very strict, sometimes denying asylum to those who need it most. But Asylos’s work can, and does, make a difference in the large number of cases that could reasonably “go either way,” depending on the strength of the documentary record. If you’ve ever met an asylum-seeker or fled persecution yourself, then you know: helping to spare someone from the terror of deportation is an amazing thing.

If you are an attorney or NGO worker representing asylum-seekers in the U.S. and elsewhere, you can access Asylos’ research database and make a research request on our Resources Page.

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