If you’re scared for your life, persecuted because of your religion or your politics; if you’ve been a victim of torture at the hands of your government; if you have been repeatedly abused or raped by your spouse, and you’re seeking refuge in a land of the free, don’t go to Atlanta. Don’t go to Charlotte, either. Nor will you be likely to find safe harbor in Houston, Dallas, Omaha, or Las Vegas.
According to a petition filed before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in December by various immigration attorneys and law clinics, those American cities, which oversee immigration jurisdictions that cover large swaths of Southern and Western states, including parts of both Carolinas, Georgia, Nebraska, Nevada and Texas, have effectively become “asylum free zones,” where “asylum seekers are systematically denied protection,” regardless of the dangers they’re fleeing. According to David Baluarte, professor of law at Washington and Lee University, and director of Immigrant Rights Clinic, the judges’ actions in these asylum-free zones are not just an abrogation of our country’s moral duty to take in those fleeing for their lives—they also constitute a “violation of international human-rights obligations.”
Nationally, the average asylum-denial rate in courts overseen by the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) rose last year to around 57 percent—but in the jurisdictions cited in the IACHR petition, that rate was as high as 98 percent. According to the petition, these jurisdictions are violating the asylum seekers’ mandatory protection of non-refoulement, a principle originally enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention and incorporated into US law in the 1980 Refugee Act. Non-refoulement, a concept developed after the refusal of nations to offer protections to refugees fleeing genocide in Nazi Germany, is a promise not to throw anybody back into whatever danger they’ve just escaped from. But judges in Charlotte and Atlanta, among other cities—by systematically discouraging potential asylum applicants from applying in the first place, and overwhelmingly denying their claims when they do—are deporting people back into situations of grave and often mortal danger.
Sarah Owings, an immigration attorney who has been practicing immigration law in Atlanta for a decade, described to me one Mexican woman’s asylum appeal. The woman cited extreme domestic abuse, including her husband’s “tying her to her bed like a dog.” The woman had already tried to relocate inside of Mexico (impossibility of internal relocation is a requirement for asylum) but was found and abused again by her husband. Despite this, an Atlanta judge denied her asylum claim.
Though it’s impossible to weigh the validity of the woman’s fear with just a few facts, her claim, according to Owings, should not have been automatically dismissed. What’s more, her case reflects the general trend alleged in the IACHR petition: “Credible reports indicate that refugee claims based on gender violence and other persecution perpetrated by non-state actors, such as gangs and other criminal organizations, are disfavored.”