On August 7, 2017, Associate Irene Ten Cate, Staff Attorney Danielle Nicholson and Partners Matthew D. Cipolla, Marc Hankin and Matthew E. Price secured asylum for pro bono client Abdul K. in immigration court in Harlingen, Texas. The grant of asylum eventually turned on a legal issue on which no clear precedent exists: whether the statutory firm resettlement bar, which excludes from asylum applicants who found refuge in a third country before arriving in the United States, applies to individuals who face persecution in the country of resettlement.
Abdul had settled in South Africa after escaping clan-based violence in his native country Somalia. He resided in South Africa for more than a decade and was granted a refugee permit, but was forced to flee after being subjected to severe attacks by South Africans who were targeting Somali immigrants. Abdul arrived in the United States in 2015 and was placed in detention. After his individual hearing, the immigration judge denied Abdul’s applications for asylum and withholding of removal and ordered him deported to South Africa or Somalia.
Retained to appeal from this ruling, the firm won a partial reversal from the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). Specifically, the BIA held that Abdul established that he had been persecuted in Somalia and in South Africa, and remanded the case to the immigration judge for a new hearing on whether Abdul was entitled to withholding of removal. The BIA affirmed, however, the immigration judge’s ruling that Abdul’s stay in South Africa rendered him ineligible for asylum under the firm resettlement bar. The team represented Abdul on remand, and obtained a ruling granting his application for withholding of removal. After one and a half years in detention, Abdul was released.
The firm then filed a petition for review in the Fifth Circuit, seeking reversal of the BIA’s ruling on firm resettlement. In its opening brief, the team argued that the firm resettlement bar does not apply to applicants like Abdul who were persecuted in the country in which they resettled. This is apparent from the plain meaning of the words “firmly resettled” and also flows from the bar’s purpose, which is to discourage “country shopping” by one-time refugees who have found safety in another country. The Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic filed an amicus brief arguing that the interpretation advanced by the firm rendered the statutory firm resettlement bar consistent with the Refugee Convention and Protocol.
Instead of filing a responsive brief, the government requested a remand to the BIA and then sought another remand to the immigration court. Eventually, the government agreed to stipulate that Abdul was not firmly resettled in South Africa. The immigration judge accepted the stipulation shortly thereafter and granted Abdul asylum.
Since his release from detention a little over a year ago, Abdul has begun to make a life for himself in the United States. He found a job, signed a lease on an apartment and enrolled in community college. The asylum status, which offers greater security than withholding of removal and provides a path to permanent residency and citizenship, gives him tremendous peace of mind.