In Kazemzadeh v. U.S. Attorney General (11th Cir. Aug. 6), Kazemzadeh — an Iranian citizen — claimed asylum because he had converted to Christianity, and said he faced persecution in Iran. The Board of Immigration Appeals rejected the claim, largely because it concluded that Iranian persecution of converts away from Islam was in fact very rare (though in theory apostasy could carry the death penalty). The panel reversed, on the grounds that "the Board did not consider whether enforcement is rare because apostates practice underground and suffer instead that form of persecution to avoid detection and punishment." And being forced to practice underground, the panel concluded, is itself a form of persecution.
What is particularly interesting to me, though, isn't that legal question (on which I think the panel was correct), but the broader policy issue raised by the risk that many people might pretend to convert in order to stay in the U.S. The majority stressed that there was no finding that Kazemzadeh was insincere, but the dissenting judge pointed out that there was a dispute about his sincerity, and that the Board needs to consider it:
In this case, although the Immigration Judge never directly addressed the issue of credibility, she commented throughout her order on the numerous questionable aspects of Kazemzadeh’s religious conversion. First, she stated that his “inability to explain what communion is ... seemed inconsistent with any significant involvement with the religion” since communion is a “central aspect of Christianity.” She also noted that he attended weekly Bible classes less than once per month, and opined that he should be making “the effort to attend as many of those classes as possible in order to learn a religion for which he alleges that he’s willing to risk his life.” After noting that Kazemzadeh decided to become a Christian approximately two months after he began attending church, the Immigration Judge stated that “it was [not] clear how much he knew in those two months that [led] him to make a life-time commitment that would put him at odds with his family and with his country.” She also pointed out factual inconsistencies between Kazemzadeh’s testimony and that of his pastor, and she expressed suspicion about the authenticity of documents he provided as evidence of his conviction and his expulsion from the university he attended in Iran. Finally, in her conclusion, the Immigration Judge noted that the swiftness of Kazemzadeh’s acceptance of Christianity “does not evidence a lifetime commitment.”
And whether or not Kazemzadeh is sincere, there does seem to me to be a serious risk that the availability of asylum for Iranian converts away from Christianity will lead some people to pretend to become Christians. The right to live and (in several months) work in the United States is a very valuable benefit, even if it means that one can never safely return to one's home country.
I'm sure that really devout Muslims won't pretend to abandon their faith just for that benefit — but I take it that quite a few people who have already fallen away from the faith might well claim to accept Christianity in order to get something this valuable. We know, for instance, that it's not unusual for people to convert to a different religion in order to get married; I suspect that quite a few of them aren't really motivated by genuine belief in their new religion, though I take it that most of them must not be that committed to their old religion. I would think that quite a few people would likewise convert to get the right to live and work in America.
On top of that, I expect that telling a genuine convert to Christianity from a fake convert is not that easy, and might itself pose substantial problems. A judge could grill the person on theology (consider Kazemzadeh's inability to explain what communion is), but lots of people sincerely believe without much real grasp of theology, and lots of people can learn the theology (especially if they know they'll be grilled on it) without much belief. Frequency of weekly Bible classes is also a poor proxy for sincerity, especially since different sincere Christians attach different levels of importance on knowing the details of the Bible as opposed to a big picture understanding; and, of course, someone could learn the Bible without taking weekly Bible classes. (Also, unless I'm mistaken, individual reading of the Bible has long been more of a Protestant religious commitment rather than a Catholic one.)
The speed of conversion is also not terribly telling, at least in a faith-centered model such as Christianity. Certainly conversion flowing from a perception that one has "seen the light" and heard God's word is firmly entrenched as permissible in Christian theology (consider Paul on the road to Damascus); and I suspect that at least some people do indeed accept a new religion this way. Some people may choose a religion based on a long and deep course of study, but that needn't be all sincere converts' approach to religiosity.
On top of that, as I understand the panel decision, there's not much beyond simply the statement of conversion that's required for an asylum claim. Quite sensibly, the panel doesn't require that one actually return and face persecution. The panel does suggest that Kazemzadeh's case is particularly strong because there's evidence that the regime has already taken an interest him and might therefore learn of his religion; but I don't read that as a necessary condition, given the logic of the majority opinion and the conclusion that having to worship underground is itself a form of religious prosecution. Again, I'm not saying that the panel should have required more evidence of likely future persecution. But given the panel decision, there doesn't seem to be much constraint on false claims of conversion other than the asylum-seeker's individual conscience and the immigration judge's imperfect ability to tell who has really become a Christian.
In principle, this risk of false claims is present in many other contexts, such as religious exemptions from generally applicable laws. But since the abolition of the draft, relatively few of the benefits that one can get from the exemption are nearly as valuable as the benefit of being able to live and work in America. Few people will pretend to be Muslim just to get an exemption from a no-beard rule. A few more people might pretend to be observantly Jewish to get Saturdays off, when such an exemption is available. But I suspect that the incentive to pretend a conversion to Christianity in order to get to live in America rather than as a Muslim in Iran is for many people far greater, and the risk of false claims is therefore far higher.
So we have a substantial risk of false conversions. And we have a huge benefit being given to Iranians (and likely citizens of some other Muslim countries) who become Christian that is not given to Iranians who stay Muslim. Of course, this benefit is a consequence of Iran's discrimination against converts, not any deliberate American statutory decision to prefer Christians over Muslims. But this sort of benefit that is given only to those who convert to Christianity — and the result incentive to convert — is nonetheless the sort of thing that American law normally tries to avoid, even if the benefit could sometimes be limited solely to sincere converts and not fraudulent ones.
At the same time, there is very good reason to protect people from religious persecution, and doubtless many Iranians do sincerely convert to Christianity and thus deserve our protection. A policy of rejecting the claims of converts, simply because of the risk of false conversion and a desire to avoid giving people an incentive to convert, would pose serious problems of its own.
My point is simply that the Eleventh Circuit decision might lead to there being a lot of false positives, especially once it's publicized — and a lot of pressure to convert, or at least to claim conversion. How the law should deal with this risk is a difficult question; but it struck me as worth raising.
(I set aside Kazemzadeh political asylum claim, which was rejected both by the Board of Immigration Appeals and the Eleventh Circuit panel. I also set aside the possible arguments for broader immigration regardless of asylum status. One could, for instance, argue that all Iranians deserve asylum in the U.S., just as all Soviet immigrants — like my family — were given asylum. And one could generally argue that we should have presumptively open borders. But my post here operates against the current legal scheme under which most Iranians aren't entitled to come to the U.S. to live and work, unless they really are facing a risk of persecution at home. Finally, thanks to How Appealing for the pointer.)
Related Posts (on one page):
- 17-Year-Old Who Converted from Islam to Christianity, and Ran Away from Home
- Police Report in Case of 17-Year-Old Girl Who Converted to Christianity and Doesn't Want to Return to Her Muslim Family:
- Rifqa Bary case update:
- Speaking of Asylum for Converts to Christianity:
- Some Thoughts on How Asylum Claims Based on Fear of Religious Persecution Are Treated,
- Miami Is Worth a Mass?