Miami Is Worth a Mass?

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.

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Some Thoughts on How Asylum Claims Based on Fear of Religious Persecution Are Treated,

from someone who has some experience with immigration law:

I want to assure you that immigration judges are well aware of the potential for abusing asylum by making sham conversions. However, it is not the IJ's job to marshal evidence of a true religious conviction. As in the Article III courts, the IJs are there to provide a neutral venue for determining an alien's removability and any possible relief from removability under immigration laws.

The IJs have a bit more leeway than Article III judges when it comes to addressing respondents and witnesses, but it is ultimately the respondent's to demonstrate religious conviction--the burden is on the alien to establish eligibility for relief. Then, the DHS trial attorney [TA] may present evidence--including by cross-examining the respondent--demonstrating that the respondent does not sincerely hold the claimed religious beliefs.

Some standard questions asked by TAs to establish Christian bonafides:

Who is Jesus Christ?

What is your favorite story from the Bible?

What is your favorite prayer? Can you recite that prayer or a part of that prayer?

These seem like rather basic questions, but it is astounding how often Christian claimants cannot answer them. It is also fairly easy to spot the respondents who have been coached since they know one and only one story from the Bible, which is inevitably short-handed as: "water to wine." This is a reference to Jesus' first public miracle at a wedding in Cana and is considered an anti-Shibboleth by TAs and many IJs. Most frequently, Chinese applicants can name only this Bible story, as a result of being coached by the smugglers they use to enter the United States. Similarly, applicants who have been coached will say "the Lord's Prayer" is their favorite, and then recite some variation of the traditional Catholic grace before a meal (i.e. not the Lord's Prayer). The smugglers abroad and "immigration consultants" here in the United States are not very imaginative and have no real interest in their victims, so these responses do not change that often.

If the respondent satisfactorily answers these questions, the TA may then escalate to more complex questions of Christian theology. That is a matter of individual discretion, however. Often, you can get a pretty good idea as to the sincerity of the respondent's religious conviction with just those few questions. (Additionally, the TAs deal with many religions on a regular basis, not just Christianity. I suspect--without knowing, mind you--that they have a list of questions and answers prepared for the most common religions. They also prepare in advance of proceedings for this type of inquiry.)

You are right to point out that a person can know the theology of a religion, its practice, and its procedure without genuinely having religious conviction. As with many areas of law, we cannot actually know a person's state of mind, thoughts, and beliefs. However, a person's knowledge and behavior can be a good indication of same. Typically, an applicant for asylum making a religious claim will provide three types of evidence of belief: his testimony, the testimony of others who worship with him or see him at worship or know of his long-standing belief, and documentary evidence like baptismal certificates, photographs from religious ceremonies, etc. All three types are open to inspection and attack by the TA.

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Speaking of Asylum for Converts to Christianity:

The Orlando Sentinel writes:

The girl, who turned 17 on Monday, is at the center of a custody dispute in Orlando, where she sought help from a family she barely knew — a pastor and his wife [the Lorenzes] willing to take in a teen who feared her own [Muslim] family's retribution because she converted to Christianity....

The girl appeared before a crowded courtroom full of lawyers and spectators on Monday when an Orange Circuit Court Judge ordered her into Department of Children and Families emergency custody....

Her dispute with her family became news several weeks ago when the girl ran away from her home in Columbus, Ohio.... The teen told the Lorenzes she feared her family would hurt her, kill her or send her back to Sri Lanka, Beverly Lorenz said....

Reached by a Sentinel reporter by phone, the girl's mother said little. "Yes, of course" her daughter would be safe should a judge eventually order her back there, she said.

And her father would not harm his daughter if she wanted to be a Christian, the woman said....

More here:

An attorney representing the girl's mother said the parents were allowing Bary to explore her Christianity. The parents claimed that their daughter was not afraid until she made contact with Pastor Blake Lorenz in Orlando....

It seems to me the law is clear: If a judge finds that there is real danger of serious violence from the parents — whether stemming from religious tensions or anything else — then the minor may indeed be placed into state custody and from there into a foster home. Naturally a judge can't just presume this based on generalizations about Islamic attitudes towards apostasy: There would have to be credible evidence of specific threats, or actual instances of physical abuse, and the judge would presumably listen to the child, the parents, and any other witnesses, and decide, difficult as the she said/they said factual question might be.

Thanks to Religion Clause for the pointer.

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Rifqa Bary case update:

Transcript of yesterday's conference call led by Frank Gaffney, with Noni Darwish and the Florida Security Council. Background here.

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Police Report in Case of 17-Year-Old Girl Who Converted to Christianity and Doesn't Want to Return to Her Muslim Family:

From the AP:

The police report, which was ordered sealed for 10 days by a Florida judge, contains the results of a two-week investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement into Rifqa Bary's family and her home life....

The FDLE report is "favorable" to Bary's parents and "indicates there is no evidence out there whatsoever to corroborate these accusations," said Roger Weeden, an attorney for Rifqa Bary's mother, Aysha.

Weeden was cut off from saying any more about the report because it has been sealed....

The case is headed for a trial in which the judge will hear testimony and decide whether Rifqa Bary should be returned to [her parents]....

More on the case in this earlier post. Naturally, if the court concludes that the girl's claim that she is in jeopardy — a claim contested by her parents — is not supported for the evidence, she needs to be returned to her parents. To be sure, her own statement may be sufficient evidence, if she testifies credibly enough, and explains why she should be believed. But if indeed a police report uncovers no corroborating evidence, and the parents testify credibly, a judge would be unlikely to believe the girl unless her testimony appeared extremely persuasive notwithstanding the parents' contrary statements and the absence of supporting evidence from the police report (if the police report indeed reveals such an absence of evidence). Parents' rights can't be permanently abrogated simply based on allegations -- as opposed to proof by clear and convincing evidence -- even if those allegations echo what some of those parents' coreligionists may have done in other cases.

UPDATE: I initially wrote that, "Naturally, if there's no evidence other than the girl's claim — contested by her parents — that the girl will be in jeopardy, she has to be returned to her parents' custody. Parents' rights can't be permanently abrogated simply based on unsubstantiated allegations, even if those allegations echo what some of those parents' coreligionists may have done in other cases." But on reflection I realized that this was an overstatement, and corrected the post accordingly.

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17-Year-Old Who Converted from Islam to Christianity, and Ran Away from Home

will stay in Florida temporarily, though perhaps only briefly, and not with the family with which she had been staying:

A Florida judge said Monday that a teenage girl who ran away from her New Albany home over religious beliefs won't immediately be returned to her parents.

The judge ruled that she will stay in Orlando and can have no contact with the Christian pastor's family that she was staying with, Orlando television station WFTV reported.

More:

A judge in Florida said Monday he plans to talk to a judge in Ohio to determine where the case of Rifqa Bary belongs.

Bary, 17, is the religious runaway who in July fled here from her home near Columbus, Ohio, because she believes her Muslim family has to kill her due to her conversion to Christianity.

Authorities in both states say there's no credible threat against the girl. Her parents say they don't want to hurt her....

The judge set mediation between the girl and her parents with attorneys for Oct. 9. He set a pretrial hearing for Oct. 13. If the case is shifted back to Ohio, he said, those dates would be made moot.

Thanks to Religion Clause for the pointer.

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