The sister of my asylum-seeker client recently got an unpleasant surprise from the U.S. Embassy in her country. The sister is a prominent journalist who had come to the Embassy several times (at the Embassy's request) to brief U.S. diplomats on the situation in her country. She and her family members held B-1/B-2 visitor visas to the United States. A few weeks ago, the consular section called and demanded that the sister appear for a visa "re-interview." When she asked for a one-day delay due to a previously-scheduled medical appointment for her child, she was refused.

The sister dutifully arrived at the U.S. Embassy, where she was kept waiting for two hours. Finally, the consular officer met with her and informed her that her visitor visa was being revoked because her sister (my client) was seeking asylum in the United States. The sister, of course, objected, noting that she had the visa for some time but had not used it. Also, she explained that she had been meeting with Embassy officials to discuss the situation in her country, at some risk to herself. All this was of no avail, and the sister's visa was revoked. To add insult to injury (and without any evidence), the consular officer accused the sister of wanting to move to the United States so her husband could get a better job and make more money.

A U.S. consular officer proves that it's not just the NSA that can damage our diplomatic relations.

On her way out, the sister ran into a local Embassy employee who she had befriended during her two hour wait. When the employee learned what happened, he told the sister that the Embassy had been revoking visas for people whose family members were seeking asylum in the United States.

Before her sister went to the re-interview, my client called me to tell me what was happening. I suggested that her sister speak to her contacts at the Embassy. Her contacts are (presumably) in the diplomatic or public affairs sections of the Embassy, not the consular section, and they told her that there was nothing they could do.

So it seems that a person who had been a useful contact for our country, and who is an up-and-coming journalist, was insulted, embarrassed, and had her visa revoked, all because her sister has a pending asylum case in the United States. For most relatives of asylum seekers, that would be the end of the story. But in this case, since the sister is somewhat high-profile, the matter worked its way up the chain to higher ranking diplomats, who were apparently quite upset at the doings of their brethren in the consular section. There is now an effort underway to re-issue the visa, but the outcome is far from clear, as officers in the diplomatic and public affairs sections do not have authority over the consular section (and heaven forbid that one section would work in concert with another).

As best as we can tell, when my client filed her asylum application, the consular section was not alerted. But when she applied for her work permit (after the application had been pending for 150 days due to the asylum backlog), the application for an employment document triggered notice to the consulate, which was (somehow) aware of her sister. The visa was then revoked.

This is not the first time that one of my clients' family members had trouble as a result of an asylum application. I wrote previously about two clients--spouses of asylum seekers--who had their visa applications denied because of their spouses' asylum applications. In those cases, I was more concerned with the breaches of confidentiality (the consular section informed the spouses that their visas were being revoked because of their spouses' asylum claims; the problem is that in some cases, people seek asylum because of persecution by a family member, so informing the relatives of the asylum applications was a breach of confidentiality).

For me, the take-away from all this for asylum applicants and their family members is that family members may be denied non-immigrant visas or have their visas revoked once the consulate learns about the asylum application. But maybe the more interesting question is, how should the consulates deal with family members of asylum seekers?

The easy answer (and the one I prefer) is that consulates should not be informed about the asylum applications in the first place, and if they are informed, they should take no action against family members (and they certainly should not violate confidentiality). Asylum is a humanitarian form of relief and people (or their family members) should not be penalized for pursuing legitimate claims.

The counter-argument, I suppose, is that consulates are required to determine whether applicants for non-immigrant visas are actually intending immigrants, and the behavior of relatives may be relevant to that determination. One problem with this argument, at least in the cases I've mentioned, is that there was always pretty good evidence that the family members were not intending immigrants. The visas were denied or revoked anyway, seemingly solely because a relative had filed for asylum. Another problem with this argument is that all my clients' asylum cases were legitimate (two were granted and one is pending). I can more easily understand the consulates revoking or denying a family member's visas where their relative has filed a fraudulent claim. But that is not the situation in any of the cases I've discussed.

As things now stand, asylum seekers in the U.S. face a sort-of Sophie's choice: Save myself and the family members in the U.S. with me, but sacrifice my relatives who are trying to get visas. I don't see how this comports with the spirit of our international obligations, or with any notion of morality. It seems naive to imagine that this policy of excluding family members of asylum seekers will be discontinued anytime soon, but maybe if the consular sections continue to act contrary to the diplomatic sections, as happened to my client's sister, there will be some pressure to behave a bit better. For the sake of diplomacy and human rights, I hope so.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: