I strongly caution against anyone indulging in skepticism or cynicism in response to this week’s reports that the DREAM 9 satisfied the credible fear test. For that matter, restraint and neutrality is far preferable to the inappropriate and possibly biased comments reportedly made by at least one Immigration Judge, and this admonishment applies to anyone else tempted to opine on the merits of a case without knowing the details and before the case has been presented.

Asylum from Mexico? That’s right. According to the latest government reports, out of 558 defensive asylum applications ultimately decided during the period, 49 defensive asylum applications claiming persecution in Mexico -- just under 9% - were granted.[1] See The U.S. Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review Office of Planning, Analysis, and Technology, Immigration Court Statistics from FY 2010, issued in February 2013.[2] While not among the highest percentages of reported asylum grants, and very likely an under-representation of the claims that should be granted, this number reveals that persecution in Mexico is being acknowledged and asylum claims are being granted.

The credible fear test is a very low level inquiry and is intended to be so. Contrary to a plethora of uninformed news reports circulating online, it is not a grant of asylum or temporary asylum. All it means is that the applicant has provided information that indicates a significant possibility that the applicant can demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution in a merits hearing before an Immigration Judge. Accordingly, an applicant's expression of a fear of return on the basis of sharing a status or characteristics articulated in the refugee definition is generally adequate.

The USCIS website defines credible fear as follows: Q. What is a Credible Fear of Persecution?
A. A “significant possibility” that you can establish in a hearing before an Immigration Judge that you have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of your race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion if returned to your country. See http://tinyurl.com/crediblefear

The Immigration Court Practice Manual, Chapter 7, p 110, defines the credible fear standard, as: (i) Credible fear standard. -- “Credible fear of persecution” means that there is a significant possibility that the alien can establish eligibility for asylum under INA § 208 or withholding of removal (“restriction on removal”) under INA § 241(b) (3). The credibility of the alien’s statements in support of the claim, and other facts known to the reviewing official, are taken into account. 8 C.F.R. §§ 208.30(e) (2), 1003.42(d).”

Accordingly, the "significant possibility" is determined by the officer "taking into account the credibility of the statements made by the alien in support of the alien’s claim and such other facts as are known to the officer, [such] that the alien could establish eligibility for asylum under §208.” Wesem, Asylum and “Credible Fear” Issues in U.S. Immigration Policy, p. 4, CRS (June 29, 2011) (citing INA §235(b) (1) (B) (v); 8 U.S.C. §1225). In short, the credible fear standard is a pre-screening mechanism in which the burden of proof is easier to meet than the well-founded fear of persecution standard required to obtain asylum. Id.

It is important to remember that eligibility for asylum is established by demonstrating a well-founded fear of persecution, which is a 10% chance that the individual will be persecuted on account of race, religion nationality or membership in a particular social group. INS v Cardosa-Fonseca, 480 U.S. 421 (1987). The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) decision in Matter of T-M-B-, 21 I & N Dec. 775, 777 (BIA 1997) concluded that “an applicant for asylum need not show conclusively why persecution occurred in the past or is likely to occur in the future, [but must] produce evidence from which it is reasonable to believe that the harm was motivated, at least in part, by an actual or imputed protected ground.” Thus, in itself, the well-founded fear standard, as specified in the governing statute and interpreted in the controlling precedent decisions of the BIA, is quite inclusive.

It cannot be emphasized enough that every asylum case is different and depends on the specific facts and circumstances that are unique to each case. As the BIA has observed, “It is clear that to a large degree the meaning of "well-founded fear" can in fact only be determined in the context of individual cases. Whatever words may be used in a definition, the approach must still be to assess each case independently on its particular merits.” Matter of Mogharrabi, 19 I. & N. Dec. 439, 442 (BIA 1987).

An Immigration Judge who expresses skepticism towards the as-yet unheard claims of the DREAM 9 - and the unheard claims of other potential asylum applicants, or who engages in making cynical comments prior to an application being filed, should be monitored carefully and consistently for signs of pre-hearing bias or lack of impartiality in asylum cases coming before him or her. Nevertheless, although such expressions may be offensive or imprudent, they do not always mean that the IJ is prejudging every asylum case or incapable of fairly hearing a case and rendering a reasoned decision.

An attorney who believes that the IJ is exhibiting bias or lack of impartiality during a hearing, however, always should raise the issue in a request for clarification or an in the form of an objection on the record, and at a minimum, ask the IJ to explain any statement or ruling that suggests such inappropriate pre-judgment. If the IJ fails to control his or her expressions of bias or pre-judgment, the attorney can make a motion on the record or in writing, asking the IJ to recuse himself or herself, although recusal motions rarely are granted.

As an alternative to recusal, a wise attorney who is concerned about the IJ's potential for actual bias or lack of impartiality can have a third party attend and observe each hearing with the permission of the applicant. Then, at the end of any hearing, master or merits, both the attorney and the third party can prepare contemporaneous sworn affidavits stating what occurred and what they observed. These documents can be held until it becomes necessary to use them in an appeal or motion, or for some other action.

The blurring of political and legal lines in the DREAM 9’s action and the political statement they seek to make is permissible and appropriate. This duality is not an excuse for immigration defense lawyers to ignore our roles, or for IJs to forget their duties of actual impartiality and to project the appearance of impartiality.

The credible fear inquiry, as a pre-screening exercise, is meant to cast a broad net and not summarily exclude potential asylum seekers from consideration. Notably, it is not the only means to limit unfounded claims from being presented and unduly taking up the Immigration Court's time. The statute expressly sanctions those who submit frivolous asylum claims, but there is no suggestion whatsoever that recourse to these penalties would be applicable here. Nevertheless, should anyone worry that the credible fear standard is too broad, be assured that such sanctions can be readily invoked, if by chance, an asylum claim lacking an underlying credible fear of persecution slips through the cracks.

[1] A 2012 Los Angeles Times article reported that “Last fiscal year, 4,042 Mexicans sought asylum [affirmatively] . . . more than triple the number of applications five years earlier. During the same period, the agency approval rate increased slightly — to 9% from 7%. Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times October 28, 2012,

[2] Prior reports indicate that “In 2009, the U.S. received some 2,816 defensive asylum requests from Mexico with 62 approved and 366 denied. In 2008, the figure was 3,459 with 72 approved and 250 denied, according to the Justice Department.” Nicholas Casey, Wall Street Journal, March 9, 2011, http://tinyurl.com/asy2010