In 1993, Tara Reade was a legislative aid for then-Senator Joe Biden. In 2019, she went public with an allegation that Mr. Biden "used to put his hand on my shoulder and run his finger up my neck." She says she complained about the behavior after it happened, but then faced retaliation, which caused her to leave her job. In March of this year, Ms. Reade stated that on one occasion, when she was alone with Senator Biden, he pushed her against the wall "and then his hands were on me and underneath my clothes. And then he went down my skirt, but then up inside it and he penetrated me with his fingers. And he was kissing me...." In her 2020 statement, Ms. Reade indicated that she made a contemporaneous complaint alleging sexual harassment, but not sexual assault. Several people--including Ms. Reade's brother and a friend--have stated that she told them about the assault years ago, and there is some evidence that Ms. Reade made a complaint during her time in the Senate.

Ms. Reade's allegations got me thinking: How would her testimony and evidence be evaluated under the standard applied to asylum seekers testifying in Immigration Court? Let's start with the legal standard, as set forth in INA § 208(b)(1)(B)(iii)--

[A] trier of fact may base a credibility determination on the demeanor, candor, or responsiveness of the applicant or witness, the inherent plausibility of the applicant's or witness's account, the consistency between the applicant's or witness's written and oral statements (whenever made and whether or not under oath, and considering the circumstances under which the statements were made), the internal consistency of each such statement, the consistency of such statements with other evidence of record... and any inaccuracies or falsehoods in such statements, without regard to whether an inconsistency, inaccuracy, or falsehood goes to the heart of the applicant's claim, or any other relevant factor.

So right away, we can see an issue: Ms. Reade states that she complained about sexual harassment in 1993 and she publicly claimed sexual harassment in 2019, but then in 2020, she stated that she was also the victim of a sexual assault. This is an inconsistency.

But an inconsistent statement is not necessarily fatal to a credibility determination. Applicants must be given an opportunity to explain any inconsistencies. In our case, Ms. Reade stated that she did not disclose the assault in 1993 because she was traumatized, and that she did not mention it in 2019 because she was uncomfortable with the interviewer's questions and fearful of a backlash against her. She decided to reveal the full story in 2020 because she felt she needed to do so for her daughter and for other victims of sexual assault, and because she felt Joe Biden should apologize.

Once a witness provides an explanation, the decision-maker has a certain amount of leeway to evaluate that explanation. According to the Board of Immigration Appeals, "An Immigration Judge is not required to accept a respondent's assertions, even if plausible, where there are other permissible views of the evidence based on the record." Where does this leave us? Nowhere too helpful, I would submit.

On the one hand, we could find Ms. Reade's testimony incredible, since it has changed over time and her most recent (and most serious) allegations are different from what she allegedly claimed in 1993 and what she described in 2019. On the other hand, she has presented an explanation for the inconsistency, which is based on the trauma and shame she suffered, as well as on her fear of further harm. Given this evidence, a reasonable fact-finder could decide either way on credibility, and such a decision would likely survive an appeal (where factual findings are subject to a "clearly erroneous" standard of review).

Since the decision-maker could go either way, what would account for a particular decision? In Ms. Reade's case, the decider's view of sexual assault in general would be one factor. Do victims make false accusations? Do perpetrators deny their guilt? How much evidence is enough? In this particular case, I imagine partisan loyalty would also be a factor for many decision-makers, especially in such a hot political environment where an allegation of sexual assault could impact the upcoming election. And speaking of partisan loyalty, what about Ms. Reade's political views? Are they relevant to impugning or bolstering her claim? What about the fact that she is exposing herself to terrible harassment (and maybe worse). How do we weigh these factors in terms of evaluating her motive? Also, how do we account for other women accusing Joe Biden of inappropriate touching? Do these allegations weigh against him (because he engaged in inappropriate conduct) or in his favor (since that conduct seems not to have risen to assault)? In short, it seems to me that the decision about Ms. Reade's credibility tells us more about the fact-finder's views than about the facts of her case.

If I am correct about Ms. Reade's claim, what does this mean for credibility in asylum cases? In some ways, the situations are analogous. We have to listen to a witness and evaluate credibility. It's also fairly common for asylum applicants to change their stories over time. This may be legitimate (it often takes time and trust to extract painful details from a traumatized person) or not (some applicants seek to bolster their claims by lying). As with Ms. Reade's case, there is often additional evidence, which also needs to be evaluated for credibility and evidentiary value, and in cases where this evidence is strong, it may be determinative of credibility. In other cases, the credibility determination will depend largely on the decision-maker's inherent biases. I suspect this is largely what accounts for the arbitrariness of asylum adjudication.

In Ms. Reade's case, I doubt we will ever see a definitive answer about her claims. They are too old and too subsumed by partisanship to be resolved with much confidence. Many asylum claims are also not amenable to a definitive conclusion due largely to limited resources (of the applicant and the adjudicator). In both situations, we are left with our own biases, which are a poor substitute for knowing the truth.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: