In order to win an asylum case, you have to prove that there is a reasonably possibility you will face harm in your home country. To do this, you need evidence. Evidence about any past harm, evidence of threats against you, evidence of country conditions, etc. One piece of evidence that can be helpful is a report from an expert witness. Here, we'll discuss the different types of expert reports and how they can help your case.

First, let's briefly examine the difference between a fact witness and an expert witness. A fact witness is someone who knows about some aspect of your case. For example, maybe your cousin saw the police arrest you from a political rally. Your cousin knows about one piece of your story, and she can write a letter explaining what she knows. She is a fact witness. An expert witness usually does not have any first-hand knowledge of your case. Rather, according to the Federal Rules of Evidence, an expert is someone with “with scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge” who can “assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.” For example, if you are a member of a small ethnic group that is persecuted by your home government, you might find a professor who has studied your group and who can write a report explaining how the government treats members of your ethnic group. The professor is an expert witness.

In terms of admitting expert testimony, the Federal Rules of Evidence are not binding in Immigration Court or at the Asylum Office, but they do provide useful guidance. To be admissible under the Federal Rules, expert testimony must meet three criteria: (1) It must be relevant, meaning it will “assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;” (2) The expert witness must be “qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education;” and (3) The expert's testimony must be reliable, in that it "is based upon sufficient facts or data... is the product of reliable principles and methods, and [the expert] witness has applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case.” The standard for admitting evidence in immigration proceedings is more liberal: The “sole test for admission of evidence is whether the evidence is probative and its admission is fundamentally fair.” Nevertheless, by following the guidance from the Federal Rules, you can help ensure that any expert testimony is given maximum credence by the fact finder.

Expert testimony is usually submitted in writing, in the form of an expert report. Accompanying the report is the expert's CV or a statement of qualifications. It is also helpful to list instances where the expert has previously been recognized as an expert witness by other courts. Experts witnesses sometimes come to court to testify (or testify by telephone).

Expert testimony can be used to support different aspects of an asylum claim. Probably the most common expert report we use is a forensic medical or dental exam. In these reports, the doctor or dentist examines an asylum applicant's injury to determine whether that injury is consistent with the applicant's description of what happened. For example, we once had a client who was stabbed in the arm by members of the Taliban. He had a large scar running the length of his forearm. Of course, no medical expert can determine whether the injury was caused by the Taliban. But the expert can opine about whether the scar is consistent with a knife wound. Some experts can also discuss the approximate age of a scar based on its appearance. To create a report, the client would normally need to appear for an in-person examination and give a written description of the incident to the doctor. For this reason, we try to complete the client's affidavit (or at least the relevant portion of the affidavit) before he goes to see the doctor. That way, he has a description of the incident to bring with him to the exam.

A subset of the forensic medical exams is an evaluation of female genital mutilation/cutting ("FGM/C"). Victims of FGM/C are often able to obtain asylum, and such exams are crucial to these cases. The World Health Organization has categorized FGM/C, and it is helpful for the doctor to explain what category the client's FGM/C fits into.

Another common type of report that we see are mental health evaluations. These are created by psychologists or other mental health professionals to evaluate the psychological harm (such as post traumatic stress disorder) caused by persecution or the threat of persecution. Sometimes, these reports are generated during the course of treatment; other times, the client visits the mental health professional one or two times and obtains an evaluation for purposes of the asylum case. I tend to prefer the reports created by a treating professional, but in many cases, asylum applicants do not have access to health insurance and cannot afford treatment. In such cases, it may be possible to obtain a pro bono evaluation, which the client can use to bolster her asylum claim. We also use these reports to try to expedite asylum cases. For example, if the report indicates that the applicant's mental health is being harmed by the long wait, we can sometimes convince the Asylum Office or the court to expedite the person's case.

Country condition experts can also assist with asylum cases. In my own practice, I use such experts only rarely, as most of the information we need can be found on-line in human rights reports or news articles. However, in specialized situations, a country condition expert can be critical. For instance, an expert can help establish that a person belongs to a particular social group by showing that the society in question recognizes that social group as a distinct entity. Another example is where an expert is needed to interpret a foreign law, such as whether an adoption is legally valid.

In short, there are many ways that experts can help bolster an asylum case. A good starting point for identifying experts and utilizing them effectively is the asylum expert handbook created by Professor Deborah M. Weissman and her students at UNC Chapel Hill Law School. Other helpful resources include the expert data base at the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies at UC Hastings Law School and the country condition expert list from the Rights in Exile Programme. Some experts on these lists work pro bono; others charge a fee.

Not all asylum cases need testimony from an expert witness (indeed, most of my own cases do not), but where it is needed, it can make the difference between a denial and a grant.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: