Commencing Spring 2016, the Center For Gender & Refugee Studies (CGRS) @ UC Hastings will partner with CUNY Brooklyn College to embark on a three-year National Science Foundation-funded study that will examine a trove of unpublished immigration court and Board of Immigration Appeals asylum decisions collected by CGRS since 1994.
As record numbers of asylum seekers from Central America continue to enter the United States, many of them transiting through Mexico, the work of the Center For Gender & Refugee Studies (CGRS) remains particularly relevant today. As part of its initiative to provide expert consultation to lawyers representing women and children fleeing gender-based violence, CGRS has amassed a unique repository of unpublished decisions issued by U.S. immigration judges and the Board of Immigration Appeals.
The CGRS team will work closely with co-principal investigator, political scientist Anna Law, a professor at CUNY Brooklyn College, to evaluate the unpublished opinions for trends and patterns behind gender-based asylum decision-making in the U.S. since CGRS first started tracking the cases in 1994.
For Professor Karen Musalo, director of the Center, the study taps into deeply contentious political, legal and moral issues. “Immigration itself is a hot-button issue. Within the general area of immigration, asylum seekers and refugees are controversial. And there’s been a long-sustained controversy over women who suffer violations of their human rights because they’re women.”
The study includes an initial 12-18 month qualitative component that entails analyzing the cases in the collection and developing a methodology to categorize and code various elements of each decision. A second quantitative component will involve comparing the data culled from the cases in the CGRS repository to comprehensive data from cases tracked by the federal government.
The CGRS collection consists primarily of cases in which the asylum seekers were represented by lawyers who sought guidance and other resources, such as referrals to experts, from the Center. “Our collection is not a random sample of all decisions that have been issued since 1994. That said, no one has this data and no one has been able to do a qualitative analysis of immigration judge rulings of the magnitude we’re equipped to do,” said Musalo, who notes that the NSF considered the study to be significant, notwithstanding this limitation. She also points to the study’s quantitative element as a way to gauge how representative the CGRS collection may be in various respects, such as nationality and outcomes.
The unpublished nature of immigration judges’ decisions, which are often not appealed, makes the cases particularly vulnerable to the whims of adjudicators. “Former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno had proposed regulations to address gender-based asylum claims in 2000, but they were never finalized. We tried to push the key players in President Obama’s administration to finalize them. However, we have shifted priorities after learning that the current draft of the regulations would actually cut back on protection in many of these cases,” remarked Musalo, who considers the lack of positive action a tragic missed opportunity to provide clear guidance in an area that’s subject to an excess of arbitrary decision-making.
From the asylum seekers themselves to scholars, lawyers, government actors and judges, Musalo believes the results of the study will benefit all stakeholders and generate conversations that might one day lead to improvements in the way gender-based asylum claims are adjudicated.
The Center’s co-legal directors Blaine Bookey and Eunice Lee will join Musalo on the project. She also expects to offer UC Hastings law students opportunities to get involved after the study gets underway – stay tuned!
“We’re very grateful to the NSF for supporting this undertaking and extremely excited to examine decision-making in an area that really has life or death consequences for vulnerable populations,” said Musalo.
NSF awarded UC Hastings a total of $185,998 (NSF ID# 1556131) and CUNY Brooklyn College a total of $79,497 (NSF ID #1556551) for the three-year grant period, to commence Spring 2016.