Building Resilience in an “Unprecedented Crisis of Displacement”: From Around the World, Refugee and Migration Judges Come to Georgetown Law

August 13, 2018

More than 90 refugee and migration judges from approximately 30 countries gathered at Georgetown Law August 1-5. Professor from Practice Andrew Schoenholtz (right) spoke on a panel on building resilient asylum systems.

More than 90 refugee and migration judges from approximately 30 countries gathered at Georgetown Law in August, and with crushing caseloads and lives often in the balance, the issues were critical.

Members of the International Association of Refugee and Migration Judges (IARMJ) spent five days in McDonough Hall focusing on resilience — both in legal systems handing large influxes of asylum seekers and with the judges individually, managing cases involving traumatized, vulnerable populations.

The IARMJ’s Americas Chapter Conference included sessions on interviewing torture survivors and how countries decide whether generalized violence, such as gang violence, constitutes persecution.

“The great benefit of this conference is that these adjudicators and judges can come together to share their challenges,” said Georgetown Law Professor from Practice Andrew Schoenholtz. “How should they interpret what membership in a particular social group means? Which social groups…need protection because their government can’t provide it? For the judges, this is a great comparative law conference…Georgetown excels in comparative law in international human rights and particularly in refugee and asylum law.”

Georgetown Law Dean William M. Treanor said at the outset that the issues discussed at the conference resonate with Georgetown Law’s mission of social justice and human rights — and with specific programs including Georgetown’s Center for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) clinic and the Human Rights Institute. Many Georgetown Law alumni also work on the immigration and refugee issues. “You come to our campus from 33 countries…you are people who make such profound decisions about the fate of asylum seekers and refugees,” the dean said to the judges. “It’s an honor for [you] to be here.”

The Venue

It was the first time the Americas Chapter of the Haarlem, Netherlands-based IARMJ had gotten together in twelve years. “When we started to look at where to have the conference, we wanted to focus on capacity building of countries, Mexico and South. “Both Canada and the United States have done a lot of work together on capacity building…so United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has been a tremendous partner,” said Ross Patee, the secretary to the Americas Chapter of the IARMJ as well as the executive director of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.

Pattee opened the conference with USCIS’s Jennifer Higgins and Georgetown Law Dean William M. Treanor. “Once we decided on Washington, D.C., we wanted to be affiliated with a university…Georgetown is heavily implicated in training lawyers who work in the immigration and refugee [space], who then go on to work in the system,” Patee said afterwards. “So there was a really good partnership to make this work.”

Thus Schoenholtz, who directs Georgetown Law’s Human Rights Institute and co-directs its CALS clinic, stepped up to help when USCIS asked if Georgetown Law would host the event.

“They knew from experience…that Georgetown would be a great venue for judges to speak truthfully with each other and develop the relationships that can make a difference in terms of how international refugee laws apply,” Schoenholtz said. “It’s often hard for government officials to find the space where they can do that.”

“Migration patterns are more complex now, so you’re not just a refugee…you’re a refugee, but you’re often moving because of economic reasons, or socioeconomic and political reasons…there are many different types of migration flows,” Pattee said afterwards. “If systems are working, it helps with those flows of people throughout the [Americas].”

Although the conference was two years in the making, the conference was “extremely timely, and extremely important,” he noted.

When we started, there was a different feel in Washington, even a different government,” Patee said. “What this conference is enabling us to do is to bring people from all over the world, to sit down and talk about really important issues around refugees and migration in a context when many countries are starting to close their borders and are starting to look inward — which is contrary to many international norms and conventions.”

Higgins said at the start of the event that the theme of resilience is extraordinarily relevant in light of the current situation around the world.

“We believe[d] that creating a forum to discuss our common challenges and identify best practices for incorporating resilience would really benefit our systems, our decision makers and ultimately those that are most in need of protection,” she said. “We can all agree that we are living in a time of great change: change in the factors guiding migration, change in the numbers and types of protection…change in the protection policies of many countries and regions around the world, and change in the nature of the challenges that our protection systems are encountering today. On the global stage, we are witnessing an unprecedented crisis of displacement.”



On the fourth day of the conference, Schoenholtz joined migration and refugee adjudicators from Mexico, Costa Rica and Canada in a panel discussion on ways countries can set up asylum systems that enable them to meet refugee treaty obligations in the face of limited resources, political pressure and increasing caseloads. Schoenholtz, who has co-written two books on the U.S. asylum system, stressed the need to hire properly trained and professional asylum adjudicators who will apply the law neutrally.

He also noted the “greatest equalizer” affecting asylum request approval rates: representation. Research by Schoenholtz and Professor Philip G. Schrag — Georgetown Law’s Delaney Family Professor of Public Interest Law and co-director of the CALS clinic — shows that an asylum seeker with representation is almost three times more likely to be granted asylum than those without, he said, regardless of a representative’s competence.

“It is very clear that the single most important factor, in terms of the outcome of the case, is a representative,” Schoenholtz said afterward, “and that competent representation matters even more.”

Immigration judges grant asylum even more often to those represented by law school students at clinics like CALS, he noted. CALS students secure approvals for clients 90 percent of the time, compared with a general rate of 45 percent for asylum seekers with other types of representation, he said.

CALS students are successful not only because they’re talented, he said, but because of the amount of work they put in to understand their clients’ stories.

“They meet with their clients seven, eight, nine times during the semester to learn what actually happened because it takes time to build trust and corroborate their accounts.”

CALS students grapple with another resiliency issue conference attendees addressed: “secondary trauma,” the strain on legal professionals in the migration and asylum fields apart from the first-order trauma suffered by asylum seekers themselves. CALS students receive training on secondary trauma before they meet their clients, Schoenholtz said.


Easing the Burden

Pressure on judges and asylum officers to make decisions fast in often difficult cases adds up, Schoenholtz says. Burnout is common.

“The decision makers have a lot of weight on their shoulders,” he said. “I’m very worried about my colleagues in the field who are doing this day in, day out. This is a really trying period.”

Conferences like IARMJ’s can help ease that pressure, Adjunct Professor Paul Schmidt said. Schmidt, a former immigration judge, spoke on a panel discussion addressing adjudicators’ implicit bias.

“I think being a judge in any field, but particularly in this one, can be a lonely job. You’re on the bench a lot, you have a lot of stressful stories, and I think sometimes people feel, ‘Gosh, I’m the only person in the world going through this,’” he said. “And when you find out you have colleagues in other countries going through a lot of the same stresses and pressures, it makes you feel you’re more part of a continuum rather than just isolated out in the middle of nowhere.”