A Game of Online Telephone: Homeschooling, Asylum, and the Attorney General

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A Game of Online Telephone: Homeschooling, Asylum, and the Attorney General, By Nicholas Bolzman

HA note: Nicholas Bolzman blogs at Looking for Overland, a joint blog project “authored by three friends who met at Patrick Henry College and then worked together at the Home School Legal Defense Association.” This essay was originally published on February 26, 2013 and is reprinted with his permission. Nicholas Bolzman received his JD from Michigan State University College of Law last spring and is a graduate of Patrick Henry College.

Dear homeschooling community:

Despite what you may have heard, the arguments presented by the Department Justice in the case involving German homeschoolers do not pose a direct threat to your homeschooling freedoms.

Over the last few weeks I’ve watch as, in a game of online telephone, this story has evolved from HSLDA’s Mike Farris’ musings, to the question of whether domestic homeschooling rises or falls with this case to, finally, “Holder vs. home schooling.”

Unfortunately, in the hysteria, the actual issue at stake seems to have been lost.

As a brief background on the case, in January of 2010, an Immigration Judge granted asylum to the family. The Department of Homeland Security appealed that decision to the Board of Immigration Appeals, which reversed the Immigration Judge in May of 2012. The family has now appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals and is awaiting a decision. Once that decision is made, the losing side can request the Supreme Court for review.

Three primary issues need to be remembered as we think about this case.

First, the dispute is not really about constitutional rights.

Yes, parental rights are considered a fundamental constitutional right here in the United States, but that is largely beside the point. Since the German state is not bound by our Constitution, whether it has “violated” it or whether its actions would be permitted if conducted by a US political entity is immaterial. Germany, as a sovereign political entity, has the authority to make the laws governing German citizens.

Asylum, in a general sense, is inherently a check on sovereignty. And it must be couched in such terms. More than a mere preference, it is a statement that the oppressing state acted in an illegitimate manner toward its citizens. This transfers the debate about homeschooling from one of US Constitutional rights (which are largely irrelevant to asylum claims) to one of international human rights.

As I’ve written before, there is support for parental choice in education being a peremptory human right. That, and not domestic constitutional rights language, is where the debate lies. This case does have the potential to make a large impact on the status of parental rights in the international sphere, and for that reason I’m hopeful that the family wins. But even if the family loses, Eric Holder won’t be sending out SWAT teams to round up US homeschooling families.

Second, the litigation is not concentrated on whether the homeschooling family is wanted, is desirable, or would otherwise make a positive contribution to the nation.

It is not about whether the family should or can homeschool here. The government is not attempting to deport them because they homeschool. Instead, the question is whether Germany’s denial of the family’s right to homeschool makes them a “refugee.” If it does not, they do not have legal immigration status and, like all others without status, they would be required to leave or find some other way to obtain status.

To qualify as a refugee the family must show that they are someone “who is persecuted or who has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” INA 101(a)(42)(B); 8 USC § 1101(a)(42)(B).

This definition is easily broken into two parts, the treatment part (persecution) and the prosecutor’s motivation (“on account of…”). Even if “persecution”–which Congress never bothered to define–is shown, only certain types of persecution make one eligible for asylum. The persecuting government must be doing the persecution “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”

The litigation before the Sixth Circuit includes parts of both elements.

First, the government is making the case that Germany’s treatment of the family does not amount to persecution. Under the legal standard, not every form of mistreatment constitutes persecution. It must reach a certain level of seriousness–often including physical beatings or threats of death. However, it can also include economic coercion. For the German family, even the initial Immigration Judge who granted asylum did not find that they had suffered past persecution. However, he did find that they had a well-founded fear of future persecution based on Germany’s treatment of homeschoolers in general.

But persecution aside, the family also has to show that they were targeted on “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” Race, nationality, and political opinion are not even being argued, so the only two arguments the family is using are religion and membership in a particular social group. Religion is tricky, since while the law does interfere with their religions beliefs, it is a general law that does not single them out or in any other way target them. Social group is the other argument, but that term is so loosely defined and unclear that there is little hope to avoid litigation when asserting it.

That German homeschoolers are a particular social group is certainly a strong argument, but it is not one that asylum law has previously recognized, so it should not be surprising that DOJ would resist.

And asylum claims against general laws are often unsuccessful, the most notorious example being the BIA’s 1989 holding that those fleeing China’s one-child policy were not eligible for asylum (in 1996 the asylum definition was specifically amended to fix this). Conscientious objectors to a general draft law have also been denied. The rationale here is that states have authority to pass laws that apply to everyone, and absent something extreme, enforcing that law is not persecution on account of one of the protected grounds.

So, although one can characterize the government’s motivations in continuing the litigation as opposition to homeschooling, it is just as easy to interpret it as a strict adherence to our immigration laws. And isn’t that something conservatives want?

Third, it is dangerous to impose personal motivations on the attorneys or departments based on their positions.

If this approach were viable, then the following conclusions must also be drawn:

  • That the Bush administration, and specifically Attorney General Ashcroft, supported child soldiers in Uganda (asylum granted by Third Circuit, but DOJ litigated against, 2003).
  • That the Bush Administration somehow wanted the death of Edgar Chocoy, the Guatemalan teen who escaped a gang with a price on his head, made it to the United States, and claimed asylum. His claim was denied and he was returned to Guatemala. He was shot to death one week later.

And that is only a small sample of the asylum cases either denied or objected to by the US government over the past thirty years. DHS/DOJ routinely denies or opposes asylum claims from those who believe they are going back to situations much worse than the German family. That is their job.

Please don’t get me wrong. Germany is violating peremptory human rights in its denial of homeschooling freedoms, and the family should be granted asylum. But the mere fact that the attorneys at DOJ oppose what they see as an expansion of asylum law–as they routinely oppose situations much worse than this–is no grounds to vilify them.

If anything, the litigation calls into question whether our asylum law is too strict.

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One response to “A Game of Online Telephone: Homeschooling, Asylum, and the Attorney General

  1. Pingback: Michael Farris’s Testimony Before the Senate on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Part 1: By Rachel Lazerus | H . A·

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