An Afghan Man’s Self-Representation Reveals Complexities of U.S. Immigration Court

by Joshua Brown
U.S. immigration court

The man from Afghanistan was solely conversant in Farsi, yet he felt confident representing himself in a U.S. immigration court. He assumed the specifics of his asylum application would be self-evident.

Before seeking refuge in the United States, Mohammad was an academic teaching human rights in Afghanistan. He belongs to the Hazara ethnic group, historically discriminated against in his homeland. Mohammad disclosed that he had been receiving threats of death from the Taliban since their resurgence in 2021.

Further complicating his case, Mohammad had been injured in a suicide attack back in 2016, which heightened his fears for his life.

At the end of a nearly three-hour proceeding, the court denied Mohammad’s asylum request. He later realized, to his astonishment, that he had unknowingly relinquished his right to challenge the decision.

Mohammad expressed his sense of isolation and a feeling that the law was not properly applied. He spoke to The Big Big News under the condition of anonymity due to concerns for the safety of his family, who remain in Afghanistan.

Pertinent Coverage

  • A Decade-Long Wait for Immigrants to Obtain a Court Date in the U.S.
  • Afghanistan’s Clock Turned Back by Taliban Extremists
  • Hazara Community in Afghanistan Faces Persecution from Birth to Death

Mohammad’s situation offers a unique window into a highly opaque and burdened U.S. immigration system. Closed hearings, unavailable transcripts, and rushed judgments exacerbate the problem, especially given the 2 million case backlog exacerbated by a significant influx of migrants at the Mexican border.

Mona Iman, an attorney now representing Mohammad, supplied AP with a transcript of the hearing and also translated Mohammad’s statements during a phone interview conducted from the Prairieland Detention Center in Alvarado, Texas.

Experts who assessed the hearing transcript concluded that Mohammad was inadequately prepared for self-representation and failed to comprehend the legal procedures. However, one former judge contended that the court’s decision was just.

Fortunately, Mohammad’s attorney has secured a re-hearing for his case. Concurrently, the Biden administration’s recent announcement of granting temporary legal status to Afghan immigrants adds optimism to his chances. Yet, Mohammad has spent approximately 18 months in detention and continues to face the threat of deportation.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to comment specifically on Mohammad’s situation, only mentioning that due process is available to all noncitizens.

Details of Mohammad’s April 27 Hearing

For his hearing, Mohammad furnished photographic evidence of injuries sustained in a 2016 suicide bombing, correspondence indicating threats from the Taliban, and medical documentation from 2021 relating to injuries to his head. The prosecution countered, alleging that Mohammad encouraged U.S. migration on social media, had inconsistencies in his personal history, and had family connections in other countries where he could have taken refuge.

Judge Allan John-Baptiste questioned the validity of the threats against Mohammad and noted that his family had remained unharmed since his departure. When Mohammad persisted in making his case, the judge terminated the presentation of evidence and inquired if Mohammad intended to appeal.

Mohammad was confused and later expressed that he had not understood that denying the appeal would be irrevocable.

Expert Opinions

Jeffrey Chase, a former immigration judge who reviewed the case, was taken aback that Mohammad’s right to appeal was waived. Another former judge, Andrew Arthur, argued that John-Baptiste had made a fair ruling.

Wider Implications

Last year, 63% of asylum cases were denied by approximately 600 immigration judges in the United States. Rates of denial vary substantially, from 100% by one judge in Houston to only 1% by another in San Francisco.

Mohammad’s spouse had previously applied for a special immigrant visa. However, the cumbersome nature of legal pathways prompted Mohammad to risk a perilous journey through multiple countries to the U.S. Now, he faces the prospect of another painful separation from his family if deported.

Mohammad’s case has been reopened, with a hearing set for October 4. His attorney, Mona Iman, is advocating for his immediate release and states that the outcome might have been different if Mohammad had proper legal representation initially.

The report is contributed by Big Big News reporter Elliot Spagat from San Diego.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about U.S. immigration court

What is the main subject of the article?

The article primarily focuses on the experience of an Afghan man, Mohammad, who represented himself in a U.S. immigration court for his asylum case and was denied. The article delves into the complexities and challenges of the U.S. immigration system, using Mohammad’s case as a lens to examine larger systemic issues.

Who is Mohammad and why did he seek asylum?

Mohammad is an Afghan man, formerly a university professor teaching human rights in Afghanistan. He belongs to the Hazara ethnic minority, which has a history of being persecuted in Afghanistan. He fled to the U.S. due to death threats he received under the Taliban regime, which regained power in 2021. Mohammad also survived a suicide bombing in 2016.

What challenges did Mohammad face in the immigration court?

Mohammad faced several challenges. He spoke only Farsi and did not have legal representation, leading him to misunderstand crucial elements of the proceedings. As a result, he inadvertently waived his right to appeal the judge’s decision to deny him asylum.

Why is this case significant?

Mohammad’s case is notable for offering a rare look into an opaque and overwhelmed U.S. immigration court system. It reveals the difficulties faced by asylum seekers, particularly those who are not well-equipped to navigate the legal system, and highlights the system’s backlogs and inefficiencies.

What is the current status of Mohammad’s case?

Mohammad has been granted a second hearing before a different judge, a rare occurrence in asylum cases. His attorney is hopeful, especially given a recent decision by the Biden administration to provide temporary legal status to Afghan migrants living in the U.S. for more than a year.

What did experts say about the case?

Opinions varied among experts who reviewed the hearing transcript. While some felt that Mohammad clearly didn’t understand the proceedings and was ill-equipped to represent himself, at least one former judge disagreed, stating that the ruling was fair.

What is the backlog situation in U.S. immigration courts?

The U.S. immigration courts are grappling with a backlog of around 2 million cases. This has placed significant pressure on judges and contributed to the inefficiencies and lack of transparency in the system.

What are the overall asylum denial rates in U.S. immigration courts?

According to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, 63% of asylum cases were denied last year by the 600 immigration judges nationwide. Denial rates vary significantly among individual judges.

What legal pathways did Mohammad consider before fleeing?

Before deciding to leave Afghanistan, Mohammad’s wife had applied for a special immigrant visa, which offers permanent residency to Afghans who worked for the U.S. government or military. However, this process can take years.

Who is currently representing Mohammad?

Mona Iman, an attorney with Human Rights First, is now representing Mohammad. She believes that Mohammad’s case would have turned out differently had he been properly represented from the outset.

More about U.S. immigration court

  • U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement: Policies and Procedures
  • Human Rights First: Advocacy and Legal Support
  • The Biden Administration’s Policy on Afghan Refugees
  • Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse: Immigration Statistics
  • Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans: Guidelines and Procedures
  • Center for Immigration Studies: Research and Analysis
  • Understanding the U.S. Asylum Process: A Comprehensive Guide
  • The Taliban and Persecution of Hazaras: Historical Context
  • U.S. Immigration Court System: An Overview
  • The Darien Gap: A Dangerous Route for Migrants

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JohnSmith47 September 24, 2023 - 9:30 pm

Man, this is so heartbreaking. Can’t believe how complicated and messy the system is. No one should go through that alone, specially not when their life is at stake. :/

Sarah_89 September 25, 2023 - 3:02 am

This piece is eye-opening. Really makes u wonder how many more ‘Mohammads’ are out there. We need reform ASAP!

Tim_in_Texas September 25, 2023 - 1:46 pm

The system’s overwhelmed, but that’s no excuse. We gotta do better. Mohammad deserves a fair hearing, and so do others.

LindaBee September 25, 2023 - 4:30 pm

I can’t even imagine the stress of representing yourself in a foreign court. Where’s the humanity? just sad

MikeH September 25, 2023 - 5:11 pm

Well written. Its a deep dive, you’ve really gone into the intricacies of the US immigration system. But, let’s be honest, some judges just don’t want to grant asylum, period.


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