May 5, 2010

NYLAG Files Class Action Challenging Unlawful Asylee Family Reunification Policy

New York, New York – May 5, 2010 – The New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) filed a class-action complaint, Tsamcho v. Napolitano, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York today on behalf of a class of immigrants granted asylum in the United States who are seeking to bring their spouses and children to this country.  The lawsuit challenges a new U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) policy that threatens to deprive asylees of the opportunity to reunite their families in the United States.

Federal law enables asylees to petition the government so that their spouses and unmarried children may join them in this country.  Once the petitions are approved, relatives living abroad must appear at a U.S. consulate to obtain authorization to travel to the United States.  Until recently, if a relative did not appear at a consulate or did not bring the requested documents, the approved petition was held until the relative could appear with the documents.  Now, however, when a relative doesn’t appear at the consulate or doesn’t bring the requested documents, USCIS is automatically reopening and denying the petition that it had previously approved.  USCIS makes no exceptions—not even when it is too dangerous for relatives to travel to a consulate or to request records from hostile local government officials, or when the relatives haven’t yet saved enough money to purchase plane tickets.

Lhakpa Tsamcho, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, is one of many asylees harmed by USCIS’s new policy.  Tsamcho is an ethnic Tibetan who was granted asylum in the United States after she fled persecution against Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China.  USCIS approved her petitions to bring her husband and three children to live with her in New York.  But when it came time to go to a U.S. consulate so their paperwork could be processed, Tsamcho’s relatives did not appear: her husband, youngest daughter, and son were unable to escape Tibet due to severe travel restrictions imposed upon Tibetans by the Chinese government following the Tibetan uprising in March, 2008, and her eldest daughter had already escaped Tibet but incorrectly believed that she would not be seen at the consulate unless her father and siblings were also present.  Rather than simply waiting until Tsamcho’s relatives could appear at a consulate, USCIS reopened and denied Tsamcho’s approved petitions.  In a perverse twist, the same persecution against Tibetans that was the basis for USCIS’s grant of asylum to Tsamcho has now lead to USCIS’s refusal to allow Tsamcho’s relatives to join her in the United States.

This lawsuit challenges USCIS’s new asylee family reunification policy, charging the agency with acting in violation of its own regulations, taking actions that are arbitrary and capricious, and implementing a new policy without providing proper notice to the public.

“Asylees affected by the government’s new policy have done everything required by law to reunite their families in the United States, yet they may now be permanently prevented from doing so,” said Jason Parkin, one of the NYLAG attorneys on the case.  “It makes no sense to tell an asylee that her relatives are eligible to join her in this country, only to later reverse that decision simply because they weren’t able to appear at an appointment or bring certain documents.”

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The New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) provides free civil legal services to New Yorkers who cannot afford a private attorney. Founded in 1990, NYLAG works to empower individuals, protect fundamental legal rights, and promote access to justice. With a reputation for responding quickly to emerging community needs, the agency offers a broad range of high quality and culturally competent services. For more information, go to www.nylag.org.