University of New Hampshire

School of Law

Social Justice Institute Director Signs On To Amicus Brief On Refugee Status

Erin Corcoran, a professor of law at the University of New Hampshire School of Law and the director of its Social Justice Institute, has joined law professors around the country in a plea to the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve a Circuit Court split on refugee status based on family persecution.

The amicus brief, which was filed July 22, was submitted by professors from 18 law schools, including Yale, Columbia, Cornell, the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania. It asks the high court to examine the case of Rudina Demiraj and her son, Rediol Demiraj, Albanian nationals who are the wife and son, respectively, of Edmond Demiraj, a material witness in the United States’ prosecution of a member of the Albanian mafia.

Before Edmond Demiraj could testify, the accused fled to Albania. Because Edmond Demiraj was of no further use to the U.S. government, he was deported, and when he returned to Albania, the accused located him and kidnapped, beat and shot him, as well as assaulted his brother and kidnapped three of his teenage nieces and trafficked them to Western Europe to be prostitutes. Demiraj and his nieces each eventually escaped to the United States, where Demiraj was granted withholding of removal and his nieces were granted asylum. Demiraj’s wife and son, Rudina and Rediol, applied for asylum on the grounds that their membership in Demiraj family made them subject to persecution in their country.

While no one has denied the family’s claims of persecution, or expressed doubt that if Rudina and Rediol were to return to Albania, their lives would be in danger, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled, in a split decision, that Rudina and Rediol are not technically eligible for asylum, as their persecution would result from one family member’s actions, not strictly “on account of" membership in the Demiraj family itself.

The brief argues that “the Fifth Circuit’s novel rule stands in stark contrast to the rules in the other circuits that have addressed persecution based on a particular social group in general and the family group in particular.”

“The question of whether an innocent person who fears persecution as a family member in retaliation for another family member’s acts is a ‘refugee’ and hence eligible for discretionary asylum is a fundamental one,” according to the brief. It asks the Supreme Court “resolve the circuit split and provide for a uniform law of refugee status based on family persecution.”

Corcoran, who teaches Immigration Law and Human Rights law, and whose scholarship focuses on protecting vulnerable populations, joined this amicus brief because she is concerned that this Fifth Circuit case decision undermines the United State’s domestic and international obligations to protect refugees fleeing persecution. 

“The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice have failed to provide guidance to judges on how to assess membership in a particular social group," she said. "It is imperative that the Supreme Court set the record straight that family membership is the quintessential example of a social group. Those fleeing torture and death based on their relation to another family member should be protected under refugee law and not sent back to certain death.”

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