One key piece of evidence in most asylum cases is the witness letter. Under the REAL ID Act, asylum applicants are required to obtain evidence where such evidence is reasonably available. Often times, the only evidence that is reasonably available is a letter from a witness. So what makes a good witness letter?
First, the witness needs to identify herself and state how she knows the applicant. While this may seem like a no-brainer, you’d be surprised how many witnesses don’t include this information. I prefer that the witness states her name, address, phone number, and email address. Then she should describe how she knows the applicant (for example, “Mr. X and I met in the church choir in 2003.”).
Next, the witness should list what they know about the applicant’s claim–here, the attorney should emphasize to the witness (or the applicant who will relay it to the witness) that she should focus on the legally relevant facts. Extraneous material is a distraction. I can’t tell you how many witness letters I’ve seen where the witness rambles on about how he hopes everything is fine in America and that he is praying for the applicant. Who cares? Instead, the witness should mention what he or she knows about the case. One way to start this section of the letter is like this: “Mr. X asked me to write what I know about his problems in Cameroon. Here is what I know…”
Also, I prefer that the witness write about what she has seen with her own eyes. Did the witness see the applicant engage in political activity? Did she see the applicant get arrested? Did she see the applicant’s injuries after he was released from detention? The witness should write what she saw (and the date that she saw it). Secondhand information is admissible, but most fact finders will give such information little weight.
I also hate when witnesses give me general statements, like “Please don’t return to Ethiopia, it is dangerous here.” Not helpful. We want specific information about why it is dangerous, not general, conclusory statements that really tell us nothing. A better letter might say, “Please don’t return to Ethiopia, as the police came to the house on March 4, 2012 and they asked about you.”
My clients often ask about how long the letter should be. My hope is that the letters will be under one page, though sometimes more space is necessary if a witness has a lot of information. I prefer that the witness gets to the point and doesn’t waste time with irrelevant information, so hopefully that leads to shorter letters. Also, the longer the letter, the greater the possibility for inconsistencies.
Finally, I prefer that the witness include a copy of her photo ID (passport, work ID, school ID, etc.). Also, if the witness and the applicant know each other from school, for example, it would be nice to have some evidence that the witness attended the school (like a transcript). Of course, this assumes that the applicant has also included evidence that he attended that school.
One final note about witness letters. Unless they are consistent with the applicant’s affidavit, they will harm the case. I would rather submit no letter than an inconsistent letter. For this reason, it is important to compare the witness letters with the applicant’s affidavit (and his other evidence) to ensure consistency. While people often have different recollections of events–even dramatic events–the fact finder in an asylum case will likely draw a negative inference from inconsistent statements, and this could cause the application to be denied as not credible.
Witness letters are often crucial to a successful asylum application. A well-crafted letter will help your client’s case and could make the difference between a grant and a denial.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.
Jason Dzubow's practice focuses on immigration law, asylum, and appellate litigation. Mr. Dzubow is admitted to practice law in the federal and state courts of Washington, DC and Maryland, the United States Courts of Appeals for the Third, Fourth, Eleventh, and DC Circuits, all Immigration Courts in the United States, and the Board of Immigration Appeals. He is a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and the Capital Area Immigrant Rights (CAIR) Coalition. In June 2009, CAIR Coalition honored Mr. Dzubow for his Outstanding Commitment to Defending the Rights and Dignity of Detained Immigrants.In December 2011, Washingtonian magazine recognized Dr. Dzubow as one of the best immigration lawyers in the Washington, DC area; in March 2011, he was listed as one of the top 25 legal minds in the country in the area of immigration law. Mr. Dzubow is also an adjunct professor of law at George Mason University in Virginia.