Pro Bono News

Federal Government Sued For Withholding Documents From Asylum Seekers

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

  • Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area
  • Source: CALegalAdvocates (Decommissioned) >

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, with pro bono counsel Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, filed suit today in federal court in San Francisco to challenge the federal government’s policy and practice of denying asylum seekers timely access to notes of their asylum interviews. Because these interviews are not recorded, the notes taken by the Asylum Officers conducting the interviews often provide the only means of understanding what transpired during the interviews, which are key to the process for deciding which asylum applications are granted. The lawsuit charges that the government is violating the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and other federal law in withholding the notes from applicants and their attorneys. The complaint is attached here.

When an asylum seeker’s application is not granted by the Asylum Office, she is referred for deportation proceedings at the Immigration Court if she does not have other lawful immigration status. There, she can renew her application for asylum, but the application will be contested by a government attorney. 

For years, attorneys representing asylum seekers in Immigration Court have used the FOIA to secure the interview notes to better understand their clients’ cases and help them prepare for their hearings. Then the government changed course and started refusing to release the notes, claiming that the FOIA allows it to withhold this material from applicants and their attorneys. Despite this position, the government frequently uses the very same notes to oppose asylum in the hearings at the Immigration Court. At that point, the notes are released to the asylum applicant and her attorney, but by then, they come too late. 

The plaintiff, San Francisco immigration attorney Jeffrey Martins, has brought the lawsuit to fix the problems that have resulted.  “Asylum interviews are incredibly stressful for the applicant, whose very lives can be on the line in the process. It is a rare client who can remember much of what was said during a lengthy interview,” Martins explained. “The notes enable us to understand where the client did not do an adequate job representing herself. Without them, we can’t fully assess the case, determine what additional evidence should be provided to the Court, and give the best advice possible to the client,” said Martins. 

Robin Goldfaden, a senior immigrants’ rights attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee, added that the lawsuit seeks to correct a fundamental unfairness in the process for asylum seekers. “Asylum is too serious a matter for the government to withhold important documents until the last possible second and deprive applicants of the opportunity to clear up the kind of miscommunications and misunderstandings that can occur,” said Goldfaden. 

Thomas R. Burke, a partner with Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, further noted that the Freedom of Information Act is intended to ensure access to documents like the notes for asylum seekers and their legal representatives. He added, “The law does not permit the government to time the release of information to its own advantage.  The right of access must be paramount.”

The lawsuit, Martins v. USCIS, has been filed with the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. Attorneys for the plaintiff in the case include Robin Goldfaden of the Lawyers’ Committee and Thomas R. Burke and Jeff Glasser of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP.

About the Lawyers' Committee
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCR), founded in 1968, works to advance, protect and promote the legal rights of communities of color, immigrants and refugees, with a specific focus on low-income communities and a long-standing commitment to African-Americans. Working with hundreds of pro bono attorneys, LCCR provides free legal assistance and representation to individuals on civil legal matters through direct services, impact litigation and policy advocacy. For more information, visit