An opinion by Judge Reinhardt out of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday shows how to properly view the role of religion in asylum and immigration matters.
Kurniawan Salim had first filed for asylum in 2006 when he was a Buddhist on the grounds that he feared returning to Indonesia because of his Chinese ancestry. His claim was rejected. Still in the United States, he has since converted to Catholicism, and now asserts a fear of persecution based on religion if he returns to Indonesia. Yet the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) rejected his request to reopen his case, claiming the evidence offered was “largely cumulative” of that offered in his first case.
Thankfully, Judge Reinhardt reversed the BIA, which had apparently missed the significance of the fact that Kurniawan was now a Christian and had offered significant evidence he would be persecuted on that basis. As Judge Reinhardt observed, the BIA’s “reasoning makes little sense where, as here, the motion to reopen presents a different basis for relief than was relied upon during the prior hearing. In such cases, the evidence related to the new claim for relief is necessarily “qualitatively different” from that offered at the earlier hearing.”
Kurniawan had submitted significant evidence that hostility toward Christians in Indonesia had dramatically increased since his first case, with a letter from his sister in Jakarta describing the immediate threat of attacks against Christians in her area. Judge Reinhardt additionally found that the BIA erred by failing to examine the evidence that Christians were threatened in light of Kurniawan’s membership of this specific religious group.
Judge Reinhardt accurately diagnosed the religious freedom threat for this asylum applicant, while the BIA showed an ignorance of the role religion plays in this type of case. If those at the BIA can’t understand that evidence of threats against Christians matter because someone is a Christian and not a Buddhist, we are in trouble. It is not sufficient to merely recognize the role of religion generally (though that is not always properly done), but government officials must also understand the religious freedom component of these cases as informed by the social, political, and interreligious dynamics of specific areas around the world. They must also bring this clear-headed approach to the broader context of immigration and security, which needs our objectivity and understanding much more than our simple, one-size-fits-all “solutions.”
This case is a glimpse into how international religious freedom as a human right should inform our values as they play out in our immigration system. America has been and will hopefully remain a beacon around the world for the freedom to choose one’s beliefs and live them out without fear of harm. Kudos to Judge Reinhardt for protecting this freedom today.