You Can’t Be Deported for Misunderstanding Thanksgiving

Michael Stephan 

Last week, the Ninth Circuit reversed an immigration court decision that denied political asylum to a Chinese immigrant who claimed to have been persecuted in China for practicing Christianity.  The immigrant, Lei Li, was initially denied asylum relief because the Immigration Judge found Li’s story of persecution to be not credible.  The reason for the IJ’s adverse credibility finding: Li thought that Thanksgiving was a Christian holiday.

The IJ, believing Thanksgiving to be not a Christian holiday, viewed Li’s understanding of Thanksgiving as an indication that Li was not really a Christian.  Accordingly, the IJ believed that Li must have fabricated his story of persecution, and Li’s asylum petition was denied.

The Ninth Circuit properly reversed in Li v. Holder, holding that “an IJ’s perception of a petitioner’s ignorance of religious doctrine is not a proper basis for an adverse credibility finding.”   Li’s case was remanded for further proceedings in immigration court.

Interestingly, the Ninth Circuit pointed out that historical American figures including George Washington and Abraham Lincoln saw Thanksgiving as a Christian holiday, so it’s not even clear that Li’s understanding of Thanksgiving was incorrect.  More importantly, however, is the Ninth Circuit’s clear directive that an IJ cannot simply deny relief if it thinks the immigrant-petitioner lacks adequate knowledge about his claimed religion.  That is, so-called “Bible quizzes” and other religious tests are improper bases of credibility determinations in the immigration context.

Immigration cases make up about 30% of the Ninth Circuit’s total caseload, and many (if not most) of those cases involve claims of religious persecution.  Various forms and intensities of Bible quizzes have been used in the past to ferret out the incredible petitioners from the credible ones (see, e.g.this 2008 case, Cosa v. Mukasey), and the Li court’s bright-line prohibition on such quizzes should clarify, at long last, that they are valueless.  The Li decision, therefore, constitutes a powerful precedent that protects the religious beliefs—and religious ignorance—of immigrants seeking removal relief.

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