Stephen Paskey, legal analysis, writing and research lecturer, takes a critical look at how federal immigration judges decide whether to grant refugees’ asylum requests in his article, “Telling Refugee Stories: Trauma, Credibility, and the Adversarial Adjudication of Claims for Asylum.”
Published last year in the Santa Clara Law Review, the article has been selected to receive the Penny Pether Award for Law & Language Scholarship, given biennially to acknowledge excellence in interdisciplinary law scholarship, especially work drawing on language theory. The award is named for Penny Pether, a distinguished scholar who had a particular interest in language and literature and a passion for social justice. This is the third time the award has been conferred; the previous winners were from Harvard and Columbia Law Schools.
Paskey says the article grew out of his experience as a litigating attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice, where he represented the government in hundreds of asylum hearings. The administrative law judges who decide these cases, he says, typically base their decisions on whether the petitioners tell a credible story about abuse they have suffered in their homeland, or the threat of persecution if they were to return. The issue of credibility often hinges on whether the facts of the story stay consistent over the long course of the application process, which typically includes both oral testimony and a written declaration.
An article by an Israeli scholar, noting that people who suffer post-traumatic stress often tell fragmented, inconsistent narratives, convinced Paskey that factual consistency was not a fair criterion for judging the plaintiff’s credibility. Paskey set out to examine the hearing process in light of this.
With a grant from the University at Buffalo’s Baldy Center for Law & Social Policy, he studied 369 asylum decisions issued by federal appeals courts in 2010. He found, “When immigration judges conclude an applicant is not credible, they overwhelmingly rely on inconsistencies within or among the various versions of the applicant’s story, and especially inconsistencies between the testimony and declaration.”
His article uses the approach of structuralist narrative theory to distinguish between the content of the story that a witness tells – its timeline, characters and events – and the way the story is told. For survivors of traumatic events, Paskey argues, the latter is evidence of truth-telling, rather than absolute consistency in the details of the story.
“I wanted to look at the structure of the story,” he says. “It’s less about the specific words than about the way the words are structured. Part of what I was trying to do is show people that you can gain valuable practical insights from the ideas of narrative theory.”
Paskey says he plans to organize a conference in Washington, D.C. that will include leading immigration practitioners and experts in refugee trauma. “The hope,” he says, “is that discussion would then motivate the Office of the Chief Immigration Judge to provide training to all immigration judges on the effects of trauma” – giving them the tools to make better judgments in these life-and-death cases.
Paskey graduated with honors from the University of Maryland School of Law in 1994, where he was elected to the Order of the Coif. After graduation, he clerked for Hon. Arrie W. Davis of the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. In addition to working as a senior trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, Paskey taught at Pacific McGeorge School of Law before joining UB School of Law in 2009.