A Well-Founded Fear of School?

Tuesday’s Washington Post discusses an intriguing asylum case: an immigration judge in Memphis granted asylum to a German couple who fled their homeland to avoid its mandatory schooling policy.  Uwe Romeike, along with his wife and five chilren, are evangelical Christians who had decided to homeschool their children both because they believed the public school curriculum to be “against Christian values” and because their children faced violence, bullying, and peer pressure in public schools.  The Romeikes took their children out of school in their home state of Baden-Wuerttemberg in 2006, and paid fines of approximately $10,000 over 2 years for doing so.  That state constitution requires that children attend public or private schools; parents who refuse to comply can face fines or even jail time, or in severe cases, Germany’s highest appellate court ruled that social service officials could remove children from their parents.

There are so many interesting angles to the decision that it’s hard to know where to start.  Some might question whether the ability to choose how to school one’s child is a fundamental human right that should be protected by asylum law.  The German consul for the Southeast U.S. noted that “German parents have a wide range of educational options for their children.”  Should the Romeikes be sent back to Germany on the assumption that they could find a religious school that provided instruction acceptable to their value system?  Under U.S. asylum law, if internal relocation is an option to avoid persecution, applicants must move within their own country to find safety before coming to the United States.  The Romeikes had the option not only of relocating within Germany but also, as citizens of the European Union, of living and working in any member state (some of which allow home schooling and others of which surely offer affordable education that accords with evangelical religious values).

The involvement of the German consul also raises questions about the appropriateness of immigration court as a messenger in foreign affairs.  Romeike’s lawyer said that he took on the case in part because he hoped to influence public opinion in Germany, while the consul defended the law as a policy decision that “ensures a high standard of learning for all children.”  Should our immigration courts be questioning the policy judgments of solidly democratic nations with robust and procedurally fair legal systems?  Asylum has for many years been used as a political tool, for better or for worse, but this seems one step too far.  In any case, I’m interested in readers’ thoughts — are the Romeikes modern-day pilgrims, or is this just another misguided decision by our dysfunctional immigration courts?

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6 Responses

  1. Levanah says:

    …or by our self-styled “Christian Right,” which is actively seeking to educate its children in its own way not only in order to preserve its own religious values and beliefs but, by its own professed goals, to break down the separation of Church and State in this country and replace our Constitutional democracy with a Theocracy founded on its own very narrowly-(and, as some others, Christian as well as non-, might argue, sometimes nastily)-delineated principles?

    This comment, mind you, is from one who homeschooled a currently highly-educated and successful daughter and who will continue to advocate for the right to home-school…even with what I have learned along the way about some of my “bedfellows.”

  2. Matt says:

    I should first say that I’ve not read the opinion (I don’t know if it’s available, or even if it is if it would be very useful- sometimes IJ asylum opinions are not, as you well know) or the briefs, so I’m far from confident about the details. But, beyond that, I have slightly mixed feelings but don’t think it’s an obviously wrong decision. My feelings are mixed because I think what the parents want is objectively bad for the kids, and that they’d be better going to public school in Germany. But asylum law doesn’t require that parents be willing to do what’s best for their kids, nor should it. And, the penalties here seem quite harsh and at least arguably rising to the level of persecution. (Maybe not- but it’s at least not obvious to me that it’s not so.) And, on the relocation, I’m pretty sure that while internal relocation is required if possible, there’s no obligation to seek asylum in any other particular country, so the mere fact that the applicants could have moved to, say, England is no good reason to deny the case, any more than would be the fact that many Jews could move to Israel would be a good reason to deny them asylum in the US if needed. Finally, I’m pretty troubled by the apparent role played by the German government in the case. While the US government may reasonably seek to find information about the country in question, any active involvement by the country in question in an asylum claim (as seems to have happened here, though I can’t say for sure) strikes me as inappropriate and disturbing. But it does seem to me that many who are commenting on this case are letting the fact that they find the applicants to be unattractive (as do I!) and to be doing something wrong to their children (I agree!) to unduly cover their view of the law here.

  3. Jaya Ramji-Nogales says:

    Thanks for your comment, Matt. A few clarifications: first, the IJ opinion is not available, as far as I know. Second, as the WaPo article makes clear, the German government did not play a role in the case; it issued a general statement that did not mention the Romeike’s case, but was clearly directed at the decision.

    Finally, the question of whether the internal relocation requirement extends throughout the EU is most likely one of first impression given the scarcity of asylum claims from EU nations. As a decisionmaker, I would look to the UN Refugee Convention, particularly Article 1(C)(3) which requires cessation of asylum status where an asylum seeker “has acquired a new nationality, and enjoys the protection of the country of his new nationality.” Given that EU citizenship includes the right to move and reside freely within the EU (http://ec.europa.eu/justice_home/fsj/citizenship/fsj_citizenship_intro_en.htm), the situation of EU citizens is more akin to that of, say, an individual persecuted in their home country who is also Canadian permanent resident seeking asylum in the United States. It seems to me the right decision in that instance to deny asylum to an individual who has the legal right to reside in another state.

  4. Matt says:

    Thanks Jaya- that’s useful. As I say, I think it’s a close case on a number of factors. I’m not certain it’s right, so all I want to assert is that it’s not, I think, obviously wrong. I of course know the UN Refugee Convention on relocation, but I’d think it’s better to interpret the passage you cite more narrowly, so that in order to “enjoy the protection” of a state one must be in the jurisdiction of the state in question and actually enjoying it’s protection. That doesn’t seem to have happened in this case. That line of thinking has some support from cases involving Jews (from Iran, if I recall correctly, though I don’t have time to look it up now) who didn’t want to go to Israel, though they had a right to do so. Their right was perhaps less clear than the right of the applicants to go to, say, the UK here (though even movement in the EU isn’t fully free) but I’d here also wonder about whether the UK would have an obligation to help Germany enforce its decisions in such a case. Anyway, it seems like a close case to me, but my tendency is to want to judge asylum cases generously, regardless of how I feel about the applicants, and to interpret bars narrowly. It’s not obvious to me that this one applied here given that the applicants seem to have gone directly from Germany to the US without having “enjoyed the protection” of any other EU state.

  5. Civ Pro King says:

    Should our immigration courts be questioning the policy judgments of solidly democratic nations with robust and procedurally fair legal systems?

    No! Germany is indeed a solidly democratic nation. This is a lesson for Civ. Pro. readers on being in the right “forum.”

  6. Tim R. says:

    A quote from the ruling. “We can’t expect every country to follow our constitution,” said Judge Burman. “The world might be a better place if it did. However, the rights being violated here are basic human rights that no country has a right to violate.” (see more from the opinion, and a brief filed by the Romeikes at http://www.hslda.org/hs/international/Germany/201001260.asp)

    Civ Pro King – even “solidly democratic nations” shouldn’t be allowed to violate basic human rights.