Asylum-Seeker Rejected Based On Wikipedia, Appeals Court Reverts
By Ryan Singel EmailSeptember 02, 2008 | 2:48:18 PM
The Department of Homeland Security should not use the user-generated Wikipedia to decide whether an asylum seeker can enter the United States, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.
That judicial statement of the obvious (.pdf) from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a ruling by the Board of Immigration Appeals, which said DHS committed no big foul in using a site editable by anyone with a computer to decide the fate of a woman named Lamilem Badasa.
DHS decided to deport Badasa after consulting Wikipedia to decide whether a Ethiopian travel document known as a laissez-passer was adequate to prove her identity.
Using the Wikipedia page as evidence, the government convinced an immigration judge that the document did not prove her identity, calling it a one-way travel document based on information provided by the applicant.
While the Board of Immigration Appeals subsequently said it didn't "encourage the use of resources such as Wikipedia.com in reaching pivotal decisions in immigration proceedings," it allowed the decision to stand since it couldn't find any clear error.
The three-judge panel of the appeals court found that split decision disturbing. The court reiterated that anyone can edit Wikipedia and there's no guarantee that the information on the page at the time the government officials looked at it had any correct information at all. The site may have misled and tainted government officials' decisions in the case, the judges ruled:
The [Board of Immigration Appeals] presumably was concerned that Wikipedia is not a sufficiently reliable source on which to rest the determination that an alien alleging a risk of future persecution is not entitled to asylum. [...]
We do not know whether the [Immigration Judge] would have reached the same conclusion without Wikipedia, or whether (and, if so, why) the [Board of Immigration Appeals] believes that the IJ’s consideration of Wikipedia was harmless error, in the sense that it did not influence the IJ’s decision.
The appeals court sent the case back down to the Board of Immigration Appeals to have it explain why it believes Wikipedia didn't taint the entire decision-making process.
Future U.S. asylum seekers are well advised to make sure the Wikipedia page about, say, Burma's repressive government are adequately dire before submitting their application.