Monday, July 29, 2013

Sixth Circuit Denies Rehearing in Deportation Case Involving Homeschoolers

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has declined to rehear Romeike v. Holder, a case involving a family of German homeschoolers who have spent the past several years seeking political asylum in the United States.  The family of Uwe and Hannelore Romeike, backed by the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), now can only turn to the United States Supreme Court for legal relief.

The Romeikes’ legal saga began when they became dissatisfied with the schooling that their children were receiving in their native Germany.   It troubled Uwe Romeike that teachers were failing to control the unruly behavior of many students, as this disrupted the learning experiences of his own children.  Also disturbing to the family were stories used in German readers that depicted devils and witches.  These same books also seemed to valorize disobedient children.  

The family came to believe that German schools were doing nothing to build the character of their children.  And worse, they became to fear that the public school curriculum would influence their children to question Christian values.

To shield their five children (whose ages ranged from two to twelve when the dispute began) from such influences, the Romeikes decided to teach the youngsters at home.  But they faced a significant legal hurdle in doing so: German law has prohibited homeschooling since at least1938.  Education officials there have explained that requiring children to attend schools fosters social integration and ensures that “parallel societies” do not develop.

The Romeikes were prosecuted – successfully – for truancy.  Fines eventually totaling over $11,000 were levied, and authorities warned that they might lose custody of the children.  At one point, police visited the home, placed the children in a van, and drove the children to school.  (A second effort to force the children to school failed when . The next time, four adults and seven children from the Romeikes’ homeschooling support group intervened.)  

To avoid such conflicts, the family fled to the United States in 2008 and sought asylum.  Their claim essentially was that they were fleeing religious persecution at the hands of the German government.
Initially, the Romeikes were granted political asylum by an immigration judge who found that, as homeschoolers, they had reason to fear such persecution.  Judge Lawrence O. Burman claimed that the family had a “principled opposition to government policy” and decried the German policy as “utterly repellent to everything we believe as Americans.”  The rights being denied the Romeikes, he asserted, were “basic human rights that no country has a right to violate.”

The federal government appealed that decision to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA).   U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the chief investigative arm of the Division of Homeland Security, filed an appeal claiming that homeschoolers were too “amorphous” to be a “particular social group” eligible for asylum.  The appeal argued that “United States law has recognized the broad power of the state to compel school attendance and regulate curriculum and teacher certification,” as well as the “authority to prohibit or regulate homeschooling.”

The BIA sided with ICE and overturned the judge’s finding in favor of the family.   “There is no indication that officials are motivated by anything other than law enforcement,” the court held, finding that there was “appropriate administration of the law, not persecution.”  The board found that the Romeikes “did not establish a well-founded fear of persecution or the higher threshold of a clear probability of persecution.” 
From there, the case then went to a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.  Here, the Romeikes lost again, with the panel finding that “they have not shown that Germany’s enforcement of its general school attendance law amounts to persecution against them, whether on grounds of religion or membership in a recognized social group.”  Key to this ruling was the court’s finding that Germany applied its truancy laws to all parents who failed to send their children to schools outside their homes.  There was no singling out of the Romeikes because of their religious or political beliefs.

The family petitioned for a rehearing of their case by the full court, but that move was denied.  This sets the stage for an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.  

Michael Farris, the founder and chairman of HSLDA, says that the group is backing the Romeikes because the family “deserves the freedom that this country was founded on.”  Farris claims that the Sixth Circuit erred in ignoring the anti-religious origins of Germany’s ban on homeschooling. He also argues that the court failed to acknowledge the Romeikes’ rights as parents.

As they move forward with their case, the Romeikes have drawn attention from a number of groups backing conservative Christian and homeschooling causes.  The Eagle Forum, for instance, has argued that if the family ultimately is deported, “The shadows of the Nazi swastika, an iconic reminder of foreign-bred despotism around the world, will lengthen over America.”

Congressman Marlin Stutzman (R-IN) has led a group of 27 members of Congress in urging U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to grant the Romeike family asylum. “A decision to deny the Romeikes the opportunity to educate their children freely is a decision to abandon our commitment to freedom,”  they write.

It’s understandable that the Romeikes’ plight resonates with such groups.  Homeschooling is widespread in the United States, and it’s only loosely regulated in some areas.  For many, it’s inconceivable that a family could be denied the opportunity to educate their children in this manner, particular when their motivations are religious.  However, the case is not really about the protections for religious liberty and parental rights codified in American law.   Rather, it turns on the standards for granting asylum, which are both different and far more narrow.

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