11th Circuit Zaps BIA’s Overbroad Interpretation Of “Prison” — Alfaro v. Attorney General — “Rebel-controlled trailer in a jungle is not a ‘prison.'”


Key Quote:

“The BIA’s determination that Alfaro was confined to a prison is erroneous. The status adjustment application asked whether Alfaro had ever been confined in a prison, and we cannot conclude as a matter of law that a rebel-controlled trailer in the middle of the Nicaraguan jungle is a “prison.” In ordinary usage, a prison is a “building or complex where people are kept in long-term confinement as punishment for a crime . . . specif[ically], a state or federal facility of confinement for convicted criminals.” Black’s Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014). Both the definition and the plain meaning of the word suggest that legal authority to confine someone is a necessary component. That is to say, a prison is an instrumentality of the state, and it is the state’s legal authority to confine someone that distinguishes confinement in a prison from confinement by one without legal authority to do so, say a kidnapper, for instance. 3

In arguing that Alfaro’s confinement constitutes confinement in a “prison,” both the government and the BIA liken the trailer to a military prison because Alfaro was placed there involuntarily, during wartime, following a war-related incident. But Alfaro was not confined in a prison, he was confined in a small

3 Even assuming that Alfaro did previously say that he was in “jail,” whether Alfaro was confined to a prison is a question of law determined by the definition of the word “prison.”


Case: 14-14913 Date Filed: 07/13/2017 Page: 7 of 7

trailer, in a jungle, by a group of his peers—the Contras—fellow rebels fighting to overthrow their government. It was nothing like a military prison. The Contras were not military personnel, they were insurgents, and they were not acting under any governmental or legal authority to detain him. The Contras did not charge or convict Alfaro of any crime because they lacked the authority to do so. Indeed, it is not even clear whether Alfaro was being punished or whether he was just being questioned pending an inquiry into the incident. Regardless, we hold that as a matter of law, a rebel-controlled trailer in a jungle is not a “prison.” 

PANEL: TJOFLAT and WILSON, Circuit Judges, and ROBRENO, District Judge.

OPINION BY: Judge Wilson


Even relatively “pro-Government” Circuits like the 11th appear to be getting weary of the BIA’s attempts to expand the reach of removal statutes.