HOW THE BIA UNFAIRLY DENIES PROTECTION TO CENTRAL AMERICAN REFUGEES WHILE ENCOURAGING U.S. IMMIGRATION JUDGES TO DO THE SAME
By Paul Wickham Schmidt
U.S. Immigration Judge (Retired)
Two recent (alas unpublished) decisions from the Third and Second Circuits illustrate a key point that the Hon. Jeffrey Chase and I have made in our prior blogs: too often the BIA goes out of its way to bend the law and facts of cases to deny asylum seekers, particularly those from Central America, the protection to which they should be entitled. The BIA’s erroneous interpretations and applications of the asylum law have a corrupting effect on the entire fair hearing system in the U.S. Immigration Courts and the DHS Asylum Offices.
Aguilar v. Attorney General, 3d Cir., 08-16-17
Aguilar credibly testified that he was extorted by MS-13 because he was a successful businessman. Aguilar publicly complained to neighbors about the gang and said he would like them exterminated. Thereafter, the gang told him that because he had complained, they were doubling the amount of their extortion to $100 and would kill his family if he didn’t comply. Eventually, the gang increased the demand to $500 and threatened Aguilar at gunpoimt. Aguilar left the country and sought asylum in the U.S.
What should have happened:
Aguilar presented a classic “mixed motive” case. In a gang-ridden society like El Salvador, public criticism of gangs is a political opinion. This is particularly true because gangs have infiltrated many levels of government. Indeed in so-called “peace negotiations,” the Salvadoran government treated gangs like a separate political entity.
Undoubtedly, the gang’s increased extortion combined with death threats against Aguilar and his family resulted from his public political criticism of the gangs. Indeed, they told him that was the reason for increasing the amount to $100. There also is no doubt that gangs are capable of carrying out threats of harm up to the level of death and that the Salvadoran government is often unwilling or unable to protect its citizens from gangs.
Consequently, the respondent has established a well-founded fear (10% chance) of future persecution. He has also shown that political opinion is at least one central reason for such persecution. Consequently, Aguilar and his family should be granted asylum.
What actually happened:
The Immigration Judge denied Aguilar’s claim, finding that Aguilar’s statements were not made “in a political context” and also that the increased extortion and threats of harm were motivated by “pecuniary interest or personal animus” not a political opinion. The BIA affirmed on appeal.
What the Third Circuit said:
“Nothing in this exchange indicates that Aguilar believed that MS continued asking him for money “over the years” solely because he was a business owner or that their motive did not evolve over time. Rather, Aguilar’s earlier testimony stated that after he had made his negative statements about MS, “a few days pass, less than a week, when I have them back, and three of them came, and they said, we heard that you talked badly about us, and because you did that we are going to charge you $100 a week from now on, and if you don’t pay that we are going to kill your family.” (A.R. 171 (emphasis added).) In other words, Aguilar testified that the gang specifically cited his statements as the reason why it was increasing his payments. This runs contrary to the BIA’s conclusion
that his testimony “did not indicate a belief that he was targeted on account of any beliefs, opinions, or actions,” (App. 10), and directly supports his mixed motive argument. Despite affirming the IJ’s determination that Aguilar was credible, (App. 10), the BIA failed to acknowledge this important portion of Aguilar’s testimony. Instead, both the BIA and IJ determined that Aguilar had failed to show that his increased extortion payments and threats were the result of a protected ground rather than the pecuniary interest or personal animus of MS. However, the BIA has recognized that [p]ersecutors may have differing motives for engaging in acts of persecution, some tied to reasons protected under the Act and others not. Proving the actual, exact reason for persecution or feared persecution may be impossible in many cases. An asylum applicant is not obliged to show conclusively why persecution has occurred or may occur. In Re S-P-, 21 I. & N. Dec. 486, 489 (B.I.A. 1996). As such, “an applicant does not bear the unreasonable burden of establishing the exact motivation of a ‘persecutor’ where different reasons for actions are possible.” Id. While we must affirm factual determinations unless the record evidence would compel any reasonable factfinder to conclude to the contrary, Aguilar’s credible testimony supports his assertion that the increased payments were, at least in part, the result of his negative statements. Requiring him to show that the MS members were motivated by his membership in the particular social group of persons who have spoken out publicly against the MS and who have expressed favor for vigilante organizations, rather than personal animus because of those statements, would place an unreasonable burden on Aguilar. There is no clear delineation between these two motives, and there is
no additional evidence that we can conceive of that would allow Aguilar to hammer down the gang members’ precise motivations, short of their testimony. Rather, the immediacy with which the gang increased its demands coupled with its stated reason for the increase leads us to conclude that any reasonable fact finder would hold that Aguilar had demonstrated that the increased demands were at least in part motivated by his statements.
The question now becomes whether Aguilar’s statements were a political opinion or if they indicated his membership in a particular social group. The IJ determined that Aguilar’s criticism of MS was not made in a political context, and the BIA affirmed. (App. 2, 24 n.3.) However, neither the IJ nor the BIA provided reasoning to support this finding. Similarly, the IJ determined that Aguilar’s proposed particular social groups were not sufficiently particular or socially distinct. (App. 24 n.3.) Again, no reasoning was given. The BIA declined to weigh in on the issue because it found that Aguilar had not met his burden of showing a nexus between the persecution and a protected ground. Thus, we will vacate and remand the issue to the BIA to review whether Aguilar’s proposed groups are sufficiently particular or distinct, and to provide a more detailed review of whether his statements were a political opinion. Aguilar’s application for withholding of removal should similarly be reevaluated in light of our guidance.”
Martinez-Segova v. Sessions, 2d Cir., 08-18-17
Martinez-Segova suffered domestic abuse at the hands of her husband. She suffered harm rising to the level of past persecution on account of a particular social group. However, the DHS claims that the Salvadoran government is not unwilling or unable to protect Martinez-Segova because she obtained a protective order from a court. After the protective order was granted the respondent’s husband “violated the order with impunity by showing up to her place of work kissing and grabbing her and begging her to return.”
According to the U.S. State Department,
“Violence against women, including domestic violence, was a widespread and serious problem. A large portion of the population considered domestic violence socially acceptable; as with rape, its incidence was underreported. The law prohibits domestic violence and generally provides for sentences ranging from one to three years in prison, although some forms of domestic violence carry higher penalties. The law also permits restraining orders against offenders. Laws against domestic violence were not well enforced, and cases were not effectively prosecuted.”
Martinez-Segova also submitted lots of documentary evidence showing “the Salvadoran government’s 13 inability to combat domestic violence.”
What should have happened:
Martinez-Sevova has a “slam dunk” case for asylum. The Government’s argument that Salvador can protect her is basically frivolous. The Salvadoran government in fact was unable to protect the respondent either before or after the protective order. The State Department Country Report combined with the expert evidence show that the Salvadoran government t has a well-established record of failure to protect women from domestic violence.
The idea that the DHS could rebut a presumption of future persecution based on past persecution by showing fundamentally changed circumstances or the existence of a reasonably available internal relocation alternative is facially absurd in the context of El Salvador.
What really happened:
Incredibly, the Immigration Judge denied Martinez-Segova’s claim, and the BIA affirmed. The BIA made a bogus finding that Martinez-Segova failed to show that the Salvadoran government was unwilling or unable to protect her.
What the Secomd Circuit said:
“We conclude that the agency failed to sufficiently consider the country conditions evidence in analyzing whether Martinez-Segova demonstrated that the Salvadoran government was unable or unwilling to protect her from her husband. The BIA relied heavily on the fact that Martinez-Segova failed to report her husband’s violation of the protective order to the police. The agency’s decision in this regard was flawed. Where, as here,“the IJ and BIA ignored ample record evidence tending to show that”authorities are unwilling and unable to protect against persecution, we need not decide “whether [a petitioner’s] unwillingness to confront the police is fatal to [her] asylum claim.” Pan v. Holder, 777 F.3d 540, 544-45 (2d Cir. 2015); see also Aliyev v. Mukasey, 549 F.3d 111, 118 (2d Cir. 2008) (declining to determine “precisely what a person must show in order for the government to be deemed responsible for the conduct of private actors” where petitioner “introduced enough evidence to forge the link between private conduct and public responsibility” (emphasis added)).
Although the agency does not have to parse each individual piece of evidence, Zhi Yun Gao v. Mukasey, 508 F.3d 86, 87 (2d Cir. 2007), there is no indication that the agency considered the ample record evidence of the Salvadoran government’s inability to combat domestic violence—a phenomenon that the U.S. State Department deems one of El Salvador’s “principal human rights problems” for which its efforts to ameliorate the problem are “minimally effective.” A declaration from an human rights attorney and expert on gender issues in El Salvador reveals that orders of protection, while difficult to procure, “do little to protect victims from further violence because judges often draft them inadequately and law enforcement officials neglect or refuse to enforce them” and “are little more than pieces of paper affording no more protection than the victims had prior to the legal process.” Where orders of protection are issued, the onus is on the government to ensure compliance; for example, judges are required to appoint an independent team to monitor compliance with orders of protection and that inadequate follow up “frequently renders victims of domestic violence virtually helpless to enforce their rights.” There is no indication that that judge did this in Martinez-Segova’s case. Moreover, the order of protection prohibited Martinez-Segova’s husband from “harassing, stalking, [and] intimidating” her, but her husband nonetheless violated the order with impunity by showing up to her place of work, kissing and grabbing her and begging her to return. Because the agency’s conclusion—that Martinez- Segova failed to establish that the Salvadoran government was unable or unwilling to protect her from her husband because she had been able to obtain a protective order —is in tension with the record evidence demonstrating that such orders are largely ineffective, we grant the petition and remand for consideration of this evidence. See Poradisova v. Gonzales, 420 F.3d 70, 77 (2d Cir. 2005) (“Despite our generally deferential review of IJ and BIA opinions, we require a certain minimum level of analysis from the IJ and BIA opinions denying asylum, and indeed must require such if judicial review is to be meaningful.”). Because remand is warranted for the agency to consider whether Martinez-Segova established past persecution, we decline to reach its humanitarian asylum ruling at this time. See INS v. Bagamasbad, 429 U.S. 24, 25 (1976) (“As a general rule courts and agencies are not required to make findings on issues the decision of which is unnecessary to the results they reach.”). Moreover, the BIA did not address the IJ’s conclusion that the Government rebutted Martinez-Segova’s well-founded fear of persecution, and that determination generally precedes an analysis on whether humanitarian asylum is warranted. See 8 C.F.R. § 1208.13(b)(1)(B)(iii) (humanitarian asylum is generally considered “in the absence of a well-founded fear of persecution”).”
The BIA and the Immigration Judges made an incredible number of serious errors in these two cases, from misreading the record, to ignoring the evidence, to botching the law.
So, while DOJ and EOIR are patting each other on the back for becoming such great cogs in the Trump deportation machine, and racing removals through the system, the real results are starkly illustrated here. Every day, vulnerable asylum applicants with sound, well-documented claims that should be quickly granted either at the Asylum Office or on an Immigration Court’s “short docket” are being screwed by the BIA’s failure to protect the rights of asylum seekers and to educate and in some cases force Immigration Judges to do likewise.
The Federal Courts are being bogged down with cases that a third-year law student who has had a course in asylum law could tell have been badly mis-analyzed. The idea that EOIR contains the world’s best administrative tribunals dedicated to guaranteeing fairness and due process for all has become a cruel joke.
Our Constitution and laws protecting our rights are meaningless if nobody is willing and able to stand up for the rights of individuals who are being railroaded through our system. We saw this in the era of Jim Crow laws directed at depriving Black Americans of their rights, and we are seeing it again today with respect to migrants caught up in the Trump Administration’s gonzo enforcement program.
Yeah, today it’s not you or me. But, when you or I need justice, why will we get (or deserve) any better treatment than the farce that the Trump Administration and EOIR are unloading on migrants now?