ZAVALETA-POLICIANO v. SESSIONS, 4th Cir., as amended 09-18-17 (Published)
PANEL: GREGORY, Chief Judge, WILKINSON, Circuit Judge, and DAVIS, Senior Circuit Judge
OPINION BY: Chief Judge Gregory
“We hold that the BIA abused its discretion in affirming the IJ’s clearly erroneous factual finding. To start, the IJ unjustifiably relied on the fact that the threatening notes themselves did not explain why Zavaleta Policiano was targeted. As this Court recently explained, the single-minded focus on the “articulated purpose” for the threats while “failing to consider the intertwined reasons for those threats” represents “a misapplication of the statutory nexus standard.” Cruz v. Sessions, 853 F.3d 122, 129 (4th Cir. 2017). It is unrealistic to expect that a gang would neatly explain in a note all the legally significant reasons it is targeting someone. The IJ’s heavy reliance on the fact that El Salvadoran gangs target various groups of people in the country was similarly misguided. That “the criminal activities of MS-13 affect the population as a whole,” we have explained, is simply “beside the point” in evaluating an individual’s particular claim. Crespin-Valladares, 632 F.3d at 127.
More fundamentally, the IJ and BIA failed to appreciate, or even address, critical evidence in the record. It is this Court’s responsibility to “ensure that unrebutted, legally significant evidence is not arbitrarily ignored by the factfinder.” Baharon v. Holder, 588 F.3d 228, 233 (4th Cir. 2009). The IJ did discuss the threatening notes (although while drawing unwarranted conclusions, as discussed above). But the IJ failed to address, or to assign any weight to, the significant body of unrebutted, indeed, undisputed, probative evidence giving meaning and context to the threatening notes: (1) Zavaleta Policiano and her father’s stores, as well as their familial relationship, were well-known in the community; (2) MS-13 threatened Zavaleta Policiano several times by phone; (3) Zavaleta Policiano’s statement that MS-13 “threatened me because my father had left;” and (4) the threats against Zavaleta Policiano began immediately after her father fled to Mexico. These are inexcusable omissions in the agency’s analysis.
The Government asks us to reject much of the overlooked evidence, characterizing it as Zavaleta Policiano’s “subjective beliefs  as to the gangs’ motives.” Appellees’ Br. 22–23. This argument does not explain away the IJ’s and BIA’s wholesale failure to discuss the evidence, however. See Ai Hua Chen v. Holder, 742 F.3d 171, 179 (4th Cir. 2014) (explaining that the IJ and BIA must “offer a specific, cogent reason for rejecting evidence” (quoting Tassi, 660 F.3d at 720)). What is more, Zavaleta Policiano’s affidavit includes much more than her “subjective beliefs”—it contains key evidence of the context, nature, frequency, and timing of the gang’s threats against her and her family. By stipulating to the credibility and veracity of the affidavit, the Government forwent the opportunity to probe and weaken the evidentiary basis of Zavaleta Policiano’s claims.
When considering the unchallenged record evidence, we are compelled to conclude that Zavaleta Policiano’s familial relationship to her father was “at least one central reason” MS-13 targeted and threatened her. The evidence shows that MS-13 explicitly threatened to kill Zavaleta Policiano’s father and his family if he did not pay the extortion demands, and that “[i]mmediately after” he fled El Salvador, the gang began threatening Zavaleta Policiano. A.R. 210. The timing of the threats against Zavaleta Policiano is key, as it indicates that MS-13 was following up on its prior threat to target Barrientos’s family if he did not accede to the gang’s demands. This explanation appears especially probable given the absence of record evidence that Zavaleta Policiano was ever threatened before her father’s departure. Beyond the timing, Zavaleta Policiano’s affidavit outlines the well-known relationship between the two businesses and the Policiano family, and contextualizes her statement that she was threatened because her father left. And just as MS-13 threatened Zavaleta Barrientos and his children, the gang threatened Zavaleta Policiano and her children, suggesting a pattern of targeting nuclear family members. The totality of this undisputed evidence demonstrates that Zavaleta Policiano was persecuted on account of her family membership.
We add that the BIA’s attempt to distinguish our precedent is unpersuasive. The BIA found, in a single sentence without any analysis, that Zavaleta Policiano’s claim is distinct from the one at issue in Hernandez-Avalos. A.R. 4 (mentioning Hernandez- Avalos, 784 F.3d at 949–50). But that decision actually bolsters Zavaleta Policiano’s position. There, the BIA denied asylum to a mother who was threatened by an El Salvadoran gang after she refused to allow her son to join the gang. The BIA held that the mother was not threatened on the basis of familial ties, but rather “because she would not consent to her son engaging in a criminal activity.” Hernandez-Avalos, 784 F.3d at 949 (citation omitted). In other words, the BIA determined that the gang’s threats against the mother were motivated by its desire to recruit the son. This Court rejected that “excessively narrow reading of the requirement that persecution be undertaken ‘on account of membership in a nuclear family.’” Id. We instead found that the nexus requirement was satisfied, explaining that the mother’s relationship “to her son is why she, and not another person, was threatened with death if she did not allow him to join [the gang].” Id. at 950. The same logic applies here. MS-13 warned Zavaleta Barrientos that it would target his family if he did not pay the extortion demands, and the gang in fact threatened Zavaleta Policiano immediately after her father left. Zavaleta Policiano’s relationship to her father is why she, rather than some other person, was targeted for extortion.
For all the reasons outlined above, we conclude that the BIA erred by affirming the IJ’s clearly erroneous finding. Zavaleta Policiano was not required to prove that the gang’s threats were “exclusively” motivated by her family ties—such “a requirement defies common sense.” See Cruz, 853 F.3d at 130. She only needed to show that the relationship with her father was “at least one central reason” MS-13 threatened her. Because Zavaleta Policiano made this showing, we find the BIA decision to be manifestly contrary to law and an abuse of discretion. See Hernandez-Avalos, 784 F.3d at 953 n.10. By establishing that she was persecuted on account of her family membership, Zavaleta Policiano has satisfied the first two requirements of her asylum claim.”
Read the complete decision at the above link.
“Inexcusable” describes how the Immigration Courts under the BIA’s defective leadership are skewing facts and law to deny protection to Central American refugees. Not everyone can get a great lawyer like Tamara Jezic, and not every Circuit Court is as conscientious as this Fourth Circuit panel. That means that many of those Central Americans being railroaded through the system by DHS and EOIR are being improperly denied protection.
How can Federal Courts including the Supremes justify continuing to give “deference” to an appellate body that possesses neither expertise in the law nor care in reviewing records? It’s clear that BIA appellate review has become highly politicized and biased against asylum seekers. How much more of this nonsense are the Federal Courts going to put up with?
It also appears that the term “excessively narrow reading” is a perfect description of the BIA’s recent precedent in Matter of L-E-A, 27 I&N Dec. 40 (BIA 2017), in which the BIA tortured the law to come up with a way of denying most family-based claims. Will the Fourth Circuit “call out” the BIA on this attempt to evade the law by denying family-based asylum claims?
We need an independent Article I Immigration Court!
Thanks and congratulations to respondent’s attorney Tamara Jezic for alerting me to this important decision.