Particular Social Group: Errors in the BIA’s Post-Acosta Analysis
In 2006, the Board of Immigration Appeals published its decision in Matter of C-A-, the first in a line of cases creating significant restrictions on what constitutes a cognizable particular social group in claims for asylum. It is worth noting that three years earlier, then Attorney General John Ashcroft purged the BIA of its five most liberal members; two other Board members who clearly would have been removed as well left just prior to the purge. Therefore, the ensuing line of BIA precedents addressing particular social group issues were something of a one-sided affair, with no liberal voices to temper or dissent from the majority.
Back in 1985, the Board decided Matter of Acosta, in which it set forth the applicable standard for particular social group determinations. Not surprisingly, particular social group has proven more difficult for courts to interpret than the other four grounds of race, religion, nationality, and political opinion. This is because one doesn’t start out asking the question “what is a race?” or “what is a religion?” Those terms are generally understood. Not so with particular social group, which as I learned it, was a last-minute creation designed to cover those clearly in need of refugee protection who aren’t covered by the other four grounds. In Acosta, the Board had to decide how broadly the “PSG” category should be interpreted. In response to evidence that the drafters of the 1951 Convention considered the ground of particular social group “to be of broader application than the combined notions of racial, ethnic, and religious group,” the Board applied the doctrine of ejusdem generis to conclude that a particular social group, like the four other categories it is grouped with, should be defined by characteristics that are immutable either because its members are unable to change them (like race and nationality), or because they should not, as a matter of conscience, be required to change them (like religion or political opinion).
The Acosta formulation was fair, and worked perfectly well for 21 years. It was consistent with the way particular social group was being interpreted and applied internationally, and was in no need of modification. Yet, the post-purge Board added two additional hurdles to particular social group determination: social distinction (previously called social visibility) and particularity. As discussed below, the result-oriented line of decisions are legally flawed.
Matter of C-A-’s “social visibility” analysis contains at least three errors. First, as Prof. Karen Musalo, Director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies (CGRS) at the University of California – Hastings Law School in San Francisco has pointed out, although the Board in Matter of C-A- cited to the 2002 UNHCR Guidelines on Particular Social Groups as a basis for adding the social distinction requirement, there is a significant difference between the Board’s holding and the UNHCR Guidelines. The Guidelines at para. 11 define particular social group as “a group of persons who share a common characteristic other than their risk of being persecuted OR who are perceived as a group by society.” Note the use of “or.” “Or” was intended to expand the group of those who satisfy for PSG status, by including both those who share a common characteristic OR possess what the Board now calls social distinction. However, the Board changed the “or” to an “and,” which has the opposite effect of significantly narrowing those who can establish a cognizable PSG by requiring both a shared characteristic and social distinction.
Secondly, the Board found that the proposed group of confidential informants lacked social “visibility” (as it then called social distinction) because informants, by the nature of their conduct, are “generally out of the public view,” and “in the normal course of events…remain unknown and undiscovered.” However, this is irrelevant to whether the group itself is perceived by society to be distinct. For example, “Russian spies” by the nature of their conduct, seek to remain unknown, undiscovered, and out of the public eye. However, the group is often in the news, and is the subject of a popular TV show. It has served as the basis for characters in countless novels and films for decades, and has inspired the passage of anti-espionage laws. The Board thus erred in apparently confusing the “singled out” requirement of the individual asylum applicant with the “social distinction” requirement of the proposed group.
Thirdly, the Board in C-A- stated that visibility of a group of confidential informants “is limited to those informants who are discovered because they appear as witnesses or otherwise come to the attention of cartel members.” In that case, the cartel members were the persecutors. However, the Board has claimed that it is the perception of society, and not the persecutors, that determines social distinction.
The particularity requirement is also problematic. The element requires the social group to be defined by characteristics that provide a clear benchmark for determining inclusion. The Board requires the terms used to define the group to have “commonly accepted definitions in the society in which the group is a part;” and “[t]he group must also be discrete, and have definable boundaries–it must not be amorphous, overbroad, diffuse, or subjective.” See Matter of W-G-R-, 26 I&N Dec. 208, 214 (BIA 2014); Matter of A-M-E- & J-G-U-, 24 I&N Dec. 69, 76 (BIA 2007) (rejecting the proposed group as “too amorphous…to provide an adequate benchmark for determining group membership”).
However, in applying the new requirement of particularity to particular social group determinations only, the Board violated the doctrine of ejusdem generis that it had invoked in Acosta. This is significant, as determinations under the other four protected categories would not necessarily stand up to the particularity determination. In finding the proposed group of “former members of the MS-13 gang in El Salvador who have renounced their gang membership” to lack particularity, the Board stated that the proposed group “could include persons of any age, sex, or background.” Matter of W-G-R-, 26 I&N Dec. 208, 221 (BIA 2014). Of course, race, religion, and nationality will always include persons of any age, sex, or background; and political opinion could also draw from as wide a range of the population.
In a claim of persecution on account of religion, would the Jewish religion, for example, withstand the particularity requirement? There is a strong chance that such group would be found too amorphous to provide an adequate benchmark for inclusion. For example, a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center found that 14 percent of American Jews stated that they were raising their children “partially Jewish.” Do “partially Jewish” claimants merit inclusion in the group? What about those who only attend synagogue once a year, on Yom Kippur? Or those who consider themselves culturally Jewish, but don’t observe the religion? Or those with only a Jewish father (who would therefore not be considered Jewish under traditional Jewish law, but would be considered Jewish in the more liberal Reform branch of the religion)? Where is the benchmark for inclusion?
Looking to the other asylum categories, is one said to possess a political opinion because she votes once every four years for candidates of a particular party, or because she has canvassed for a party’s candidates, given speeches at rallies, or run for office herself? In this time of multiculturalism, where individuals of mixed race or ethnicity may choose to identify with a particular race or nationality from among two or more choices, would those categories also be found too amorphous?
In addition to the above shortcomings, attorneys have pointed out that particularity and social distinction often work at odds with each other. Groups that rank high on society’s radar are usually not defined with the type of specific parameters for inclusion, and would therefore be dismissed as too “amorphous.” Conversely, groups defined with the exacting precision demanded of the particularity requirement tend to be too cumbersome to register in the zeitgeist. As an example, the term “soccer moms” became popular in American society several presidential elections ago, when “winning the soccer mom vote” was deemed a significant goal. So while the term “soccer moms” clearly possessed social distinction, it would undoubtedly be found too amorphous to satisfy the particularity requirement. However, “married middle-class suburban women between the ages of 32 and 47, who spend a significant amount of time driving their school-aged children to multiple after-school activities, which may or may not include soccer” might be particular enough, but will not grab public attention to the degree required to qualify as social distinction.
In spite of the above shortcomings, the federal circuit courts have largely accorded deference to the Board’s flawed interpretation. Although immigration judges are bound by the Board’s holdings, practitioners may raise the above issues in order to create a record for eventual review by the circuit courts. The Seventh and Third Circuits have rejected the particularity requirement for different reasons than those stated above. As I am not aware of any circuit court addressing the issue of whether religion or any other protected ground would stand up to the particularity requirement, I present it as an argument worth pursuing.
Copyright 2017 Jeffrey S. Chase. All rights reserved.”
Republished with permission.
“ARBITRARY AND CAPRICIOUS” — How The BIA Intentionally Misconstrued Asylum Law To Deny Particular Social Group Protection, While The Obama Administration Turned Its Back On Due Process For Refugees!
By Paul Wickham Schmidt
United States Immigration Judge (Retired)
The original Acosta decision was also wrongly decided on the merits. Of course most “occupational groups” have characteristics that are fundamental to their identity and are, therefore, properly classified as PSGs for asylum and withholding of removal purposes under the INA!
Taxi drivers in San Salvador were clearly a well-recognized tightly-knit group who were identified as such by the public, the Government, and the guerrillas and weren’t lightly going to switch occupations. That’s why they were targeted by both sides!
The result in Acosta was also completely nonsensical from a policy standpoint. The BIA’s “bottom line” was that taxi drivers in San Salvador who feared the guerrillas could either quit their jobs en masse or participate in a transportation strike called by the guerrillas. But, either of those actions would have crippled the Salvadoran Government which the U.S. was supporting during the guerrilla war! How stupid can you get! But, when categorically denying asylum to large groups of Central American refugees, there’s no limit to what captive adjudicators who want to hang on to their jobs will do to avoid granting protection!
Would you tell a New York cabbie that his or her occupation isn’t “fundamental” to his or her identity? I certainly wouldn’t do it while sitting in his or her back seat. How many yarns, stories, and jokes have you heard with the phrase “like a New York cabbie?” There are even movies glorifying or vilifying the occupation!
How about American truck drivers? They have their own culture, lingo, and even restaurants, gas stations, and stores. Next time you walk into a Pilot Truck Stop along the Interstate, see if you can tell the “pros” from the “amateur divers” like me. Then go up to one of those “pros” and tell him or her that he or she could just as well make a living as a checkout clerk or a computer programmer! Or, walk into the “Reserved for Professional Drivers” section, take a seat, and see how long you last. I really wouldn’t try either of the foregoing unless you have very good hospitalization insurance.
Want to bet that being a lawyer or a judge isn’t fundamental to one’s identity — just ask a non-lawyer, non-judge spouse or anyone whose ever had to attend a social function with with one of us? My wife Cathy can usually pick the lawyers out in a room even without introductions! They “dress, act, and speak” like lawyers!
I might also add that the identity of being a BIA Appellate Judge is so “fundamental” to some of my former colleagues’ identity that they were willing to put forth a totally disingenuous interpretation of the U.N. Guidelines and blow off both fairness and due process for vulnerable asylum seekers (the BIA’s sole functions) to retain their jobs as Appellate Judges in the Bush and Obama Administrations, which were generally actively hostile or clearly indifferent to the rights of refugees. Nobody had the guts to stand up for a correct intrerpretation of the Refugee Convention which would have saved many lives and made the whole immigration system fairer and easier to administer in the long run.
There actually was a U.S. Circuit Judge way out in the 8th Circuit, of all places, who saw clearly the BIA’s disingenuous approach and “called” them on it. The case is Gaitan v. Holder, 671 F.3d 678, 682-86 (8th Cir. 2012) (Bye, Circuit Judge, concurring), the concurring Judge was Judge Bye, and I reproduce the concurring opinion in full from “Legale” because Judge Bye is so “spot on” and, regrettably, so few people paid attention to his criticism:
BYE, Circuit Judge, concurring.
Based upon our recent decisions in Constanza v. Holder, 647 F.3d 749 (8th Cir. 2011) (per curiam) and Ortiz-Puentes v. Holder, 662 F.3d 481 (8th Cir.2011), I concur in the result reached by the majority. I do so reluctantly, however, and write separately to express my disagreement with our circuit’s as-a-matter-of-course adoption of “social visibility” and “particularity” as requirements for establishing “membership in a particular social group.” See 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(42)(A). While both decisions cited with approval the BIA’s new approach to defining “particular social group,” neither had before it the issue raised in this appeal: did the BIA act arbitrarily and capriciously in adding the requirements of “social visibility” and “particularity” to its definition of “particular social group.” While I am convinced it did, I am nonetheless bound by circuit precedent and therefore concur in the result.
Our circuit only recently addressed the BIA’s new approach to defining “particular social group.” While both Constanza and Ortiz-Puentes grafted the requirements of “social visibility” and “particularity” to petitioners’ social groups claims, neither panel offered any explanation as to why the addition of these new requirements—which are very clearly inconsistent with the BIA’s prior decisions—should not be deemed arbitrary and capricious. Neither panel inquired as to whether the BIA had provided a good reason, or any reason at all, for departing from established precedent. Neither asked if the BIA’s new approach to defining “particular social group” amounted to an arbitrary and capricious change from agency practice. Instead, we simply adopted the new approach, as a matter of course, offering no substantial reason ourselves for this shift in direction. As a result, I fear we have chosen the wrong direction.
In order to understand why the BIA’s addition of the “social visibility” and “particularity” requirements to the definition of “particular social group” is arbitrary and capricious, some background information is necessary. The BIA first attempted to define “particular social group” in Matter of Acosta, 19 I. & N. Dec. 211 (B.I.A.1985). In Acosta, the BIA relied on the canon of ejusdem generis to construe “membership in a particular social group” in a way which most closely resembles the definition of the other four grounds of persecution under the Immigration and Nationality Act (Act): race, religion, nationality, and political opinion. Id. at 233. After deducing commonalities between the five bases of persecution cognizable under the Act, the BIA defined “particular social group” as a “group of persons all of whom share a common, immutable characteristic,”
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which may be either “an innate one such as sex, color, or kinship ties” or a “shared past experience such as former military leadership or land ownership.” Id. In all such circumstances, BIA explained, the characteristic uniting the group must be “one that the members of the group either cannot change, or should not be required to change because it is fundamental to their individual identities or consciences.” Id. Because an occupation is not something individuals are either unable to change or, as a matter of conscience, should not be required to change, the BIA rejected an asylum claim by a taxi driver in the city of San Salvador premised on his membership in a taxi cooperative whose members were targeted by the guerillas for having refused to participate in guerrilla-sponsored work stoppages. Id. at 234.
During the next twenty years, the BIA applied the immutability definition of Acosta in a variety of contexts. The BIA’s published decisions recognized as a “particular social group” former members of Salvadorian national police (who could not change their past experience of serving in the police), see In re Fuentes, 19 I. & N. Dec. 658 (B.I.A.1988); members of the Marehan subclan of the Darood clan in Somalia (who shared kinship ties and linguistic commonalities), see In re H-, 21 I. & N. Dec. 337 (B.I.A. 1996); Filipinos of mixed Filipino-Chinese ancestry (because their traits were immutable)], see In re V-T-S-,21 I. & N. Dec. 792 (B.I.A.1997); young women of a certain Togo tribe who have not yet had a female genital mutilation (FGM) and who opposed the practice on moral grounds (because the “characteristic of having intact genitalia is one that is so fundamental to the individual identity of a young woman that she should not be required to change it”), see In re Kasinga, 21 I. & N. Dec. 357 (B.I.A.1996); and homosexuals in Cuba (based on the Board’s recognition of homosexuality as an immutable characteristic), see In re Toboso-Alfonso,20 I. & N. Dec. 819, 822 (B.I.A.1990). With some variations, all circuits adopted the Acostadefinition of “particular social group.” See generally Fatma E. Marouf, The Emerging Importance of “Social Visibility” in Defining a “Particular Social Group” and Its Potential Impact on Asylum Claims Related to Sexual Orientation and Gender, 27 Yale L. & Pol’y Rev. 47, 53 & n. 24 (2008) (stating federal courts “generally have followed Acosta” and cataloging relevant precedents) (hereinafter “The Emerging Importance of Social Visibility”). Our circuit adopted the Acosta definition as well, although it seemingly expanded it following the Ninth Circuit’s lead to also permit social groups based on a “voluntary associational relationship among the purported members.” Safaie v. INS, 25 F.3d 636, 640 (8th Cir.1994) (theorizing a group of Iranian women who refuse to conform to Iranian customs relating to dress and behavior and whose opposition is so profound that they would choose to suffer the severe consequences of noncompliance “may well satisfy the definition”) (citing the standard in Sanchez-Trujillo v. INS, 801 F.2d 1571, 1576 (9th Cir.1986)).
Beginning in 2006, however, the BIA started deviating from the Acosta definition of “particular social group” by emphasizing the importance of social visibility of a given group. In Matter of C-A-, for example,2 the BIA reiterated its adherence
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to Acosta, but listed “the extent to which members of a society perceive those with the characteristic in question as members of a social group” as a “relevant factor” in the analysis. 23 I. & N. Dec. 951, 956-57 (B.I.A.2006). Applying this standard, the BIA rejected the proposed social group of noncriminal drug informants working against the Cali drug cartel in Colombia in part because “the very nature of the conduct at issue is such that it is generally out of the public view.” Id. at 960.
The BIA continued the trend in Matter of A-M-E & J-G-U-, 24 I. & N. Dec. 69 (B.I.A.2007), by refusing to recognize a social group of “affluent Guatemalans” targeted for ransom. The BIA acknowledged the petitioners should not be expected to divest themselves of their wealth under the second prong of Acosta, but denied the claim on the basis of the applicants’ inability to show “social visibility,” id. at 75 (lamenting the lack of evidence to demonstrate “the general societal perception” of wealthy people was different from the common perception of groups at different socio-economic levels), and “particularity,” id.at 76 (criticizing the proposed group for being “too amorphous” and “indeterminate”). In its reasoning, the BIA drew on the Second Circuit opinion in Gomez v. INS, 947 F.2d 660, 664 (2d Cir.1991), where the court required members of a cognizable social group to possess “some fundamental characteristic in common which serves to distinguish them in the eyes of a persecutor—or in the eyes of the outside world in general.”
The biggest transformation in the BIA’s “particular social group” jurisprudence, however, came in its two most recent decisions issued on the same day in 2008: Matter of S-E-G-,24 I. & N. Dec. 579 (B.I.A.2008), and Matter of E-A-G-, 24 I. & N. Dec. 591 (B.I.A.2008). Both confronted claims of gang-related persecution under the rubric of membership in a particular social group. In E-A-G-, the BIA refused to recognize social groups of “young persons who are perceived to be affiliated with gangs (as perceived by the government and/or the general public)” and “persons resistant to gang membership (refusing to join when recruited)” because these groups “have not been shown to be part of a socially visible group within Honduran society, and the respondent [does not] possess any characteristics that would cause others in Honduran society to recognize him as one who has refused gang recruitment.” 24 I. & N. Dec. at 593-94. In S-E-G-, the unsuccessful group was that of Salvadorian youth who have been subjected to recruitment efforts by the MS-13 and who have rejected and resisted membership in the gang based on their own personal, moral, and religious opposition to the gang’s values and activities. 24 I. & N. Dec. at 579. Their claim for asylum failed because, according
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to the BIA, it did not fare well under the “recent decisions holding that membership in a purported social group requires that the group have particular and well-defined boundaries, and that it possess a recognized level of social visibility.” Id. In essence, the decisions elevated the requirements of “social visibility” and “particularity” from merely some of the many factors in the holistic analysis of the issue to absolute prerequisites to establishing membership in a particular social group.
This new approach to defining “particular social group” split the circuits as to the validity and permissible extent of the BIA’s reliance on “social visibility” and “particularity.” Compare Valdiviezo-Galdamez v. Holder, 663 F.3d 582, 603-09 (3d Cir.2011) (concluding the BIA’s “social visibility” and “particularity” requirements are inconsistent with prior BIA decisions and rejecting the government’s attempt to graft these additional requirements onto petitioner’s social group claims); Gatimi v. Holder, 578 F.3d 611, 615-16 (7th Cir. 2009) (criticizing the BIA’s decisions in S-E-G- and E-A-G- for being “inconsistent” with the BIA’s precedents in Acosta and Kasinga and for failing to explain the reasons for adopting the “social visibility” criterion); Benitez Ramos v. Holder, 589 F.3d 426, 430-31 (7th Cir.2009) (denouncing the BIA’s insistence on “social visibility,” sometimes in its literal form, and charging the BIA might not understand the difference between visibility in a social sense and the external criterion sense); Urbina-Mejia v. Holder, 597 F.3d 360, 365-67 (6th Cir.2010) (noting being a former gang member is an immutable characteristic and defining former members of the 18th Street gang as a “particular social group” based on their inability to change their past and the ability of their persecutors to recognize them as former gang members), with Lizama v. Holder, 629 F.3d 440, 447 (4th Cir.2011) (upholding the BIA’s definition of a particular social group as requiring that “(1) its members share common immutable characteristics, (2) these common characteristics give members social visibility, and (3) the group is defined with sufficient particularity to delimit its membership”); Ramos-Lopez v. Holder, 563 F.3d 855, 862 (9th Cir.2009) (upholding the BIA’s adoption of the “social visibility” requirement); Scatambuli v. Holder, 558 F.3d 53, 60 (1st Cir.2009) (rejecting petitioners’ claims the BIA is precluded from considering the visibility of a group); and Fuentes-Hernandez v. Holder,411 Fed.App’x. 438, 438-39 (2d Cir. 2011) (stating individuals who resisted gang recruitment in El Salvador do not constitute a “particular social group” because their proposed group lacked “social visibility” and “particularity” and because the alleged persecution “did not bear the requisite nexus to a protected ground”).
I agree with the circuits which hold the BIA’s addition of the “social visibility” and “particularity” requirements to the definition of “particular social group” is arbitrary and capricious. First, as discussed above, these newly added requirements are inconsistent with prior BIA decisions. Specifically, they are in direct conflict with the definition of “particular social group” announced in Acosta. By stating this, I am in no way suggesting the BIA must continue to adhere to the Acosta definition. I am of course cognizant the BIA may “add new requirements to, or even change, its definition of `particular social group'” over time. Valdiviezo-Galdamez, 663 F.3d at 608; see also Motor Vehicle Mfrs. Ass’n of U.S., Inc. v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 463 U.S. 29, 57, 103 S.Ct. 2856, 77 L.Ed.2d 443 (1983) (stating an agency may change its interpretation of a stature or regulation over time). The BIA, however, must explain its choice for
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doing so because an unexplained departure from established precedent is generally “a reason for holding [the departure] to be an arbitrary and capricious change from agency practice[.]” Nat’l Cable & Telecomms. Ass’n v. Brand X Internet Servs., 545 U.S. 967, 981, 125 S.Ct. 2688, 162 L.Ed.2d 820 (2005); see also FCC v. Fox Television Stations, Inc., 556 U.S. 502, 129 S.Ct. 1800, 1811, 173 L.Ed.2d 738 (2009) (stating “the agency must show that there are good reasons for the new policy”); Friends of Boundary Waters Wilderness v. Dombeck, 164 F.3d 1115, 1123 (8th Cir. 1999) (noting “a sudden and unexpected change in agency policy” may be characterized as arbitrary and capricious).
Because the BIA departed from its well-established Acosta definition without providing a reasonable explanation for its choice, the departure is arbitrary and capricious. Thus, although I am bound by our decisions in Constanza and Ortiz-Puentes, I cannot agree with our circuit’s as-a-matter-of-course adoption of the BIA’s new approach to defining “particular social group”—an approach which not only represents a stark departure from established precedent, but also eviscerates protections for many groups of applicants eligible under the agency’s prior definition.
Therefore, I reluctantly concur in the result.
1. Gaitan does not address the denial of relief under the Convention Against Torture in his brief. Any argument based on that ground is therefore deemed waived. See Tinajero-Ortiz v. United States, 635 F.3d 1100, 1103 n. 3 (8th Cir.), cert. denied, ___U.S. ___, 132 S.Ct. 315, 181 L.Ed.2d 194 (2011). Gaitan notes that he does not waive his claim that he is otherwise eligible for relief in the form of withholding of removal under the INA. However, “[t]he standard for withholding of removal, a clear probability of persecution, is more rigorous than the well-founded fear standard for asylum. An alien who fails to prove eligibility for asylum cannot meet the standard for establishing withholding of removal.” Turay v. Ashcroft, 405 F.3d 663, 667 (8th Cir.2005) (internal citations omitted). Because we find that Gaitan is not eligible for asylum, Gaitan is unable to meet the standard for establishing withholding of removal.
2. The BIA signaled its intention to break away from the Acosta standard as early as 2001, in its decision in Matter of R-A-, 22 I. & N. Dec. 906 (B.I.A.2001). There, the BIA refused to accord a social group status to a group of “Guatemalan women who have been involved intimately with Guatemalan male companions who believe that women are to live under male domination.” Id. at 917-18. Although the outcome of the opinion was unobjectionable even under the traditional Acosta standard, its logic was noteworthy for the BIA’s insistence that the applicant demonstrate “how the characteristic is understood in the alien’s society” and how “the potential persecutors… see persons sharing the characteristic as warranting suppression or the infliction of harm.” Id. at 918. Because at the time R-A- was issued, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was in the process of finalizing a rule defining “membership in a particular social group,” the Attorney General vacated the BIA’s opinion pending the publication of that rule. In re R-A-, 22 I. & N. Dec. 906 (B.I.A.2001). The proposed rule would incorporate R-A-‘s consideration of social visibility, but only as one of several non-exclusive factors. Asylum & Withholding Definitions, 65 Fed.Reg. 76,588, 76,594 (Dec. 7, 2000). Ultimately, the rule was never formalized, and the ball was back in the BIA’s court to define the “particular social group” incrementally, on a case-by-case basis.”
The U.S. Immigration Courts will not regain integrity until the are removed from the Executive Branch and reconstituted as as an independent Article I or even Article III Court. Until then, it’s likely that refugees and asylum seekers will continue to suffer unfair treatment, bias, and undeserved fates under the U.S. asylum system. Doesn’t anybody care?