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Hon. Jeffrey S. Chase, Nov. 17, 2022
"I would like to discuss a concept related to asylum, involving protection under Article 3 of the U.N. Convention Against Torture (commonly referred to as “CAT” for short). Although lacking the benefits afforded to those granted asylum or admitted as refugees, the importance of CAT as a protection from deportation has increased in recent years due to the complex nature of current asylum claims, which require greater effort to interpret causation than claims that were more commonly decided decades ago.
Whereas asylum requires a connection between the persecution and the applicant’s race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, CAT protects those who are at risk of torture for any (or no) reason. CAT therefore can (and has) saved lives where the person at risk could not demonstrate to the adjudicator’s satisfaction a sufficient connection to one of the five mandatory asylum grounds.
While not requiring specific causation, CAT does require that the torture be “by, or at the instigation of, or with the consent or acquiescence of, a public official…”1 When (as is often the case) the torturers are a gang or drug cartel, what is required of an applicant to establish government acquiescence?
According to federal regulations, “Acquiescence of a public official requires that the public official, prior to the activity constituting torture, have awareness of such activity and thereafter breach his or her legal responsibility to intervene to prevent such activity.”2 Thus, the regulations make it clear that acquiescence is a two-step test for (1) awareness, and (2) breach of responsibility to intervene.
Back in 2000, the BIA addressed the meaning of “acquiescence” in a precedent decision, and managed to get it very wrong. In its en banc decision in Matter of S-V- , the majority defined “government acquiescence” as a government’s willful acceptance of the torturous activity.3 How it managed to look at the above two-step test and come up with “willful acceptance” (which, incidentally, is only one step) is anyone’s guess.
Not surprisingly, the Board’s standard was universally panned by the circuit courts. With the recent decision of the First Circuit in H.H. v. Garland 4, nine circuits have now outright rejected the BIA’s take as overly restrictive, holding that the proper test is satisfied where the government in question remained “willfully blind” to the commission of torture. The remaining two circuits, while not directly overruling the Board’s take, have nevertheless applied the “willful blindness” standard. No circuit has deferred to the BIA’s interpretation.
However, until just recently, only one circuit - the Second - clarified that acquiescence requires a two-step test as described above. The remaining circuits were content to correct the language of the Board’s one-step standard from “willful acceptance” to one including “willful blindness” and then leave it at that.
Last year, Prof. Jon Bauer at the Univ. of Connecticut Law School wrote an excellent article that did a wonderful job of explaining the proper standard and the shortcomings of existing case law on the topic.5 I believe that Prof. Bauer’s article (available at the above link) should be required reading for Immigration Judges.
In summary, Bauer’s article flagged several flaws in the common view of acquiescence. The first is the mistaken belief that “willful blindness” is the entire test for acquiescence. Bauer points out that the circuit courts have held that the “awareness” step (step one) may be met either through a government’s willful blindness or through its actual awareness. But willful blindness is neither an absolute requirement nor a minimum standard for establishing both awareness and breach of legal duty elements; it simply expands the manner in which the awareness prong may be satisfied.
Importantly, in most cases, actual awareness can be established without the need to rely on a government’s willful blindness. As Bauer points out in a footnote, at least two circuits recognize government awareness as being satisfied where the government is “aware that torture of the sort feared by the applicant occurs.”6 In other words, awareness doesn’t require the government to have specific knowledge of a plan to torture the CAT applicant; it is enough that ts agents are aware that, e.g., MS-13 is engaging in this sort of conduct within the country to satisfy the awareness prong.
Bauer additionally emphasized that acquiescence remains a two-step test, and that “willful blindness” is relevant to only the first step. The standard for satisfying step two, the breach of duty to intervene, remains a blank slate. Neither the BIA nor the circuit courts have stated what is required to establish a likelihood that the government will breach its responsibility to intervene.
Bauer points out that the confusion concerning willful blindness has caused some adjudicators to view any action (no matter how ineffectual) by the government in question as precluding a finding of acquiescence, regarding even a minimal response as proof that the government was not being “willfully blind” to the torture. But as Bauer notes, willful blindness has nothing to do with the obligation to intervene. Once awareness is established (either through actual awareness or willful blindness), the focus turns to the separate question contained in step two of whether the duty to intervene was breached.
As to the breach prong, Bauer opined that the test applied under international law, requiring states “to exercise ‘due diligence’ to prevent, investigate, prosecute, and punish acts of torture by non-State actors,” is the correct one for adoption as the domestic standard for step two. Bauer explains how this interpretation is consistent with the CAT's text and drafting history, as well as the legislative history of US ratification and implementation of the treaty.7
The confusion cited by Bauer as to the proper standard to be applied is exacerbated by the fact that the Board has never vacated its precedent decision in S-V- setting out the incorrect standard. And it was that failure to fix what was obviously broken that led to the First Circuit’s recent lesson on the topic in H.H. In that case, an Immigration Judge denied CAT by applying the Board’s incorrect “willfully accepting” standard. And perhaps because the case arose in the First Circuit, which at the time had yet to directly refute the Board’s approach in a published decision, the BIA affirmed the Immigration Judge’s decision applying the erroneous standard.
Fortunately, the petitioner in that case was represented on appeal to the First Circuit by SangYeob Kim and Gilles Bissonnette of the ACLU of New Hampshire. Petitioner’s counsel did an excellent job of explaining the state of confusion on the topic, and of presenting the clear solution in line with Bauer’s approach. Counsel also enlisted the Round Table of Former Immigration Judges to weigh in on the topic with an amicus brief drafted for us by the law firm of Cooley LLP.8
The result was an excellent published decision deserving of our attention. First, the circuit panel found that the BIA “failed to meaningfully address H.H.'s alternative theory that MS-13 itself is a de facto state actor.” The court found that in simply labeling the argument “unpersuasive,” the Board provided an insufficient degree of analysis to facilitate appellate review. That argument remains one that practitioners should continue to raise in both the CAT and asylum contexts.9 And practitioners may now wish to cite to the language in H.H., which is the first published decision to demand a detailed explanation from adjudicators as to why they find such argument unconvincing.10
In addressing Matter of S-V-, the court joined the list of circuits rejecting the Board’s standard. Specifically, the court found the term “willful acceptance” to clash with Congress’s clear intent for awareness to be satisfied through both actual knowledge and willful blindness. As the court pointed out, willful acceptance “necessarily includes knowledge of the matter one is ‘accepting,’ and excludes the concept of willful blindness.”
Finding that the BIA applied an improper standard of review by treating the acquiescence issue as clearly factual, when the inquiry regarding “‘whether the government's role renders the harm ‘by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official,”’ is legal in nature and is subject to de novo review,” the court remanded for the Board to consider under a de novo review standard “the question of acquiescence, understanding that a showing of willful blindness suffices to demonstrate an "awareness" of torture under the CAT.”
However, the court did not stop there. It continued on to the question of the breach of obligation, observing that the regulations set out a two-step inquiry, yet noting that “most of the courts that have adopted the willful blindness standard have not consistently distinguished between the ‘awareness’ and ‘breach of duty’ steps.”
On remand, the court left it to the Board to address the proper standard for the breach requirement in the first instance. But the court advised “that we join the Second Circuit in expressing skepticism that any record evidence of efforts taken by the foreign government to prevent torture, no matter how minimal, will necessarily be sufficient to preclude the agency from finding that a breach of the duty to intervene is likely to occur….Rather, on remand, the agency's determination about breach of duty, to the extent such a determination is necessary, must be made after carefully weighing all facts in the record.”11
It is puzzling why it took 22 years for the Board to be given that direction by a circuit court. And from experience, it will take the Board some time to respond in the form of a precedent decision. As many lives will be on the line in the meantime as claims are heard by Immigration Judges (and in some instances by USCIS asylum officers, under new procedures for claims arising at the border), those deciding CAT cases are respectfully urged to reference the full decision in H.H. as well as Prof. Bauer’s article, which practitioners should also file, cite, and discuss in their briefs and arguments. Litigants and judges should work together towards getting this important standard right. Lives depend on our doing so.12
Copyright 2022 Jeffrey S. Chase. All rights reserved.
8 C.F.R. § 1208.18(a)(1).
8 C.F.R. § 1208.18(a)(7).
22 I&N Dec. 1306 (BIA 2000) (en banc). I am happy to announce that all three members of the Round Table of Former Immigration Judges who participated in that decision disagreed with the majority’s interpretation of acquiescence in separate opinions. See Concurring Opinion of Board Member Gustavo D. Villageliu; Concurring and Dissenting Opinion of BIA Chair Paul W. Schmidt, and Dissenting Opinion of Board Member Lory D. Rosenberg.
Nos. 21-1150, 21-1230; ___ F.4th ___ (1st Cir. Oct. 21, 2022).
J. Bauer, “Obscured by Willful Blindness: States’ Preventive Obligations and the Meaning of Acquiescence Under the Convention Against Torture,” 52 Col. Hum. Rts. L. Rev. 738 (2021).
Id. at 749, fn. 34 (quoting Diaz-Reynoso v. Barr, 968 F.3d 1070, 1089 (9th Cir. 2020) (citing two earlier decisions in agreement); and additionally citing Myrie v. Att’y Gen., 855 F.3d 509, 518 (3d Cir. 2017) (similar statement).
Id. at 750.
The Round Table expresses its appreciation to attorneys Adam Gershenson, Zachary Sisko, Marc Suskin, Valeria M. Pelet del Toro, and Samantha Kirby of Cooley LLP for expressing our arguments so articulately in their brief on our behalf. Our brief can be read here.
For an overview of this topic in the asylum context, see my 2018 blog post on 3rd-Generation Gangs and Political Asylum.
For persuasive presentations of the de facto state actor argument, see Deborah E. Anker, Law of Asylum in the United States (Thomsen Reuters) at § 4:9; and Anna Welch and SangYeob Kim. “Non-State Actors ‘Under Color of Law’: Closing a Gap in Protection Under the Convention Against Torture,” 35 Harvard Hum. Rts. J. 117 (2022).
The Second Circuit case cited to was De La Rosa v. Holder, 598 F.3d 103, 110-111 (2d Cir. 2010) (holding that the preventative measures of some government actors does not foreclose the possibility of government acquiescence).
My sincere thanks to Jon Bauer and SangYeob Kim, who provided valuable input in reviewing this article."
Jeffrey S. Chase is an immigration lawyer in New York City. Jeffrey is a former Immigration Judge and Senior Legal Advisor at the Board of Immigration Appeals. He is the founder of the Round Table of Former Immigration Judges, which was awarded AILA’s 2019 Advocacy Award. Jeffrey is also a past recipient of AILA’s Pro Bono Award. He sits on the Board of Directors of the Association of Deportation Defense Attorneys, and Central American Legal Assistance.