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9th Cir. Sets BIA Straight on 'Circularity' - Jeffrey S. Chase

August 10, 2020 (7 min read)

Jeffrey S. Chase, Aug. 10, 2020

"On August 7, the U.S Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit dealt a blow to the Trump Administration’s attacks on domestic violence-based asylum claims.  In Diaz-Reynoso v. Barr, the petitioner applied for withholding of removal to Guatemala because she had been persecuted by her domestic partner on account of her membership in the particular social group consisting of “indiginous women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship.”1  An immigration judge found her credible, but denied her applications for relief.

While her appeal was pending before the BIA, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued his decision in Matter of A-B-.  The BIA subsequently relied on that decision to reject the Petitioner’s particular social group.

Regarding this sequence of events, it’s important to realize that in 2014, the BIA issued a precedent decision holding that a particular social group consisting of “married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship” could serve as a basis for asylum.  As a result, domestic violence-based asylum claims relied on this BIA-approved formulation as a model over the next four years.

When Sessions vacated the Board’s decision, many asylum claims relying on the prior precedent were already in the pipeline.  The BIA could have applied Matter of A-B- only prospectively to cases filed after Sessions’ decision.2  Or if it decided to apply the decision retroactively, it could have remanded the cases that had relied on the law at the time of filing to now allow them to modify their record in response to the superseding decision.

However, the Board did neither of these things.  Instead, it denied the pending cases with no individualized analysis, simply dismissing the claim as being too similar to the case that the Attorney General had just disagreed with.

In Diaz-Reynoso, the Ninth Circuit refuted the above approach by affirming the following points that have been raised repeatedly since the issuance of the AG’s decision, but that the BIA has continued to ignore.

First, the court held that Matter of A-B- does not categorically bar the granting of domestic violence-based asylum claims.  In the words of the court: “Far from endorsing a categorical bar, the Attorney General emphasized that the BIA must conduct the ‘rigorous analysis’ set forth in the BIA’s precedents.’”

Second, the court affirmed the commonly-held view that much of the AG’s decision in Matter of A-B- is nonbinding dicta.  In the words of the Ninth Circuit, the AG offered “some general impressions about asylum and withholding claims based on domestic violence and other private criminal activity.”  But the court noted that “despite the general and descriptive observations set forth in the opinion, the Attorney General’s prescriptive instruction is clear: the BIA must conduct the proper particular social group analysis on a case-by-case basis.”

Third, the court held that the particular social group that Sessions rejected in Matter of A-B- was not impermissibly circular.

As the concept of circularity can be confusing, I will offer some explanation.  In order to merit asylum, persecution must be on account of a statutory ground: race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.  Hypothetically, someone with a fear clearly unrelated to one of the necessary grounds could put forth an argument as follows: “I fear persecution.” “Why?” “Because I’m a member of a particular social group.” “What group?” “People who fear persecution.” “But why do they fear persecution?” “Because of their social group.”  “What group?” “People who fear persecution.”  And this could  go on and on, continuing in the same circle.

In a 2006 precedent decision, Matter of C-A-, the BIA cited to UNHCR guidelines on particular social groups as prohibiting this exact scenario, in which a group is defined exclusively by the harm.  The Board repeated the same rule a year later in another precedent, Matter of A-M-E- & J-G-U-, again using the word “exclusively” (although this time without the emphasis).3  However, the BIA in 2014 added language that a particular social group must exist independently of the persecution, without explaining whether this term differed in meaning from the “exclusively defined” prohibition, and if so, to what degree.

In Matter of A-B-, the AG first jumped to the conclusion that the reason an asylum-seeker is  “unable to leave the relationship” is due to persecution.4  And following that assumption, he rejected the particular social group as being impermissibly circular.

As stated above, the particular social group in Diaz-Reynoso was “indiginous women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship.”  The group was thus defined by the group members’ (1) indiginous status; (2) Guatemalan nationality; (3) gender; and (4) inability to leave their relationship.  So the group was clearly not exclusively defined by the persecution.

And yet, as the Ninth Circuit noted, “with almost no analysis, the BIA rejected Diaz-Reynoso’s proposed particular social group because it ‘suffer[ed] from the same circularity problem articulated by the Attorney General in Matter of A-B-.’”

The Ninth Circuit continued: “In the Government’s and dissent’s view, in order to exist independently from the petitioner’s feared harm, a proposed group may not refer to that harm at all. We disagree. The idea that the inclusion of persecution is a sort of poison pill that dooms any group does not withstand scrutiny.”

The court further clarified that a group exists independent of persecution when it “shares an immutable characteristic other than the persecution it suffers.”  As noted above, the particular social group here included three such immutable characteristics: indiginous status, nationality, and gender.  These serve as what the court termed “narrowing characteristics” independent of any harm.

The court further questioned the logic behind the agency’s restrictive view of circularity: “The purpose of asylum and withholding is to provide relief to people who have been persecuted in foreign lands because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion...The Government and dissent do not explain why a person seeking relief on the basis of membership in a particular social group should be required to omit any mention of threatened persecution.”

One additional point worth mentioning is that the Ninth Circuit looked to UNHCR materials for guidance, noting that the BIA has found UNHCR’s views to be “a useful interpretive aid.” 

The Ninth Circuit’s decision should certainly be applauded by asylum advocates.  The court joined the First and Sixth Circuits in rejecting the reliance on Matter of A-B- as a basis for swiftly dismissing domestic violence claims.

But this litigation could have been avoided through the BIA properly doing its job.  The petitioner in this case endured four years of abuse at the hands of her tormentor.  She was forced by him to work without pay in the coffee fields as well as to have sex with him.  She was further subjected to weekly beatings, suffering bruises that sometimes lasted for 10 days.

The petitioner actually escaped to the U.S., where she was detained for a month and then deported back to Guatemala.  There, she was forced to return to her abuser when he threatened to otherwise kill her and her daughter and harm her mother.  Upon return, she was subjected to even worse abuse for another year.

And yet an appellate immigration judge with the BIA saw in this case an opportunity for a quick denial with no analysis, on the grounds that the particular social group that had been valid for four years now contained a few more words than the AG approved of.  This sadly demonstrates the present philosophy of the BIA, where the goal of achieving quick dismissals has usurped the need for reasoned analysis and due process.

The petitioner was represented by students and supervising counsel with the Hastings Appellate Project, an advocacy clinic of the University of California - Hastings College of Law.  Amicus briefs were filed by the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, the Round Table of Former Immigration Judges, Harvard Law School’s Immigration and Refugee Clinical Programs, and UNHCR.  Special mention is due to Blaine Bookey at CGRS, who so ably argued the case remotely.

The Round Table expresses its gratitude to attorneys Richard W. Mark, Amer S. Ahmed. Grace E. Hart, and Cassarah M. Chu of the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, LLP for their invaluable assistance.


  1. The Petitioner was ineligible to apply for asylum because she was subject to reinstatement of a prior order of removal.

  2.  I believe a strong argument can be made that Matter of A-B- more closely  resembled a policy announcement (which should be applied prospectively only) than a judicial interpretation of the law that would apply retroactively.

  3. There is actually an exception to this rule, that we need not go into here.

  4. In De Pena Paniagua v. Barr, the First Circuit in April explained that there may be other reasons one could be unable to leave their domestic relationship that are unrelated to persecution."

Copyright 2020 Jeffrey S. Chase.  All rights reserved.

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.