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Determining Political Opinion: Problems and Solutions

March 08, 2021 (8 min read)

Hon. Jeffrey S. Chase, Mar. 7, 2021

"Regarding political opinion, the refugee law scholar Atle Grahl-Madsen famously explained that refugee protection “is designed to suit the situation of common [people], not only that of philosophers...The instinctive or spontaneous reaction to usurpation or oppression is [as] equally valid” as the “educated, cultivated, reflected opinion.”1  A  recent decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit provides an opportunity to reflect on this premise.

In Zelaya-Moreno v. Wilkinson, a young man was targeted for recruitment by MS-13.  On two occasions, Zelaya directly announced to the gang’s members his reason for refusing to join: because gangs were bad for his hometown and country.  Both times, the gang members responded by beating him, fracturing his arm the second time.  They also threatened to kill him if he continued to refuse to join.  The questions raised are whether Zelaya’s instinctive, simply-worded response expressed a political opinion, and if so, did that opinion form part of the reason for the beatings and threat?

The Immigration Judge recognized Zelaya’s statement to the gang to be a political opinion for asylum purposes.  However, the IJ wasn’t persuaded from the record that Zelaya’s opinion was why the gang beat him.  As expressed by the IJ, the beatings were caused by “Zelaya’s refusal to join the gang, irrespective of the reasons.”  It doesn’t seem that the IJ considered whether the gang members imputed a political opinion to the act of refusal per se.

On appeal, the BIA took a far more extreme position, stating  that because gangs are not political organizations and their activities are not political in nature, “expressing an opinion against their group is not expressing a political opinion.”  This happens to be a position that EOIR and DHS (in defiance of much circuit case law and expert opinion to the contrary) later sought to codify in regulations that fortunately remain enjoined at present.

The Second Circuit in Zelaya-Moreno rejected the Board’s narrow view of political opinion.  In fact, the court only last year, in its decision in Hernandez-Chacon v. Barr, recognized the act of resisting rape by members of the very same gang in El Salvador as the expression of a feminist, anti-patriarchy political opinion.  Significantly, the victim in that case hadn’t stated any opinion to the gang members; it was only years later in front of the immigration judge that she gave her reason for resisting as “because I have every right to.”

As it has done in other decisions, the Second Circuit emphasized the need for a “complex and contextual factual inquiry” in political opinion determinations.  It conducted a survey of cases in which political opinion was found, and of others in which it wasn’t.  Unfortunately, the majority upheld the decision that Zelaya had not expressed a political opinion to the MS-13 members, stating that “[s]o far as the record shows, his objection to them is not rooted in any sort of disagreement with the policies they seek to impose nor any ideology they espouse.”

“So far as the record shows” is critical.  I haven’t seen the record in this case, but I believe it might serve to demonstrate that while Grahl-Madsen correctly assigned equal validity to the opinions of the commoner and the intellectual, in practice, claims brought by members of the former group often require assistance from the latter in persuading adjudicators of the political nature of their words or actions.

For example, in Hernandez-Chacon, context for the petitioner’s resistance was provided by the affidavit of a lawyer and human rights expert who was able to articulate the patriarchal gender bias in Salvadoran society from which a political opinion could be gleaned from the asylum-seeker’s act of resistance alone.  In another decision cited by the court, Alvarez-Lagos v. Barr, the Fourth Circuit was able to rely on the explanation of two experts on Central American gangs that the petitioner’s refusal to comply with extortion demands would be viewed by the gang as “political opposition” and “a form of political disobedience.”

In Zelaya-Moreno, the dissenting judge (in an opinion worth reading) was able to draw a political inference from the facts alone.  It seemed that the two judges in the majority required more.  But in finding the statements or actions of an applicant alone to be insufficient, is our present system of refugee protection genuinely designed to suit the situation of common people as well as philosophers?

In the view of the dissenting judge, yes.  In that judge’s words, Zelaya “sought refuge here after standing up to MS members, refusing their demands that he join them, and informing them that he did not support them and considered them a blight on his native El Salvador. Our asylum laws protect individuals like Zelaya-Moreno who face persecution for such politically courageous stands.”

But in the view of the majority, Zelaya had expressed nothing “more than the generalized statement ‘gangs are bad.’ Thus, we cannot conclude that Zelaya holds a political opinion within the meaning of the statute, and therefore that the BIA erred in concluding that he was not eligible for asylum on this ground.”   Would additional documentation providing the complex, contextual analysis the court mentioned earlier in its decision have delivered the two judges in the majority to the place already reached by their dissenting colleague?

The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees is a good reference source on such issues.  In its Guidance Note on Refugee Claims Relating to Victims of Organized Crimes, UNHCR stated at para. 45 that in its view, “political opinion needs to be understood in a broad sense to encompass “any opinion on any matter in which the machinery of State, government, society, or policy may be engaged.”  It continued at para. 47 that powerful gangs such as MS-13 may exercise de facto power in certain areas, and their activities  and those of certain State agents may be closely intertwined.  At para. 50, UNHCR stated that “rejecting a recruitment attempt may convey anti-gang sentiments as clearly as an opinion expressed in a more traditional political manner by, for instance, vocalizing criticism of gangs in public meetings or campaigns.”  And at para. 51, UNHCR added that “[p]olitical opinion can also be imputed to the applicant by the gang without the applicant taking any action or making a particular statement him/herself.  A refusal to give in to the demands of a gang is viewed by gangs as an act of betrayal, and gangs typically impute anti-gang sentiment to the victim whether or not s/he voices actual gang opposition.”

Had this document been included in the record, would it have been enough to persuade the majority that the BIA had erred in rejecting Zelaya’s claim that he was targeted on account of his political opinion?  If so, how many pro se asylum applicants would understand the need to supplement their claims to provide this context, or know what type of document would be sufficient, or how to find it?

The Seventh Circuit had foreseen this problem 15 years ago.  In a 2006 decision, Banks v. Gonzales, the court opined that Immigration Court needs its own country experts, who would operate much as vocational experts do in disability hearings before the Social Security Administration’s judges.  In my opinion, an alternative approach would be for EOIR to follow the example of the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, which maintains National Documentation Packages that are referenced in all cases by adjudicators of refugee claims.

During my time in government, I oversaw the creation of country condition pages on EOIR’s Virtual Law Library, which were built, and continue to be updated, by EOIR’s Law Library staff.  However, EOIR did not see fit to make its contents part of the records of hearing in asylum cases.  It is for this reason that UNHCR’s Eligibility Guidelines For Assessing International Protection Needs of Asylum Seekers in El Salvador, which contains much of the same language as the Guidance Note quoted above, and which expresses the specific conclusion that “persons perceived by a gang as contravening its rules or resisting its authority may be in need of international refugee protection on the grounds of their (imputed) political opinion,”2 is found on EOIR’s own website on the country page for “El Salvador,” yet wasn’t even considered in Zelaya-Moreno.

Considering the growing number of pro se applicants, the lack of legal resources available to those held in remote detention facilities, and the short time frame to prepare for hearings in certain categories of cases, I can’t see why the EOIR country pages should not be made part of the hearing record here as in Canada.  It’s possible that such a policy would have led to a different result in Zelaya.

Furthermore, the BIA hears plenty of cases involving expert opinions supporting the conclusion that those resisting gangs such as MS-13 were harmed on account of their political opinion.  Issuing precedent opinions recognizing the context that politicizes statements and actions such as Zelaya’s would result in much greater efficiency, consistency, and fairness in Immigration Court and Asylum Office adjudications.

Realistically, I harbor no illusions that the recent change in administration will bring about such enlightened changes to asylum adjudication anytime soon.  But we must still continue to argue for such change.  As the dissenting opinion in Zelaya stated in its conclusion: “[w]hile it may be too late for Zelaya-Moreno, the BIA and the Department of Justice can right this wrong for future asylum seekers. I urge them to reconsider their approach to anti-gang political opinion cases to ensure those who stand up to fearsome dangers are welcomed into this country rather than forced back to face torture and death.”  As noted above, it wouldn’t take much effort on EOIR’s part to accomplish this.


  1. Atle Grahl-Madsen, The Status of Refugees in International Law, 228, 251 (1966) (quoted in Deborah E. Anker, The Law of Asylum in the United States (2020 Ed.) § 5:17, fn. 3.

  2. UNHCR Eligibility Guidelines For Assessing International Protection Needs of Asylum Seekers in El Salvador at 29-30."

Copyright 2021 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.