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Hon. Jeffrey S. Chase, July 28, 2023
"For Immigration Judges, country experts serve as the lens through which a confusing jumble of evidence becomes a clearer picture. No judge can be an expert on all countries; it is therefore by way of the country expert’s testimony that a determination can be made as to whether the asylum seeker’s predicament is a unique or a common one; a dispute is merely personal or possesses a political dimension; the home country’s government is truly likely to provide adequate protection; and why relocating within the country may or may not be reasonable.
However, Immigration Judges are provided remarkably little guidance on how to assess expert testimony. A 2020 decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Castillo v. Barr,1 illustrates the problem. In that case, both the Immigration Judge and the BIA chose to discount the testimony of a qualified country expert because his testimony was not corroborated by other evidence of record. As the Ninth Circuit noted, “If an expert's opinion could only be relied upon if it were redundant with other evidence in the record, there would be no need for experts.”2 Obviously, this simple, logical rule should have been incorporated in a BIA precedent decision by now.
When attorneys SangYeob Kim and Gilles Bissonnette of the ACLU of New Hampshire brought an appeal involving this issue with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, our Round Table of Former Immigration Judges was most happy to file an amicus brief in the matter. We used the opportunity to inform the court “how IJs and the BIA need, and lack, a clear standard for whether to admit—and how to weigh— expert evidence.”
Although the court issued an unpublished decision (and explained why it was precluded by Supreme Court precedent from establishing the uniform standard that we had requested), I believe the opinion offers wisdom on the topic that Immigration Judges might find useful in spite of its nonbinding nature. The case name is G.P. v. Garland, [2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 17828 * | 2023 WL 4536070] No. 21-2002 (1st Cir., July 13, 2023).
Rather than review the entire decision, in the hope of increased convenience, I have instead listed the issues raised in the case that are likely to arise in removal proceedings, and then summarized how the First Circuit addressed each issue.
The recency of the expert’s knowledge:
May an Immigration Judge discount an expert’s country knowledge as “stale” due to the passage of time since the expert’s last visit to the country in question or contact with its government’s officials?
In G.P., the court found no support for such approach where: (1) the record contained no evidence of changed conditions over the period of time in question; (2) the expert testified to the lack of significant changes in country conditions over that same time period; (3) such testimony regarding the lack of significant change went unchallenged by ICE, which did not call its own expert or offer other country evidence to the contrary; and (4) the conclusion was not contradicted by the petitioner.
The basis of the expert’s knowledge
Can an expert’s testimony be discounted for lack of firsthand “knowledge, research, or connections” to the country in question?
In G.P., the court pointed to the BIA’s own precedent decision in Matter of J-G-T- in which the Board adopted the Federal Rules of Evidence standard that an expert’s testimony is reliable when it is "`based on sufficient facts or data' that the expert `has been made aware of or personally observed' or from sources that `experts in the particular field would reasonably rely on.'"3
In addition to finding that the IJ had overlooked sources of firsthand knowledge, the court in G.P. found further error in the IJ’s failure to either mention or explain why sources that experts in the field would rely on that were mentioned by the expert in his voir dire, which included crime rates, DEA reports, and U.S. Department of State Country Reports, were not sufficient to credit the expert’s testimony.
The expert’s lack of personal knowledge of a specific criminal organization
Can an expert’s testimony be discredited where the expert lacked personal knowledge of the specific criminal organization that the applicant fears?
In G.P., the court found that the IJ erred in discounting the expert’s testimony for this reason. The court again referenced the Board’s statement in J-G-T- quoted above, and cited another BIA precedent, Matter of Vides Casanova, in which the Board held that an expert "need not have personal knowledge of the facts underlying" their opinion.4
Applying the above BIA guidance, the court observed that the expert witness learned specifics about the organization in question from reading the respondent’s affidavit, and importantly, that the facts contained in the respondent’s testimony and later testified to in court “were never challenged by the government or questioned by the IJ, who found G.P. credible.” The court added that “An expert cannot be ‘undermined by his reliance on facts . . . that have not been disputed’” (quoting from the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Castillo, supra at 1284).
The feared persecutors are based outside of the country of expertise
Can an expert’s testimony about a crime group based in the U.S. be discredited where the witness was qualified as an expert on organized crime in the Dominican Republic?
In G.P., although the group in question was based in New England, connected to a cartel based in Sinaloa, Mexico, and “served as a conduit between the Mexican drug cartels and customers in Northern New England,” the group did not fall outside of the witness’s area of expertise (i.e. organized crime in the Dominican Republic) where the expert testified to the Sinaloa Cartel's strong presence in the Dominican Republic, influence over government officials there, and treatment of government cooperators.” The court therefore found that the IJ’s statement that the expert lacked direct knowledge of the criminal organization “mischaracterizes the evidence as a whole” and was not supported by substantial evidence of record.
Prior statements of the expert
How should a prior statement of the expert that is offered by ICE be treated by the IJ?
In G.P., ICE introduced a quote from the expert’s 2011 book in which he wrote that he “couldn't honestly say that torture is something deportees [to the Dominican Republic] should expect."
However, the First Circuit found error in the IJ’s reliance on the quote, because (1) the quote was in the context of an entirely different set of facts and employed a highly narrow definition of torture; (2) the expert was only asked whether he recalled the quote and to provide its context, and not whether he agreed with it; (3) the quote addressed the general risk of torture faced by deported noncitizens, and not the specific risk faced by G.P.; and (4) the IJ failed to explain why the 2011 book deserved significant weight when it was older than other evidence the IJ found to be stale.
Petitioner’s counsel has moved the First Circuit to publish the decision. But regardless of the outcome, counsel may wish to bring the court’s analysis to the attention of Immigration Judges, who in turn may find it highly useful in navigating the treatment of experts in cases before them.
Hats off to SangYeob Kim and Gilles Bissonnette on their outstanding litigation in the First Circuit, which led to this satisfying decision. Our Round Table is most thankful to attorneys Adam Gershenson, Alex Robledo, Angela Dunning, Marc Suskin, and Robby L.R. Saldaña of the law firm of Cooley LLP, for their expert drafting of our amicus brief in this case.
Copyright 2023 by Jeffrey S. Chase. All Rights Reserved.
980 F.3d 1278 (9th Cir. 2020).
Id. at 1284.
Matter of J-G-T-, 28 I&N Dec. 97, 102 (BIA 2020) (quoting Fed. R. Evid. 702(b), 703).
Matter of Vides Casanova, 26 I&N Dec. 494, 499 (BIA 2015). Interestingly, in VIdes Casanova, the country expert had been called by DHS to establish that the respondent was a persecutor of others. Under those circumstances, the BIA in its decision noted that an expert “is permitted to base her opinion on hearsay evidence and need not have personal knowledge of the facts underlying those opinions.”
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."