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Hon. Jeffrey S. Chase on Matter of A-B-: A Parting Shot at Women

January 20, 2021 (9 min read)

Hon. Jeffrey S. Chase, Jan. 19, 2021

"As the Trump Administration comes to an end, let’s remember how it began. On the day following the inauguration, millions participated in Women’s Marches around the world. There is sadly no need to list the reasons why women in particular would feel the need to respond in such a way to a Trump presidency.

It was therefore no surprise that Trump’s first Attorney General issued a decision intended to strip protection under our asylum laws from women who are victims of domestic violence. That decision, Matter of A-B-, was so soundly rejected by U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit relied on his reasoning to conclude that Sessions’s decision had been abrogated. The First and Ninth Circuits further rejected Sessions’s view that the particular social group relied upon in A-B- was legally unsound. The Eighth Circuit rejected Sessions’s description of the standard for proving a government’s inability or unwillingness to control an abusive spouse, for example, as requiring evidence that the government condones his actions, or is completely helpless to prevent them.

The administration tried to codify the views expressed in A-B- and in another case, Matter of L-E-A-, by issuing proposed regulation designed to completely rewrite our asylum laws, with the purpose of making it virtually impossible for domestic violence and gang violence victims to qualify for asylum protection. Those rules, which were rushed out with very little time for public comment, were blocked on January 8 by a U.S. District Court judge.

There are at least two important cases presently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit involving the issues raised in both A-B- and L-E-A-. Had these decisions been issued by, e.g., U.S. District Court judges, the Department of Justice would be representing the government (in the form of the Attorney General), but not the judge who issued the decision below. But as to A-B-, the government attorneys represent an Attorney General acting as judge, and a judge with extraordinary powers. As a result of those powers, the official presently filling the position on an acting basis (who had come to the job a few weeks earlier from the Department of Transportation with absolutely no background in immigration law) was able to unilaterally issue a new decision in the case, in an attempt to shore up issues of concern before the circuits.

So what does the new decision of the recent Deputy Transportation Secretary say? It addresses two issues: the “condone or complete helplessness” language used by Sessions, and the proper test for when persecution can be said to be “on account of” an asylum seeker’s gender, familial relationship, or other group membership.

As to the first issue, the Acting AG now states that Sessions did not change the preexisting legal standard for determining whether a government is unwilling or unable to provide protection. The Acting AG accomplishes this by explaining that “condone” doesn’t actually mean condone, and that “complete helplessness” doesn’t mean complete helplessness.

I’m not sure of the need for what follows on the topic. Perhaps there is an Attorney General Style Guide which advises to never be succinct when there are so many more exciting options available. Besides from sounding overly defensive in explaining why Sessions chose to use terms that sure sounded like they raised the standard in order to supposedly signal that he was doing no such thing, the decision also feels the need to remind us of what that preexisting standard is, in spite of the fact that no one other than perhaps a Deputy Transportation Secretary pretending to be an asylum law scholar is in need of such a recap. Yes, we understand there are no crime-free societies, and the failure to prevent every single crime from occurring is not “unwilling or unable.” No court has ever said that it was. Let’s move on.

The second part of this new A-B- decision addresses a conflict between the views of the Fourth Circuit and the BIA in regard to when a nexus is established. This issue arises in all asylum claims, but the BIA addressed it in a case, Matter of L-E-A-, in which an asylum applicant was threatened by a violent gang because it wished to sell drugs in a store owned by his father. The question was whether the asylum seeker’s fear of harm from the gang was “on account of” his familial relationship to his father.

Our laws recognize that persecution can arise for multiple reasons. A 2005 statute requires a showing that one of the five specific bases for a grant of asylum (i.e. race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion) must form “one central reason” for the harm. The BIA itself has defined this to mean that the reason was more than “incidental, tangential, superficial, or subordinate to another reason.”

In the context of family membership, the Fourth Circuit has repeatedly held that this “one central reason” test is satisfied where the family membership formed the reason why the asylum seeker, and not someone else, was targeted for harm. Using the L-E-A- example, the gang members were obviously motivated most of all by their desire for financial gain from the selling of the drugs in the store. But under the Fourth Circuit’s test, the family relationship would also be “one central reason” for the harm, because had the asylum seeker not been the son of the store owner, he wouldn’t have been the one targeted. This is known as a “but for” test, as in “but for” the familial relationship, the asylum seeker wouldn’t have been the one harmed

In L-E-A-, the BIA recognized the Fourth Circuit’s interpretation in a footnote, but added that the case it was deciding didn’t arise under that court’s jurisdiction. The BIA thus went on to create its own test, requiring evidence of an actual animus towards the family. The BIA provided as an example of its new test the assassination of the Romanov family in 1917 Russia, stating that while there were political reasons for the murders, it would be difficult to say that family membership was not one central reason for their persecution.

I’m going to create my own rule here: when you are proposing a particular legal standard, and the judge asks for an example, and all you can come up with is the Romanov family in 1917 Russia, you’re skating on thin ice. The other thing about legal standards is in order for judges to apply them and appeals courts to review them, they have to be understandable. I’m not a student of Russian history, but it would seem to me that (as the BIA acknowledged), the main motive in assassinating the Romanovs was political. I’m not sure what jumps out in that example as evidence of animus towards the family itself. How would one apply the Romanov test to anyone ever appearing in Immigration Court? By comparison, the Fourth Circuit’s test is a very clear one that is easy to apply and review on appeal.

Of course, this is just my humble opinion. The assistant Transportation czar feels differently. Drawing on his extensive minutes of experience in the complex field of asylum, he concluded: “I believe that the Fourth Circuit’s recent interpretation of ‘one central reason’ is not the best reading of the statutory language.”

I am guessing that by saying this in a precedent decision in the final days of this Administration, Transportation guy is hoping that the Fourth Circuit will feel compelled to accord his opinion Brand X deference. Legal scholar Geoffrey Hoffman has pointed out that no such deference is due, as the requirement that the statute be ambiguous is not satisfied. (Geoffrey’s excellent takedown of this same decision can be found here, and is well worth reading).

But the term in question, “on account of,” is also not one requiring agency expertise, which is of course a main justification for judicial deference. It is instead a legal standard not specific to asylum or immigration law.

For example, last June, the Supreme Court decided Bostock v. Clayton County, a case involving employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or identity. In a 6-3 decision authored by Justice Gorsuch, the Court explained that the statutory term in question, “because of,” carries the same legal meaning as “on account of,” the relevant phrase for asylum purposes. In determining nexus, the Court stated:

It doesn’t matter if other factors besides the plaintiff’s sex contributed to the decision. And it doesn’t matter if the employer treated women as a group the same when compared to men as a group. If the employer intentionally relies in part on an individual employee’s sex when deciding to discharge the employee—put differently, if changing the employee’s sex would have yielded a different choice by the employer—a statutory violation has occurred.

That last sentence - “if changing the employee’s sex would have yielded a different choice by the employer” - is essentially the same “but for” standard applied by the Fourth Circuit in the asylum context. What would give an Acting Attorney General the authority to hold otherwise?

A conservative commentator observed a difference between the discrimination required in Bostock and the persecution required in L-E-A-, stating that discrimination can involve favoring one group without necessarily hating the group being passed over, whereas persecuting someone requires an animus towards them.

However, the BIA recognized nearly 25 years ago that persecution can be found in harm resulting from actions intended to overcome a characteristic of the victim, and that no subjective punitive or malignant intent is required. The BIA acknowledged this in L-E-A-, noting that a punitive intent is not required.

Furthermore, the legislative history of the REAL ID Act (which created the requirement in question) shows that Congress amended the original proposed requirement that the protected ground be “the central motive” for the harm, to the final language requiring that it be “one central reason.”1 While animus would fall under “motive,” “reason” covers the type of causation central to the Fourth Circuit’s “but for” test. The history seems to undermine the former Transportation official’s claim that under the Fourth Circuit’s test, the “one central reason” language would be “mere surplusage.” This is untrue, as that additional language serves to clarify that the reason can be one of many (as opposed to “the” reason), and that the relevant issue is reason and not motive. Perhaps the author required more than three weeks at the Department of Justice to understand this.

I write this on the last full day of the Trump presidency. Let’s hope that all of the decisions issued by this administration will be vacated shortly; that the BIA will soon be comprised of fair and independent immigration law scholars (preferably as part of an independent Article I Immigration Court), and that future posts will document a much more enlightened era of asylum adjudication.


1. See Deborah Anker, The Law of Asylum in the United States (Thomson Reuters) at § 5:12. See also Ndayshimiye v. Att’y Gen. of U.S., 557 F.3d 124 (3d Cir. 2009) (recounting the legislative history and rejecting a dominance test for determining “one central reason”)."

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.