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Is CAT a "Dead Letter" in the Fifth Circuit?

September 03, 2021 (8 min read)

Prof. Geoffrey A. Hoffman, Sept. 3, 2021

"This week a panel of the Fifth Circuit issued Tabora Gutierrez v. Garland, interpreting the Convention Against Torture’s (CAT’s) state action requirement so restrictively that it led the dissenting judge to call CAT a virtual “dead letter” in most cases (in the Fifth Circuit, at least). 

In this piece, I want to consider this dire prognostication and also think about what it may mean for future practice - at least for those of us in the Fifth Circuit. 
Two panel members found that petitioner failed a key requirement for relief: that the government in Honduras “consented or acquiesced” to the torture. In dissent, Judge W. Eugene Davis remarked, “I agree with the IJ, the BIA, and the majority that [petitioner] will likely be tortured by MS-13 gang members. . .[but] I read the record to compel a conclusion that the torture will be with the acquiescence of a public official.” According to Judge Davis, the majority raised the bar so high regarding this requirement under CAT that “for most if not all” people CAT will be out of reach, if they are from countries with (merely) corrupt policy or police without the will or courage to protect them from brutal gangs.  While I agree with Judge Davis, the fact is CAT need not be a “dead letter” in the Fifth Circuit.
I was moved to comment on another split panel decision previously in the Fifth Circuit in Inestroza-Antonelli v. Barr, see my prior post here, and I am similarly moved to write about this present decision. 
Significantly, the majority here carefully acknowledges up front that the BIA and IJ below found petitioner “likely to be tortured or killed” if returned to Honduras, and even catalogued the horrible injuries he had already suffered, mentioning “gruesome photos” that are part of the record in the case. 
Because I think the majority erred, and would agree with most of what the dissenting judge says, let me address three issues where I think the majority got it wrong: (1) what it means for a record to “compel” a different conclusion on appeal; (2) what it means for a government to consent or acquiesce to torture and (3) the notion that Petitioner waived his argument about the correct standard of review merely by failing to bring it up in a motion to reconsider. 
I address all three of these points below.
First, the majority importantly conceded in its opinion that the police “failed to investigate” petitioner’s injuries. However, because the Board and IJ interpreted these “failures” of the police as “better explained” by the fact the petitioner “was unable to disclose the specific identity of any of his attackers” this showed the police did not “willfully ignore” the attacks. The majority reasoned that the “evidence” did not “compel” a contrary conclusion and therefore the IJ’s findings, adopted by the BIA, were considered “conclusive.”  
I am struck here by the notion that just because the BIA and IJ had inserted their own explanations for the unrebutted record evidence showing lack of any police action that this must have meant (according to the majority) that the appellate court was constrained to accept this explanation and would not disturb the lower tribunal’s interpretation of the evidence. 
Such a reading of the word “compel” means that judges can have an “out” anytime they want to rubber stamp any decision of the Board, all they have to do is say the explanation offered characterizing the evidence in one way or another was good enough and must not be disturbed. But this is a very troubling proposition.  
Take, for example, the present case where the supposition on the part of the BIA and IJ was that the petitioner was somehow at fault for not being able to identify his attackers by name. Think about that for a minute...Police are not acquiescing and not at fault and should not be held to have “turned a blind eye” because the victim was unable to identify his attackers. 
But this does not make sense.
Such a blame-the-victim mentality goes against the motivation and underlying rationale behind other federal types of relief immigrants have available, for example, U visas for crime victims, VAWA, T visas, etc., premised in many cases on the victim’s cooperation with law enforcement and their investigation. Just because a victim does not know the exact identities of their attackers does not disqualify them from relief. Would that be a reasonable interpretation for example of the U visa statute and attendant regulations?
In addition, let’s consider the use of the “compel” standard for a minute and where it came from exactly. This standard, as acknowledged by the majority, comes from a previous case, Chen v. Gonzales, 470 F.3d 1131, 1134 (5th Cir. 2006), among other cases.  Chen in turn cites 8 USC 1252(b)(4)(B) and emanates from the Supreme Court’s famous decision, INS v. Elias-Zacarias, 502 U.S. 478 (1992), authored by Justice Scalia.
Chen was a case about a Chinese petitioner who converted to Christianity after entry into the U.S. and so her applications did not rely on past persecution but a well-founded fear of future persecution based on religion. The IJ in the former case found that there were “many Christians in China” and that Chen’s claims of future persecution were allegedly “highly speculative.”  The facts of Chen and the current case relating to police inaction in Honduras could not be further apart. Moreover, the Fifth Circuit in Chen was not considering past persecution, as here, but the more difficult to prove “future persecution” and well-founded fear standard.
Similarly, Justice Scalia in Elias-Zacarias was concerned about proof supporting a political opinion claim.  In that case, the Supreme Court found that the petitioner could not produce evidence “so compelling” that no reasonable factfinder could fail to find the requisite fear of persecution on account of political opinion.  The “so compelling” language has been used by many courts to deny asylum on many other grounds throughout the past decades and has not been limited to political opinion claims. 
But the reliance in the present case for the “compel” standard on the statute in question, 8 USC 1252(b) here is misguided. The statute states in pertinent part as follows:  “the administrative findings of fact are conclusive unless any reasonable adjudicator would be compelled to conclude to the contrary . . . .”  But the “consent and acquiescence” determination under CAT is not a determination of “administrative facts” but is certainly a mixed question of law and fact.  As such, the entire structure of the “compel” standard should not have been applied but instead de novo review applied.
And this brings me to the practice pointer that this case so unfortunately stands for. Although on appeal before the circuit court the issue of standard of review was raised by petitioner, it was rejected by the majority on the theory that he had to have filed a “motion to reconsider” before the Board to preserve the issue for appellate review. 
This waiver argument has always seemed to me a weak and tenuous one. 
For example, what if the petitioner (i.e., the respondent before the BIA) argued in his brief to the Board that the correct standard of review was de novo due to the mixed question raised by a very complicated “consent or acquiescence” determination under CAT, and courts have so held, but the BIA decided to just rubber stamp the IJ and refused to overturn the IJ’s finding based on clear error. Wouldn’t that have preserved the issue?  Why is there a need for a litigant to then file a motion to reconsider after  the fact to preserve an issue which had already been preserved?  To make matters worse it appears Mr. Tobora Gutierrez appeared pro se, see page 3 of the Fifth Circuit majority decision, at least initially. The decision does not reveal if he had appellate counsel before the BIA. But if he did not it would be an especially onerous requirement to impose an “after the fact” requirement that a litigant must file a “motion to reconsider” to preserve an issue for appellate review, especially if he is unrepresented.
All of that said, the practice take-away here is: (1) everyone must file a very carefully drafted and thorough motion to reconsider on all issues that could be in any way (mis)interpreted to be subject to waiver so you preserve all issues for review before the circuit courts;  and (2) everyone should read Judge Davis’ cogent and reasoned dissenting opinion, which hopefully will be followed instead of the majority’s strained application of the “compel” standard.   Judge Davis was right: the evidence does compel a different outcome. Judge Davis does a wonderful job also of distinguishing the prior case law in this area and showing how Mr. Tobora Gutierrez’s case is fundamentally different. As he says, “if the egregious facts of this case are not sufficient to support a finding of public-official acquiescence, CAT relief will be a dead-letter to most if not all individuals who live in countries where the police are corrupt or simply do not have the will or courage to protect them from brutal gang attacks.”
Judge Davis is right, this is a most troubling decision but not just for the reason he provides.  It is troubling for the further reason that the majority applies the wrong legal standard here, the “compels” standard versus a de novo review. The majority also leaves the door open for “deferred action,” for this sympathetic and horrendous case, although it declines to recommend it. Most importantly, it also leaves the door open for de novo review, in future cases, at least where those litigants are perceived to have preserved the issue. Litigants can do this by filing a motion to reconsider with the BIA, then filing (another, second) petition for review when the motion to reconsider is denied, and then (following the procedure mandated by section 1252) consolidating the two cases."