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Jeffrey S. Chase, May 27, 2020
"When reviewing asylum applications of late, I find myself thinking of the popular 1970s TV show “Columbo.” After interviewing a suspect, it’s title character, a disheveled homicide detective, would famously stop on his way out to ask “just one more thing.” What he asked next was always critical to proving the case.
Asylum claims are increasingly reliant on nuance. For example, in Hernandez-Chacon v. Barr, the Petitioner’s statement that she had resisted an attempted rape by one of the gang members “because [she had] every right to” was a significant reason for the Second Circuit’s conclusion that her subsequent persecution was on account of an imputed political opinion.
Similarly, in Lopez-Ordonez v. Barr, the Fourth Circuit’s finding of imputed political opinion relied largely on the Petitioner, while a soldier in the Guatemalan army, uttering a warning that he would “call the human rights right now” if a fellow soldier carried out his intent of harming a baby.
And in Orellana v. Barr, the Fourth Circuit found support for the Petitioner’s assertion that the Salvadoran government was unable or unwilling to provide protection from her domestic partner in her testimony that she would call the police when her partner would become abusive and lock herself in a room with her children while the partner paced outside with a machete, but that the police would not show up for hours, and sometimes not show up at all.
In the above examples, the critical statements came out during testimony in court. But under pressure to meet unrealistic case completion goals, immigration judges are increasingly suggesting that respondents forego testimony and rely on their written applications, or waive direct examination and reserve the right to redirect. In some instances, judges have imposed time limits on testimony. There has been even greater pressure to forego the testimony of other witnesses and instead rely on their written submissions alone.
This pressure to make asylum adjudication more administratively efficient conflicts with the process through which such claims develop. While the written evidence explains the claim, an unanticipated response to a probing question may provide a eureka moment that alters the legal analysis. In my first year on the bench in 1995, a response from a female asylum seeker uttered with a certain degree of conviction caused me to make a connection to a 1993 decision of the Third Circuit in Fatin v. INS. That decision, authored by then-circuit judge Samuel Alito, recognized a particular social group consisting of both gender and a refusal to conform to the government’s gender-specific laws. After weeks of subsequent research and analysis, the case before me ended in a grant of asylum, a result that never would have occurred without the extensive testimony that elicited that one critical utterance.
While EOIR management’s present focus is on efficiency, it bears noting that claims for asylum and related reliefs have life-or-death consequences. For example, a February report of Human Rights Watch documented 138 Salvadorans who were murdered after being deported from the U.S., and 70 other deportees who were subjected to beatings, sexual assault, or extortion. And those are just the statistics for one country.
It is therefore extremely important to find a way to anticipate the details that might turn a case from a denial to a grant, and to include those details in the written asylum application. And this can be best achieved through the Columbo method of asking “just one more thing.”
Domestic violence claims
Typically, applications describe the brutal mistreatment suffered by the asylum-seeker. But in Matter of A-B-, the Attorney General claimed a lack of evidence that the persecutor “was aware of, and hostile to” a particular social group. The A.G. rather attributed the motive for the attack to the persecutor’s “preexisting personal relationship with the victim.”
In such cases, ask “just one more thing” to establish that the abusive partner was at least partially motivated to harm the asylum seeker because of her gender (which should in turn be argued to constitute her particular social group). For example, the respondent in A-B- described how her ex-husband believed “a woman’s place was in the home, like a servant.” This statement established (1) that the persecutor was aware of a particular social group, consisting of women, and (2) his own hostility towards such group, through his relegating its members to a subservient role in society.
Additional “Columbo” questions would inquire whether the persecutor’s verbal abuse included gender-specific derogatory terms; how he generally spoke of or treated other women in his life; and whether he would have inflicted the same forms of abuse on e.g. his brother, a close male friend, or a male roommate. The answers may well establish that the asylum seeker’s inclusion in a social group defined by her gender was at least “one central reason” for her being targeted for abuse.
“Just one more thing” should also be asked to flesh out imputed political opinion as a possible motive, as in the above-cited Hernandez-Chacon case.
These claims often arise in the gang context, when gang members unable to target a particular individual target family members of that individual instead. Although courts for decades have held family to be the quintessential example of a particular social group for asylum purposes, two recent administrative decisions have complicated these claims. First, the BIA in Matter of L-E-A- dismissed the threat to the family member as being motivated by financial considerations and not by an actual animus towards the family. The Attorney General then weighed in, questioning whether a family enjoys the required distinction in the eyes of society to constitute a particular social group.
Regarding nexus, the “Columbo” questions should focus on circumstantial evidence of intent. Keep in mind the BIA’s decision in Matter of S-P-. One of the factors set out in that decision for determining when purported criminal prosecution might actually be political persecution is where the abuse is “out of proportion to nonpolitical ends.” For example, if someone accused of jaywalking is sentenced to ten years in prison and subjected to torture and interrogation sessions, it’s safe to assume that it isn’t really about the jaywalking.
With this in mind, the “just one more thing” issue in such cases is to elicit details about the purported motive vs. the seriousness of the threatened harm. Where the issue is extortion, and the Board might therefore view the motive as economic, ask exactly how much money was involved. Under the S-P- test, a threat to rape and kill someone because their family member neglected to pay $20 in renta probably isn’t about the money. The same might be found even where a larger sum is involved where the threats are directed at, e.g., a teenage child who lacks any realistic ability to pay. Or where the family has managed to avoid paying for years, is there a point where a dispute that began purely over money starts to take on some animus towards the family as well?
Regarding social distinction, “just one more thing” should be asked to establish how the asylum-seeker’s family was viewed in the society in which they lived, as well as the general distinctions that all families enjoy in such society. Was it known throughout the community that MS-13 is targeting the client’s family? If so, might that knowledge have caused the family to achieve social distinction? It is also worth asking whether the institution of family is addressed in the country’s constitution, or how kinship is treated regarding the country’s inheritance and guardianship laws.
As in Orellana v. Barr above, ask “just one more thing” about how many times your client turned to the police, and how many times they actually responded. Also, how long did it take them to respond, and what did the response consist of? How did the authorities treat the abuser? Did they take the position that the issue was a “personal matter” not proper for police intervention?
If the client did not bother to call the police because they viewed it as futile, ask “just one more thing” about what caused them to form such a view. Do they know of relatives, friends, or neighbors whose experiences with the authorities support such a view? Can they cite examples in which there were repercussions for those who called on the authorities for protection? Have the authorities asked for bribes, or made statements exhibiting bias or corruption? Or have they gone as far as to admit that they are unable to provide effective protection?"
Copyright 2020 Jeffrey S. Chase. All rights reserved.
(Disclaimer: The foregoing is meant as “food for thought,” and is not to be interpreted or relied upon as legal advice, or to create an attorney-client relationship. And as the law changes, by the time you read this, the information contained therein might not be up to date.)
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.