Use this button to switch between dark and light mode.

DOJ's Contradictory Positions on MS-13 and "Political Opinion"

April 29, 2021 (7 min read)

Jeffrey S. Chase, Apr. 29, 2021

"In a recent blog post, I discussed the difficulty in establishing asylum based on a political opinion expressed against MS-13.  In the specific case discussed, the Board of Immigration Appeals reversed the Immigration Judge’s finding that the asylum-seeker had expressed a political opinion to MS-13 members.1  In reversing the Immigration Judge, the BIA specifically stated as to MS-13 that “the gangs are criminal organizations, and not political or governmental organizations and gang activities are not political in nature.”  The BIA has repeatedly expressed this same view (using this or similar boilerplate language) in its decisions denying asylum.  In the particular case discussed in my blog post, a split panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals could not find enough evidence of record to compel the majority to overturn the BIA’s conclusion.

The BIA is of course a part of the U.S. Department of Justice; its judges are appointed by and employed by the Attorney General.  Former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was one of the Department officials to make the following point to a class of new Immigration Judges in March 2019:

Immigration judges appointed by the Attorney General and supervised by the Executive Office for Immigration Review are not only judges. First, you are not only judges because you are also employees of the United States Department of Justice. It is a great honor to serve in this Department. In the courtyard just outside the entrance to this Great Hall, high up on the interior wall of the Main Justice building, there is a depiction of the scales of justice and an inscription that reads, “Privilegium Obligatio.” It means that when you accept a privilege, you incur an obligation. In this Department, our duty is in our name. We are the only cabinet agency with a name that articulates a moral value.

Justice is not measured by statistics. Our employees learn from day one that their duty is to gather the facts, seek the truth, apply the law, and respect the policies and principles of the Department of Justice.

The second reason that you are not only judges is that in addition to your adjudicative function – finding facts and applying laws – you are a member of the executive branch. You follow lawful instructions from the Attorney General, and you share a duty to enforce the law.2

The clear message being conveyed is “Don’t get any big ideas of judicial independence and neutrality; you work for ‘Team Justice,’ and you will behave accordingly.”  Am I alone in thinking that the motto cited by Rosenstein, “when you accept a privilege, you incur an obligation,” here comes across as a boss reminding new employees where their loyalties lie rather than as a commitment to truth and justice?

As wrong as this message is when conveyed to judges who are supposed to enjoy the independence and neutrality to rule against the Department of Justice and the Attorney General when the facts and law compel such an outcome, let’s examine this view for the consistency of its application as to all DOJ employees.  Presumably, the Board’s official stance that MS-13 is not a political organization and that its activities are criminal and not political in nature enjoys the Department’s seal of approval.  In fact, other Department of Justice attorneys, working for the Office of Immigration Litigation, defend that view when the BIA”s decisions are reviewed on appeal by the Circuit Courts.  I’m not aware of any Attorney General action to certify a BIA decision expressing this view in order to correct the Board’s position on this issue, or even to remand to the Board for further consideration of its position in light of other conflicting views within the Department.

Regarding such conflicting views, I was recently made aware of a criminal indictment drafted by the U.S. Attorneys’ Office in the Eastern District of New York.3  The indictment was filed in December, 2020, while the Trump Administration was still in office.  The opening paragraph of the indictment states that MS-13 is a transnational criminal organization engaged in terrorist activity, and that its members use violence “in order to obtain concessions from the government of El Salvador, achieve political goals and retaliate for government actions against MS-13’s members and leaders.” (emphasis added).

The indictment contains a specific section titled “Political Influence in El Salvador.”  The indictment states that a unit of MS-13, the Ranfla Nacional, “gained political influence as a result of the violence and intimidation MS-13 exerted on the government and population of El Salvador.”  It continued that the organization exercised leverage on the Salvadoran government through its control on the level of violence.  The indictment states that in 2012, MS-13 exercised its leverage to negotiate a truce with the ruling FMLN party and its rival 18th Street “to reduce homicides in El Salvador in return for improved prison conditions, benefits and money.”  According to the indictment, MS-13 also negotiated a similar agreement with the rival ARENA party, promising to deliver votes in return for benefits.  The indictment states that over time, “the Ranfla Nacional continued to negotiate with political parties in El Salvador and use its control of the level of violence to influence the actions of the government in El Salvador.”

The indictment also contains a section explaining the purpose of the Ranfla Nacional.  The second specific goal listed is: “Influencing the actions of governments in El Salvador and elsewhere to implement policies favorable to MS-13.”

The attorneys who made the above claims in an indictment filed in Federal District Court are also employees of the U.S. Department of Justice.  They are also members of the executive branch, following lawful instructions from the Attorney General, and sharing a duty to enforce the law.   In the Second Circuit case I recently discussed, other Department of Justice attorneys in their brief to the court defended the Board’s decision by depicting MS-13 as “an institution that is entirely non-governmental - that is...a group of criminals who, in fact, reject the rules set out by the government.”  Noticeably absent from the same brief was any mention that this “rejection of the rules set out by government” includes strategies to pressure said government into undertaking specific actions, as well as its entering into negotiations and ultimately agreements with political parties, the terms of which include MS-13’s delivering votes in return for the parties’ commitment to enacting beneficial policies.

So how can it be that attorneys in one office of the Department of Justice argue that MS-13 as an organization is engaged in exerting political influence to achieve its political goals, and at the same time, another group of attorneys within the same Department of Justice can sign orders sending victims of the same MS-13 to their death by employing a boilerplate sentence that MS-13 is not a political organization and its activities are not political in nature?  And that the decisions of that latter group are then defended by a third group of Department attorneys on appeal who make no mention of the conflicting arguments?  Let’s remember that, according to Rosenstein, these attorneys were taught from day one that their duties as Department of Justice employees include gathering the facts and seeking the truth.

In 1997, a very different BIA wrote the following in a decision that, although still binding as precedent, seems long forgotten:

immigration enforcement obligations do not consist only of initiating and conducting prompt proceedings that lead to removals at any cost. Rather, as has been said, the government wins when justice is done. In that regard, the handbook for trial attorneys states that “[t]he respondent should be aided in obtaining any procedural rights or benefits required by the statute, regulation and controlling court decision, of the requirements of fairness.” Handbook for Trial Attorneys § 1.3 (1964). See generally Freeport-McMoRan Oil & Gas Co. v. FERC, 962 F.2d 45, 48 (D.C. Cir. 1992)(finding astonishing that counsel for a federal administrative agency denied that the A.B.A. Code of Professional Responsibility holds government lawyers to a higher standard and has obligations that “might sometimes trump the desire to pound an opponent into submission”); Reid v. INS, 949 F.2d 287 (9th Cir. 1991)(noting that government counsel has an interest only in the law being observed, not in victory or defeat).4

This matter deserves the immediate attention of Attorney General Merrick Garland.  The ability of asylum seekers to receive a fair review of their claims based on accurate information is a matter of life and death.  At this early stage of the Biden Administration, it is critical that the Department send a clear message that the “obligation” mentioned in its motto is to serve an ideal of justice that is independent of the particular politics of those temporally in charge.


  1. Zelaya-Moreno v. Wilkinson, No. 17-2284, ___ F.3d ___ (2d Cir., Feb. 26, 2021).


  3. E.D.N.Y. Docket No.: 20-CR-577 (JFB).  The Department of Justice’s Press Release can be found here:

  4. Matter of S-M-J-, 21 I&N Dec. 722, 727 (BIA 1997)."

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.