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Immigration Law

Jeffrey S. Chase: Facts, Reason and Benefit of the Doubt

Jeffrey S. Chase, Nov. 29, 2020

"On November 24, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued an unpublished decision in Malonda v. Barr.  In that case, the asylum-seeker was attacked by armed soldiers when they raided his family’s home in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  The soldiers raped and killed three of his sisters, and abducted his father and brother, all due to the father’s membership in an opposition political party.

The Immigration Judge acknowledged the voluminous documentation and detailed testimony in support of the claim.  However, asylum was denied because Malonda couldn’t identify the soldiers’ uniforms with absolute certainty, although he stated “they were working for the government, I can say.”  And because he did not credit the attackers as working for the government, the judge did not find that the attack was necessarily motivated by the family’s political opinion, but could have simply been an act of random violence not protected under asylum law.

Malonda was not the only recent agency decision to employ this thought pattern.  In the BIA’s precedent decision in Matter of O-F-A-S-, an applicant for protection under the Convention Against Torture testified that he was beaten, robbed, and threatened by five men wearing police uniforms bearing the insignia of a government law enforcement agency, who were armed with high-caliber weapons and handcuffs.  The Immigration Judge determined that the respondent had not met his burden of establishing that the five were police officers, as the uniforms could have been fake, and criminals also carry weapons.  The IJ further noted that the five did not arrive in an official police car, and immediately departed when they heard that a police car was en route in response to the disturbance.  Of course, real police officers engaging in extracurricular criminal activity would behave the same way.  Nevertheless, the BIA found no clear error on appeal.

In another recent decision presently pending at the Second Circuit, asylum was denied because the applicant was unable to state with certainty from the details of the uniform he wore that one of his persecutors was certainly a police officer, although he believed that he was.  The IJ therefore did not conclude that police were involved, instead considering the persecutors to be non-state actors, from whom the respondent hadn’t proven that the police were unwilling or unable to protect him.  The BIA affirmed in an unpublished decision.  Obviously, a finding that a police officer participated in the persecution of the asylum applicant could well have led to a different finding as to the government’s willingness to protect.

In each of the above cases, the respondent was found to be a credible witness.  There are only two types of witnesses in court proceedings: fact (or “lay”) witnesses and experts.  Asylum applicants are fact witnesses, describing what they experienced.  Although the Federal Rules of Evidence are not binding on immigration judges, they provide the best guidance available, as the Immigration Courts have no such evidentiary rules of their own.  Rule 701 of the FRE allows a lay witness to express an opinion provided that it is (1) rationally based on their own perception; (2) helpful to clearly understand the testimony or to determine a fact in issue; and (3) not based on scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge reserved for expert witnesses.  In the above cases, the asylum seekers’ opinions that the uniformed, armed attackers were government officials fit clearly within the parameters of Rule 701.

 Of course, asylum applicants are not experts on uniforms worn by the various government forces in their home countries.  I doubt most country experts who testify in asylum cases would possess such specific expertise.  Even if they did, those experts weren’t present to witness the event in question to be able to affirm that the uniform was in fact the official government issue.  So what is the solution in cases in which the Immigration Judge harbors doubt regarding the attackers?

The UNHCR Handbook at para. 196 advises that despite all efforts, “there may also be statements that are not susceptible of proof. In such cases, if the applicant's account appears credible, he should, unless there are good reasons to the contrary, be given the benefit of the doubt.”  The following paragraph adds that evidentiary requirements should not be applied too strictly to asylum seekers.  But the Handbook sets limits on this practice, adding that  “[a]llowance for such possible lack of evidence does not, however, mean that unsupported statements must necessarily be accepted as true if they are inconsistent with the general account put forward by the applicant.”1

It would seem that requiring absolute confirmation of the authenticity of the attacker’s uniform (which psychologists have testified is not one’s focus during a traumatic experience) places an insurmountable burden on asylum applicants.  Given the purpose of asylum laws, where an asylum applicant expresses the reasonable opinion that attackers who look and behave like government officials are in fact government officials, in the absence of the type of inconsistencies flagged by the Handbook, the benefit of the doubt should be allowed to carry the day.

Addressing this issue in Malonda, the Second Circuit  focused on the fact that the identity issue was tied to the question of political opinion.  The court referenced its decision from earlier this year in Hernandez-Chacon v. Barr, in which it cited language from the BIA’s excellent 1996 decision in Matter of S-P- holding that  political opinion is established by direct or circumstantial evidence.  

The Second Circuit pointed to circumstantial evidence in Malonda’s testimony that the attackers were government soldiers motivated by the family’s political opinion.  Such evidence included the facts that Malonda’s home was the only one attacked, and his father was the only resident of the street who was an active opposition party member.  Furthermore, the likelihood of the attackers being anti-government rebels was undermined by Malonda’s testimony that the rebels ability to reach his neighborhood was impeded by the presence of state security forces, and that his brother, who was abducted by the attackers, was brought to a camp where he was trained to fight against (rather than for) the rebels.

In a footnote, the court noted that the BIA had added its own insinuation to the contrary by referencing general reports of rebel involvement in “widespread violence and civil strife” in the country.  But the Second Circuit pointed out that such general information failed to consider that Malonda’s own region was protected by the government, and “more importantly, does not explain why the rebels would have targeted only Malonda’s house for such violence.”

The Second Circuit’s opinion in Malonda emphasizes the starkly different approaches of the 1996 BIA and its current iteration.  In Matter of S-P- (an en banc decision which remains binding precedent on immigration judges and the BIA), the Board noted the difficulty in determining motive where “harm may have been inflicted for reasons related to government intelligence gathering, for political views imputed to the applicant, or for some combination of these reasons.”  But the Board emphasized the importance of keeping “in mind the fundamental humanitarian concerns of asylum law,” which are “designed to afford a generous standard for protection in cases of doubt.”2

S-P- also included a reminder that a grant of asylum “is not a judgment about the country involved, but a judgment about the reasonableness of the applicant’s belief that persecution was based on a protected ground.”  As the scholar Deborah Anker has emphasized, such reasonableness determinations require “that the adjudicator view the evidence as the applicant - or a reasonable person in his or her circumstances - would and does not simply substitute the adjudicator’s own experience as the vantage point.”3  In its decision in Sotelo-Aquije v. Slattery, the Second Circuit similarly emphasized the importance of vantage point by describing the standard as what a reasonable person would find credible “based on what that person has experienced and witnessed.”

Applying this standard, what reasonable person who had experienced and witnessed what Malonda did would say: “You know, I was pretty certain the attackers were government soldiers punishing us for my father’s political activities.  But since you pointed out that I’m not completely certain about the uniforms, I guess I was mistaken.  It was probably just a random incident.  In which case, I can’t see any reason to fear return?”

Remarkably, that appears to have been the  BIA’s approach in Malonda.  Its decision lacked any indication of adopting the asylum applicant’s vantage point or applying the benefit of the doubt as described above.  And while Matter of S-P- set out a rather complex set of elements for identifying motive through the types of circumstantial evidence pointed to by the Second Circuit, the present BIA pointed instead to whatever generalized information it could find in the record to justify affirming the asylum denial.

Although an unpublished decision involving a pro se petitioner that could easily evade our attention,4 Malonda underscores the need for a uniform application of the principles emphasized in the BIA’s decision in Matter of S-P-, instead of a “uniform” approach based on the ability to identify uniforms.

Notes:

  1. Although not binding, the Supreme Court has recognized that “the Handbook provides significant guidance in construing the Protocol, to which Congress sought to conform [and] has been widely considered useful in giving content to the obligations that the Protocol establishes.” INS v. Cardoza-Fonseca, 480 U.S. 421, 439 n. 22 (1987). The BIA reached a similar conclusion in Matter of Acosta, 19 I&N Dec. 211 (BIA 1985) (finding the Handbook to be a useful tool “in construing our obligations under the Protocol”).

  2. The majority opinion in Matter of S-P- was authored by now retired Board Member John Guendelsberger. Three current members of the Round Table of Immigration Judges, Paul W. Schmidt (the BIA Chairperson at the time), Lory D. Rosenberg, and Gustavo Villageliu, joined in Judge Guendelsberger’s opinion.

  3. Deborah E. Anker, Law of Asylum in the United States (2020 Edition) (Thomson Reuters) at 76.

  4. Thanks to attorney Raymond Fasano for bringing this decision to my notice."

Copyright 2020, 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.