The threat of honor killing may form the basis of an asylum claim. While men may be targeted as well,1 honor killings are a gender-based form of persecution, as the underlying basis is the view in certain societies that a woman’s failure to strictly adhere to a rigid moral code imposed upon her brings such dishonor on her family in the eyes of the community that nothing short of her murder (at the hands of her own family) can restore the family’s “honor.” The BIA has issued no precedent decisions relating to these types of claims; there are not many published circuit court decisions. In a recent published decision, Kamar v. Sessions, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed the BIA’s incorrect determination that a woman from Jordan who credibly fears an honor killing was not genuinely at risk, and did not show that the government of Jordan was unwilling or unable to protect her. However, I would like to focus in this article on the particular social group aspects of such claims.
As I have stated in other posts, the BIA established a requirement in its 1985 precedent decision Matter of Acosta that members of a particular social group must share an immutable characteristic. In a series of later decisions beginning with it’s 2006 precedent Matter of C-A-, the BIA additionally required cognizable social groups to satisfy its particularity and social distinction requirements. The former requires that there be a clear benchmark of who is and is not included in the group. The latter requires that the society in question (i.e. not the persecutors alone) view the members as forming a distinct group. It is not easy for a group to meet all three of these requirements.
However, I believe that women (and sometimes men) targeted for honor killings must be found to meet all three of these requirements, as they are inextricably built into the social code which gives rise to such horrific actions. First, being targeted for an honor killing is clearly an immutable characteristic. The entire reason the society in question requires an act as drastic as murder is that nothing short of eliminating the individual will undo the perceived shame on the family. There is no lesser form of rehabilitation or restitution available. Nor will the passage of time or the target’s departure from the society suffice. USCIS itself states in its own training materials for asylum officers on gender-based persecution that “the family may go to great lengths to pursue women (and men) accused of violating the family’s honor. Families employ bounty hunters, private detectives and social networks to pursue victims and searches may persist over years. In cultures with extended family networks over a large geographic area, relocation may offer no real protection.”2 This is the definition of an immutable characteristic.
Additionally, the group satisfies the particularity requirement. The code giving rise to honor killings (a term which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has called “an oxymoron if we’ve ever heard one”)3 specifies who must be targeted. In societies in which such killings take place, if a family that adheres to a rigid moral code believes that a female member of the family has behaved in a way that tarnished its reputation to the point that an honor killing is required, the family cannot decide to kill, e.g., the third person that walks down the street, or a more distant relative, or the gardener to achieve the goal of restoring honor. The code governing such killings is specific as to who must be targeted.
Furthermore, social distinction is a given in such cases, as it is the perception of the society in question itself that is entirely responsible for both the family’s perceived loss of honor and for the “need” to carry out the murder. It is the society’s moral code that has been violated by the group member’s behavior; it is the society that has distinguished the violator in a manner that brings shame on her family; and it is the society’s perception that the honor killing is intended to appease. Therefore, while the asylum officer, immigration judge, or BIA may deny asylum for another reason, if credible, an asylum applicant who fears an honor killing should not be denied based on a failure to meet her burden of establishing membership in a cognizable particular social group.
In order to avoid the Board’s prohibition against the group being defined in a circular manner, it is best not to include the term “honor killing” in the definition of the proposed group itself. The membership in the group is the reason the person fears persecution. The definition should therefore generally not include the actual harm feared, because a person is not targeted for an honor killing because they are targeted for an honor killing- this is what the Board terms a circular argument. However, a person may be targeted for persecution because they are a member of the group consisting of, for example, “women from country X whose behavior is perceived to have brought dishonor on their family by flouting repressive moral norms.” The honor killing is the type of persecution that the applicant fears as a result of their membership in the group.
Copyright 2017 Jeffrey S. Chase. All rights reserved.
1. On the topic of males targeted for honor killings, see Caitlin Steinke, Male Asylum Applicants Who Fear Becoming the Victims of Honor Killings: The Case for Gender Equality, 17 CUNY L.Rev. 233,(2013).
2. See USCIS, RAIO Directorate, Combined Training Course, Gender Related Claims Training Module, p. 24 (Rev. 9/26/2011) https://www.uscis.gov/sites/default/files/USCIS/About%20Us/Directorates%20and%20Program%20Offices/RAIO/Gender%20Related%20Claims%20LP%20%28RAIO%29.pdf.
3. Sarhan v. Holder, 658 F.3d 649 (7th Cir. 2011).