The Impact of the BIA's Decision in Matter of W-Y-C- & H-O-B-

In Matter of W-Y-C-& H-O-B-, 27 I&N Dec. 189 (BIA Jan. 19, 2018), the Board of Immigration Appeals held that “an applicant seeking asylum...based on membership in a particular social group must clearly indicate on the record before the Immigration Judge the exact delineation of any proposed particular social group.”  My question is: “why?”

Delineating a particular social group is very complicated, even for experienced immigration lawyers.  When I put together the advanced asylum panel for the 2016 Immigration Judges’ legal training conference, an asylum specialist from the Department of Justice’s Office for Immigration Litigation (“OIL”) chose to lecture the immigration judges on a common error in the crafting of proposed social groups.  It is worth noting that OIL (which defends immigration judge decisions when they are appealed to the U.S. circuit courts) felt that immigration judges needed such instruction.   Prior to this decision, the BIA had issued 8 precedent decisions defining particular social groups since 2006.  Two of those decisions (issued in 2014) were required in order to clear up confusion caused by the language of the previous four decisions on the topic.

When describing the concept of asylum to non-attorney clients, I have completely given up on trying to explain to them what a particular social group is.  I’ve noticed that during asylum interviews, the DHS asylum officers have reached the same conclusion; they simply ask the asylum applicants if they were a member of “a group,” with no attempt to explain the unique properties of particular social groups.  Let’s also remember that there are many unaccompanied children applying for asylum, and that some are not represented because EOIR has opposed efforts to require the agency to assign them counsel.

The impact of requiring asylum applicants to clearly delineate such a complex term of art is significant.  Many of the “surge” cases filed by individuals fleeing violence in Central America are asylum claims based on membership in a particular social group.  With some 660,000 cases presently overwhelming the immigration court system, the decision in W-Y-C- & H-O-B- should help speed adjudication by allowing immigration judges and the BIA to issue boilerplate denials where social groups are not clearly delineated, and further prevent time-consuming remands where better defined groups are proposed on appeal (perhaps after a pro se respondent was able to obtain counsel).  But at what cost is this efficiency achieved?

Our adversarial system presents court decisions as entailing a winner and loser.  However, there are no winners when someone entitled to asylum is nevertheless denied and ordered deported.  This point was underscored by a recent article in The New Yorker, documenting that for many, deportation is truly a death sentence (Sarah Stillman, “When Deportation is a Death Sentence,” Jan.18,2018 https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/01/15/when-deportation-is-a-death-sentence).  

In a recent blog post concerning the treatment of children in immigration court, I referenced Matter of S-M-J-, a BIA precedent decision from 1997 (21 I&N Dec. 722).  The decision contains the following words of wisdom:  “Although we recognize that the burden of proof in asylum and withholding of removal cases is on the applicant, we do have certain obligations under international law to extend refuge to those who qualify for such relief.”  Noting the shift from the non-adversarial nature of affirmative Asylum Office  interviews (then a part of the INS, now within DHS) to the adversarial immigration court proceedings, the Board concluded that “a cooperative approach in Immigration Court is particularly appropriate.”

This approach underscores a major difference between asylum and other types of legal status.  A person applying for lawful permanent status through, for example, cancellation of removal or via an immigrant visa is not an LPR until they are granted such status by an immigration judge or DHS.  However, as the UNHCR Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status states at paragraph 28, “A person is a refugee within the meaning of the 1951 Convention as soon as he fulfills the criteria contained in the definition...Recognition of his refugee status does not therefore make him a refugee but declares him to be one.  He does not become a refugee because of recognition, but is recognized because he is a refugee.”

Paragraph 205 of the UNHCR Handbook delineates the duties of the asylum applicant and the adjudicator.  While the applicant’s duties involve truthfully providing detailed facts, supporting evidence where available, and “a coherent explanation of all of the reasons invoked” in his asylum application, the adjudicator, in addition to ensuring that the applicant presents his or her claim as fully as possible and then assessing credibility and evaluating the evidence, must also “relate these elements to the relevant criteria of the 1951 Convention, in order to arrive at the correct conclusion as to the applicant’s refugee status.”

It is this last requirement upon the adjudicator that is at odds with the Board’s decision in W-Y-C- & H-O-B-.  Under the decision, an asylum applicant may already have satisfied all of the refugee requirements (which of course includes establishing a well-founded fear of suffering persecution if returned to their country of nationality), yet be denied asylum and ordered deported to suffer serious harm simply because they lacked the legal sophistication to articulate a very complicated formula for delineating a particular social group.  Why wouldn’t the present Board invoke a cooperative approach as required by the nature of asylum and its international law obligations, as an earlier BIA did in Matter of S-M-J-?  Why shouldn’t the immigration judge (perhaps with assistance from the DHS attorney) step in where the applicant is not able and analyze the facts presented pursuant to the relevant case law to help formulate a particular social group (as some IJs do at present)?

In summary, the Board’s recent decision will allow immigration judges to deny asylum to credible applicants who clearly meet the refugee criteria.  By setting a nearly impossible standard for non-attorneys (including children) to meet, it can result in those deserving of protection being sent to countries where they may face rape, torture, or death.

Why?

Copyright 2018 Jeffrey S. Chase.  All rights reserved.

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