In a recent decision, Matter of A-R-C-G-, 26 I&N Dec. 388 (BIA 2014), the BIA held that "married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship” can constitute a cognizable particular social group ("PSG") for purposes of asylum. The decision is significant because it marks the first time that the Board has published a decision essentially endorsing asylum for victims of domestic violence. Applicants who seek asylum under this standard will still need to prove that the level of harm they face constitutes persecution, that they cannot relocate somewhere else within their country, and that their government is unable or unwilling to protect them.

This decision on PSG has been a long time coming, but--at least in my opinion--it does not go far enough.

Guatemalan Women celebrate their new particular social group.

In 2004, in a case called Matter of R-A-, DHS acknowledged that domestic violence could form the basis for an asylum claim. In that case, DHS argued in a brief that R-A- should receive asylum based on domestic violence. In its brief, DHS defined the PSG as "married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship.” Sound familiar? And that was 10 years ago.

Matter of R-A- never resulted in a published BIA decision (though R-A- herself received asylum in 2009). Since the brief was made public in 2004, asylum attorneys have relied on it to advocate for their clients, presumably with some success (since there is no data on the number of cases granted based on domestic violence, it is impossible to know for sure).

To me, the PSG "married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship” is awkward and contrived. Moreover, to receive asylum based on a PSG, the applicant must show that she was persecuted "on account of" her membership in the PSG. In other words, the persecutor harmed the applicant because she is a member of the PSG. I am not convinced that the husband was harming A-R-C-G- because she was a married woman who was unable to leave the relationship. He would have harmed her whether or not she was married and whether or not she was able to leave the relationship. The husband may have had access to A-R-C-G- because he was married to her and because she was unable to leave, but he was not motivated to harm her for those reasons.

It seems to me that there is a simpler, more elegant PSG that would have been appropriate for this case: "Women." I suspect that I am not alone in this opinion. In amici curiae briefs, counsels for the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies argued that gender alone should be enough to constitute a PSG. Also, at least one federal circuit court (you guessed it - the Ninth) has held that "women in Guatemala" might constitute a particular social group.

"Women" makes sense as the PSG in this case. The evidence in the case suggests that the husband would have persecuted any woman who he was with--whether or not she was married or able to leave him. Further, country condition evidence from Guatemala makes clear that women in that country live in dire circumstances. In its decision, the Board notes that Guatemala "has a culture of 'machismo and family violence,'" including sexual offenses and spousal rape. The victims of this violence are, for the most part, women. And, by the way, they are not just "Guatemalan women." I imagine that if a Salvadoran woman, or a Nicaraguan woman, or a Japanese woman lived in Guatemala and integrated into the society, she would face the same problems as a Guatemalan woman. For this reason, the PSG should be "women," as opposed to "Guatemalan women."

But the BIA was not willing to go that far. After noting that counsel for Amici argued in favor of gender alone as the PSG, the Board held, "Since the respondent’s membership in a particular social group is established under the aforementioned group, we need not reach this issue."
Perhaps that is the way of things. It's best not to push the law too far, even if it makes logical sense, and even where it would protect additional people. A decision granting asylum to women (or men) who face persecution solely because of their gender would likely open the door to many more asylum seekers. Given the current state of affairs in the asylum world--the border crisis, partisan scrutiny from Congress, the backlog--maybe it's best not to open the door too far. Maybe a relatively limited decision like Matter of A-R-C-G- is the best we could have hoped for.

I don't mean to minimize the importance of A-R-C-G-. It is obviously a great win for the alien in that case (though the decision does not finally grant her asylum, it seems very likely that that will be the end result), and it will certainly help many women who face harm from domestic abusers. However, the decision codifies a landscape where women--many without the resources available to people like A-R-C-G- and R-A---will be forced to articulate complicated PSGs and demonstrate that they are members of those PSGs. I am not sure how many poor refugee women will actually be able to do all that.

A-R-C-G- was persecuted because she was a woman. Not because she was a Guatemalan woman, not because she was married, and not because she was unable to leave her husband. Matter of A-R-C-G- is an important step towards protecting women victims of domestic violence. Maybe next time, the BIA will take a giant leap.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: