Language is intensely personal. When I say the word "house," I have one image in mind, and when you hear it, you have your own image in mind. Indeed, every person on Earth who hears the word "house" will have his own mental image of what that means. Despite all this, we manage to communicate.
The "comfy chair" constitutes persecution only in the Ninth Circuit.

But when we move from interpersonal communication to the more precise language of the courts, the problem becomes more acute. Perhaps it was best summed up by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who famously declined to define the term "p0rnography." Instead, he stated, "I know it when I see it" (less well-known was his next line: "And I enjoy seeing it at least twice a day").

In asylum law, we have a similar problem--not with p0rnography, heaven forbid--but with another "p" word: "persecution."

"Persecution" is not defined by statute, and the Board of Immigration Appeals--the agency tasked with interpreting the immigration law--has failed to provide much useful guidance (as usual). And so the buck has been passed to the various federal circuit courts.

A recent article by Scott Rempell, an Associate Professor at South Texas College of Law/Houston, surveys the landscape with regards to definitions of "persecution." Prof. Rempell finds that while certain conduct is universally viewed as persecution, there exists "staggering inconsistencies" between the various federal appeals courts: "eleven different appellate courts independently pass judgment on EOIR’s assessments of whether harm rises to the level of persecution—a significant number of spoons stirring the persecution pot." The study revealed what Prof. Rempell calls an "unequivocal chasm" in the consistency of persecution decisions:

For example, the results [of the study] illustrate how a one-day detention involving electric shock compelled a finding of persecution, while a ten-day detention involving electric shock did not. Similarly, while several weeks of psychological suffering necessarily established persecution, several years of even greater psychological suffering failed to cross the persecution threshold.

To those of us who have litigated these cases in the federal courts, Prof. Rempell's observation rings all-too true. But quantifying the problem is quite difficult because, as Prof. Rempell notes, the cases are so fact-specific:

Courts... compare and contrast to previous persecution cases. And due to differing opinions on what the harm threshold should be, panels are free to emphasize or deemphasize any factual nuance they choose between the cases that they are reviewing and previous cases they have decided.

Despite this problem, the article attempts to categorize the different types of harm and discern areas of consistency and inconsistency. Prof. Rempell finds five broad areas of consistency--conduct that all courts consider persecution:

(1) Brutal and systematic abuse, where the applicant has sustained harm on a consistent basis over a prolonged period of time; (2) Sufficiently Recurrent Combination of Cumulatively Severe Harms, where there is an ongoing pattern of physical, psychological, and other types of harm, as long as the harms cumulatively establish a sufficiently high level of severity; (3) Recurrent Injury Preceding a Harm Crescendo, where there are multiple incidents of relatively severe harm that culminates in particularly egregious harm; (4) Sufficient Harm Preceding a Substantiated Flight Precipitator, where a series of harmful events culminates in a credible and substantial threat of harm, causing the applicant to flee; and (5) Sufficiently Severe or Recurring Sexual Abuse.

The problem with this list (aside from the fact that I did not give you all the details of the Professor's analysis) is pretty obvious--we are stuck using words to describe harm, and this is difficult. One person's idea of "brutal and systematic abuse" may not be the same as the next person's. Nevertheless, the list gives us the broad parameters of what constitutes persecution in all federal courts.

When the persecution is less severe--as it is in most contested cases--things become even more tricky. Prof. Rempell identifies four areas where the appellate courts produce inconsistent decisions:

(1) A single instance of physical abuse and detention; (2) Psychological harm where there is a single fear-inducing incident; (3) Psychological harm where there are continuous fear-inducing incidents; and (4) "Other Harm Inconsistencies," where courts looked at similar incidents and reached opposite conclusions concerning persecution.

The disparities between judges and circuits when it comes to determining persecution are stark. For example, the First Circuit (New England) reversed the BIA's persecution finding in just 5% of cases. The Ninth Circuit (California, et al) reversed the BIA's findings in 65% of cases.

Prof. Rempell attributes much of the disparity to "the way courts interpret the meaning of persecution, and how they characterize and measure harm." "The fact that decades of adjudications involving over a million asylum claims have failed to yield a consistent approach on the systematic harm question is nothing short of astounding." So what's to be done?

The article suggests some preliminary reforms, but the bottom line is this: Immigration agencies--and specifically the Board of Immigration Appeals--need to provide "guiding principles" on what constitutes persecution. Of course these inquiries are fact specific, and of course it is difficult to quantify physical or psychological harm, but as Prof. Rempell says, the "fact-intensive nature of persecution inquiries... should not act as a shield to prevent the creation of general severity principles, by means of regulation or adjudication."

As a lawyer who frequently encounters the question "What is persecution?," I believe Prof. Rempell's article is important. He has quantified a problem that we have all experienced in our practice. Now it's time for the BIA to do something about it.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: