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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

The Refugee Protection Act and Particular Social Groups

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This is part three in a series about the Refugee Protection Act.  The RPA provides guidance about what constitutes a "particular social group."


A refugee is defined as a person with a well founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. See INA ß 101(a)(42)(A).  There has been much litigation concerning what constitutes a "particular social group."  


The Refugee Protection Act provides helpful guidance on what constitutes a "particular social group."  The RPA states:


For purposes of determinations under the Act, any group whose members share a characteristic that is either immutable or fundamental to identity, conscience, or the exercise of the person's human rights such that the person should not be required to change it, shall be deemed a particular social group, without any additional requirement.


While this provision makes the definition of "particular social group" more specific, it still leaves open at least one important question: Will the definition of "particular social group" apply to former members of criminal organizations?  In the Seventh Circuit case, Ramos v. Holder, 589 F.3d 426 (7th Cir. 2009), the court held that former gang members might constitute a particular social group.  If the Refugee Protection Act defines a "particular social group" as "any group whose members share a characteristic that is... immutable," then former gang members would qualify as a particular social group.  Current-as opposed to former-gang members would not qualify as a particular social group because gang membership is not immutable.  In other words, it is possible to quit the gang.  Former gang membership is immutable, because it is not possible for an alien to change the fact that he once belonged to a criminal gang.  Under the RPA, it seems that a former member of any organization would be part of a particular social group.


Even if former gang members constitute a particular social group, they would likely be ineligible for asylum based on criminal and security-related grounds.


I have worked on several cases where former gang members feared persecution by gangs.  In one case, several members of my client's family had been killed.  My client was granting withholding of removal based on his particular social group (his family; not his former gang membership).  In another case, my client was denied relief where the IJ found that he did not belong to a particular social group.  In both cases, the clients faced harm from the gang because they quit the gang.  The danger of gang violence against former gang members is very real.  In a well known case, Edgar Chocoy, a 16-year-old former member of the MS-13 gang, was ordered removed from the United States.  Shortly after he returned to Guatemala, gang members murdered him. 


The Refugee Protection Act should provide protection for former gang members who face harm in their countries.  While we must be cognizant of security concerns (and of offering benefits to criminals), we must also recognize the severe threat faced by legitimate former gang members. 

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