Asylum and Related Protections for Aliens Who Fear Gang and Domestic Violence

Legal Sidebari

Asylum and Related Protections for Aliens
Who Fear Gang and Domestic Violence

Updated September 23, 2020
Update: After this Sidebar’s initial publication, the federal district court for the District of Columbia
that several U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) policies discussed in this Sidebar,
issued after the Attorney General’s decision in
Matter of A-B-, were unlawful. The court enjoined USCIS
from applying these policies with respect to credible fear determinations. On July 17, 2020, the U.S.
Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit affirmed
in part and reversed in part. While the opinion was wide-
ranging, the end result is that USCIS remains
barred from implementing certain policies that were
adopted after the
Matter of A-B- decision, such as those requiring applicants to show their home
country’s government “condoned” or was “completely helpless” in responding to private acts of
persecution, and policies requiring asylum officers to apply the judicial precedent of the circuit in which a
credible fear interview occurs. But USCIS’s asylum eligibility policies may be informed
by the conclusion
that gang and domestic violence claims generally fail to show asylum eligibility, though the court
construed this conclusion as not indicative of a “categorical ban” to such claims. The agency must still
assess the claims’ merits on an individualized basis. And USCIS may also apply the “circularity rule,”
which requires applicants claiming a fear of persecution on account of their membership in a particular
social group to show that the purported social group is not defined solely by the harm the applicants
would suffer.

The original post from October 25, 2018, follows below.
Over the past year, non-U.S. nationals (aliens) from Central America (primarily Honduras, El Salvador,
and Guatemala) have comprised an increasingly larger share of asylum applicants in the United States.
And more recently, a “caravan” of thousands of individuals from Honduras has been traveling north
across the Guatemala-Mexico border, with many reportedly seeking to escape widespread gang and
domestic violence in Honduras. Previously, federal courts and immigration authorities have considered
when such circumstances may raise a viable claim for asylum or other forms of relief from removal. In
June 2018, Attorney General (AG) Jeff Sessions ruled in Matter of A-B- that aliens who fear gang or
domestic violence in their home countries generally do not qualify for asylum based on those grounds—a
ruling that is binding upon immigration authorities within both the Department of Justice (DOJ) and
Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The decision may foreclose some claims of relief by asylum
seekers, and subject more aliens apprehended along the border to expedited removal in lieu of the more
formalized removal process available to aliens whose asylum claims are deemed sufficiently credible to
Congressional Research Service
CRS Legal Sidebar
Prepared for Members and
Committees of Congress

Congressional Research Service
warrant further review. This Legal Sidebar examines asylum claims based on gang and domestic violence,
the AG’s decision in Matter of A-B-, and recent guidance from DHS’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration
Services (USCIS) in light of that ruling.
Asylum and Other Humanitarian-Based Forms of Relief from Removal
Federal immigration law provides that certain aliens who might otherwise be removed from the United
States may be granted relief because they would likely face persecution in their country of origin. Asylum
is one of the most consequential avenues of relief for an alien, potentially affording the recipient with a
permanent foothold in the United States. To qualify for asylum, an applicant has the burden of proving
past persecution or a well-founded fear of future persecution on account of race, religion, nationality,
membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The applicant must show that one of these
protected grounds “was or will be at least one central reason for persecuting the applicant.” In the absence
of past persecution, an applicant can show a well-founded fear by presenting evidence of a reasonable
of future persecution. The applicant must also show persecution by the government or groups
that the government is unable or unwilling to control; and, for purposes of showing a well-founded fear,
that the applicant could not reasonably relocate within his country to avoid persecution. In addition,
asylum is a discretionary form of relief; consequently, an alien who establishes eligibility for asylum may
be denied relief as a matter of discretion.
The scope of the five enumerated grounds for which an alien may qualify for asylum has been the subject
of dispute, and none more so than persecution based on membership in a “particular social group.”
Immigration authorities have described it as “perhaps the most complex and difficult to understand”
ground for asylum. In 2014, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), the highest administrative body
responsible for interpreting and applying federal immigration laws, held that a particular social group
must have three characteristics. First, the group must be composed of members who share a common
immutable characteristic. The BIA has described a common immutable characteristic as one “that the
members of the group either cannot change, or should not be required to change because it is fundamental
to their individual identities or consciences.” Second, the group must be defined with “particularity.” The
BIA observed that “particularity” refers to discrete and well-defined boundaries that provide a “clear
benchmark for determining who falls within the group.”
Third, the group must be socially distinct within
the society in question. Social distinction means that the group is perceived or recognized as a group by
society, and
“a social group cannot be defined exclusively by the fact that its members have been
subjected to harm.”
Apart from asylum, there are other forms of relief available for aliens who fear persecution or other types
of mistreatment in their home countries. For instance, in some cases, an alien may be statutorily ineligible
for asylum (e.g., because of specified criminal activity, firm resettlement in another country, or an
untimely application). However, the alien typically can pursue withholding of removal, which carries a
higher burden of proving that it is more likely than not the alien will be persecuted on account of one of
the five protected grounds. In the alternative, the alien may apply for protection under the Convention
Against Torture (CAT), which requires evidence that it is more likely than not that the alien will be
tortured “by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person
acting in an official capacity”; the alien does not need to show that such torture would be predicated on
one of the five enumerated grounds for which asylum or withholding of removal may be granted. Unlike
asylum, withholding of removal and CAT protection are mandatory forms of relief. Therefore, an alien
who is eligible for withholding or CAT protection cannot be removed to the country where he will be
persecuted or tortured.

Congressional Research Service
Claims Based on Gang and Domestic Violence
In recent years, the BIA and federal courts have increasingly addressed claims for relief by aliens who
expressed a fear of gang or domestic violence. In the case of asylum and withholding of removal,
applicants frequently have argued that such violence constitutes persecution based on their membership in
a particular social group. With regard to CAT claims, applicants have argued that such violence
constitutes “torture” committed with the consent or acquiescence of the controlling government.
Gang Violence
In several published decisions, the BIA has rejected asylum claims based on gang violence, citing the lack
of evidence showing that the alleged persecution was tied to one of the protected grounds. In these cases,
the BIA rejected the applicants’ contentions that they were targeted as members of particular social
groups, variously described by applicants as consisting of persons subject to gang recruitment or violence,
persons with perceived gang affiliations, or persons who have repudiated gangs. The BIA concluded that
these categorizations were too broad to fit within the particular social group framework. The federal
courts of appeals have also generally held that aliens who fear gang violence do not qualify for asylum or
withholding of removal, and have rejected particular social group claims that are broadly defined by the
group members’ general resistance or vulnerability to gangs. Some courts have also cited government
efforts to control gang violence as factors that undermine such claims. On the other hand, a few courts
have held that aliens subject to gang violence were eligible for asylum because they established a nexus
between the alleged harm and their membership in a cognizable particular social group, such as
“witnesses who testify against gang members.” With respect to CAT protection, the absence of evidence
showing the government’s consent or acquiescence to gang activity has often resulted in the denial of
Domestic Violence
In 1999, the BIA in Matter of R-A- considered whether aliens subject to domestic violence are eligible for
asylum. In that case, the applicant claimed that she suffered severe physical and sexual abuse from her
husband on account of her membership in a particular social group described as “Guatemalan women
who have been involved intimately with Guatemalan male companions, who believe that women are to
live under male domination.” The BIA determined that the applicant failed to show that her proposed
social group is “a group that is recognized and understood to be a societal faction, or is otherwise a
recognized segment of the population” in Guatemala. In 2001, AG Janet Reno vacated the BIA’s decision
pending final publication of proposed regulations that would have clarified the definitions of
“persecution” and “membership in a particular social group,” but those regulations were never finalized.
More recently, in 2014, the BIA in Matter of A-R-C-G- held that “married women in Guatemala who are
unable to leave their relationship” constitute a particular social group. The BIA determined that the
group’s members “share the common immutable characteristic of gender,” and that “marital status can be
an immutable characteristic where the individual is unable to leave the relationship.” The BIA also
determined that the social group was sufficiently particular because the terms used to describe it
(“married,” “women,” and “unable to leave the relationship”) “have commonly accepted definitions
within Guatemalan society.” Further, the BIA concluded, the group “is also socially distinct” given
evidence that Guatemala has a culture of “machismo and family violence.” Following Matter of A-R-C-G,
subsequent BIA decisions interpreted that ruling to mean that most Central American domestic violence
victims fall within the definition of a particular social group.
Some federal courts of appeals, however, have upheld subsequent BIA decisions rejecting asylum and
withholding claims based on domestic violence, which construed Matter of A-R-C-G- as applicable only
to claims where the alien is forced to remain in the domestic relationship, and is thus in a “uniquely

Congressional Research Service
vulnerable” and “easily recognizable” social group. Reviewing courts have also rejected CAT claims
based on domestic violence due to the lack of evidence in the considered cases that government
authorities would consent or acquiesce to such violence.
The Attorney General’s Decision in Matter of A-B-
Under DOJ regulations, the AG has the “unfettered” authority to direct the BIA to refer a case to him for
review. In Matter of A-B-, AG Jeff Sessions reviewed a BIA decision that had reversed the denial of
asylum to an applicant who alleged she suffered abuse from her husband in El Salvador. The AG
exercised this authority in order to address whether being a victim of private criminal activity constitutes
a particular social group for asylum and withholding of removal.
In a June 2018 opinion, the AG declared that “the asylum statute does not provide redress for all
misfortune,” and ruled that the BIA in Matter of A-R-C-G- had erroneously “recognized an expansive new
category of particular social groups based on private violence.” The AG determined that “[g]enerally,
claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors
will not qualify for asylum,” or meet the “credible fear” standard to warrant consideration of an asylum
The AG stated that “[t]o be cognizable, a particular social group must ‘exist independently’ of the harm
asserted,” or otherwise “the definition of the group moots the need to establish actual persecution.” The
AG determined that “married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship,” the social
group at issue in Matter of A-R-C-G-, failed to meet this standard because the inability to leave is
essentially created by the alleged harm. The AG also disagreed with the BIA’s conclusion that this social
group was sufficiently discrete, stating that “[s]ocial groups defined by their vulnerability to private
criminal activity likely lack the particularity required . . . given that broad swaths of society may be
susceptible to victimization.” Further, observing that “the key thread running through the particular social
group framework is that social groups must be classes recognizable by society at large,” the AG
questioned whether Guatemalan society views domestic violence victims as “a distinct group in society,
rather than each as a victim of a particular abuser in highly individualized circumstances.” In short, the
AG concluded that a particular social group ground must be construed in a manner that is not “too broad
to have definable boundaries and too narrow to have larger significance in society.”
The AG, moreover, determined that private criminal actors often target people for personal or economic
that are unrelated to any particular social group, and that an applicant’s ability to relocate within a
country “would seem more reasonable” when the alleged harm is “at the hands of only a few specific
individuals.” The AG also ruled that an applicant alleging harm by private actors “must show more than
the government’s difficulty controlling the private behavior.” Instead, the applicant “must show that the
government condoned the private action ‘or at least demonstrated a complete helplessness to protect the
Finally, the AG observed that “an applicant bears the burden of proving not only statutory eligibility for
asylum but that she also merits asylum as a matter of discretion.” The AG determined that asylum
adjudicators should thus consider “relevant discretionary factors,” even where the applicant otherwise
demonstrates asylum eligibility, such as the alien’s ability to apply for asylum in other countries, and the
length of time spent in a third country before coming to the United States.
USCIS’s Guidance for Adjudicating Credible Fear and Asylum Claims
In July 2018, USCIS issued guidance for determining whether a person is eligible for asylum in light of
Matter of A-B-. The USCIS guidance instructs asylum officers to make “at least five basic inquiries”
when an applicant raises a claim based on membership in a particular social group:

Congressional Research Service
1. Whether the applicant is a member of “a clearly-defined particular social group, which is
composed of members who share a common immutable characteristic, is defined with
particularity, is socially distinct within the society in question, and is not defined by the
persecution on which the claim is based”;
2. Whether the applicant has shown that his or her membership in the group is a central
reason for the alleged persecution;
3. If the persecutor is not affiliated with the government, whether the applicant can show
that the government is unable or unwilling to protect him or her;
4. Whether internal relocation is possible, would protect the applicant from the persecution,
and presents a reasonable alternative to asylum; and
5. Whether the applicant merits relief as a matter of discretion.
The guidance also instructs asylum officers to apply these standards when evaluating whether an alien
who might otherwise be subject to expedited removal has a credible fear of persecution that warrants
further consideration of the alien’s claim of relief. The USCIS guidance concludes that most particular
social group claims defined by the members’ vulnerability to gang or domestic violence by non-
government actors would not warrant asylum or meet the threshold necessary to satisfy the credible fear
assessment. Further, the USCIS guidance instructs asylum officers to consider the applicant’s credibility,
which alone may warrant the denial of asylum or a negative credible fear finding.
Impact of Matter of A-B- and Legislative Options
The AG’s ruling in Matter of A-B- restricts the availability of asylum for aliens who claim to be victims of
gang or domestic violence in their home countries. This limitation may be most significant at the U.S.-
Mexico border, where there has been an influx of aliens arriving from Central America and seeking
asylum, withholding of removal, or CAT protection based on fears of gang or domestic violence. Before
the AG’s ruling, such aliens claiming persecution on those grounds could potentially have had their
claims reviewed administratively, rather than being summarily removed from the United States via the
expedited removal process. But the AG’s decision clarifies that aliens who fear private criminal activity,
such as gang and domestic violence, generally do not qualify for asylum, or meet the credible fear
to warrant formal adjudication of their claims. The USCIS guidance issued in the wake of that
ruling reinforces that conclusion.
Despite these restrictions, aliens fearing gang or domestic violence may still qualify for asylum or
withholding of removal if there is evidence that their alleged persecutors are centrally motivated by a
protected ground, such as political opinion, religion, or membership in a particular social group that is not
simply defined by the members’ vulnerability to crime. For example, some courts have held that a
particular social group may include witnesses who testified against gang members, family members of
such witnesses, and
, in some cases, former gang members. Additionally, there may be limited
where the alien could establish eligibility for CAT protection, which requires no nexus to a
protected ground. The AG’s ruling does not necessarily conflict with the general holdings of these cases.
Yet some have argued that Matter of A-B’s strict interpretation of asylum law deprives domestic violence
and gang victims of the opportunity to seek asylum and related protections, particularly at the credible
fear screening stage, where they may not have the resources to fully present their claims. While there is
no current official data regarding the impact of the AG’s decision, there has reportedly been an increase in
negative credible fear determinations by immigration authorities. Additionally, statistical data shows a
sharp decline in immigration judge decisions finding a credible fear since the end of 2017, but that decline
started months before the AG’s decision.
In any event, by regulation the AG’s decision is binding on all federal immigration authorities. In August
2018, a federal lawsuit was brought challenging USCIS’s guidance implementing the AG’s ruling on the

Congressional Research Service
grounds that the agency’s new policies would essentially preclude any consideration of asylum claims
predicated on a fear of gang or domestic violence regardless of the underlying merits of each case. A final
decision has yet to be rendered by the district court.
While federal courts may ultimately determine the legality of the AG’s decision and ensuing USCIS
guidance, Congress has the power to clarify the scope of asylum protections for aliens fleeing gang and
domestic violence. For example, Congress could clarify the meaning of a “particular social group,” or
expand or narrow the enumerated grounds for asylum to plainly cover or exclude victims of gang or
domestic violence. In the alternative, Congress could create a separate form of discretionary relief for
certain aliens fleeing gang or domestic violence. Additionally, Congress, through its spending power,
could limit or prohibit the use of funds to implement any policy changes made pursuant to the AG’s
decision, as a recent appropriations bill would have done. Finally, given some observers’ concerns about
the AG’s power to certify immigration cases for review, some legislators have proposed legislation to
create a separate independent tribunal to review immigration cases.

Author Information

Hillel R. Smith

Legislative Attorney

This document was prepared by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). CRS serves as nonpartisan shared staff
to congressional committees and Members of Congress. It operates solely at the behest of and under the direction of
Congress. Information in a CRS Report should not be relied upon for purposes other than public understanding of
information that has been provided by CRS to Members of Congress in connection with CRS’s institutional role.
CRS Reports, as a work of the United States Government, are not subject to copyright protection in the United
States. Any CRS Report may be reproduced and distributed in its entirety without permission from CRS. However,
as a CRS Report may include copyrighted images or material from a third party, you may need to obtain the
permission of the copyright holder if you wish to copy or otherwise use copyrighted material.