Case before attorney general challenges core definition of family as a 'particular social group'

SILVER SPRING Maryland — As co-counsel to a Mexican immigrant threatened by a drug cartel because of his family, CLINIC filed a brief with the Justice Department Feb. 19 in Matter of L-E-A-, a case which may have wide repercussions on future asylum eligibility. The immigration appeals case will be decided by the attorney general.

“Bad actors around the world, from despotic regimes to drug cartels, try to coerce people to do their bidding by threatening their families,” explained Bradley Jenkins, one of Mr. L-E-A-’s CLINIC attorneys. “From the very first interpretations of the 1980 Refugee Act, this sort of despicable violence has qualified people to seek asylum under the ‘particular social group’ category.” CLINIC is co-counsel with Mei Fang Chen to Mr. L-E-A-.

Mr. L-E-A- fled Mexico fearing for his life at the hands of a powerful drug cartel that had shot at and attempted to kidnap him as a means of threatening his father. The Board of Immigration Appeals decided Mr. L-E-A-’s case in 2017 in a precedential decision finding against Mr. L-E-A- but upholding a longstanding asylum law principle that a family relationship qualifies as membership in a particular social group, and therefore can be the basis for an asylum grant. Mr. L-E-A-’s case was pending before the immigration judge when Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker referred the case to himself on Dec. 3, 2018.

The certified question before the attorney general is “whether and under what circumstances an asylum seeker may establish persecution on account of membership in a ‘particular social group’ based on his or her membership in a family unit.”

“A family unit has long been considered a ‘quintessential’ particular social group for asylum law purposes,” said Mr. L-E-A-’s co-attorney Victoria Neilson, also of CLINIC. “This is a well-settled area of law both before the Board of Immigration Appeals and in federal circuit courts.”

“My client, Mr. L-E-A, was threatened by a drug cartel because of who his father is,” said his attorney, Mei Fang Chen. “The standard of family constituting a particular social group for legal purposes is an essential component of society as well as law. Any change to the current standard will further harm victims who were targeted by criminals and individuals fleeing harm because of a family relationship.” 

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, a duly appointed attorney general has broad discretion to review appellate cases, but any decision must not violate the statute or be arbitrary and capricious.

“What is more a ‘particular social group’ than a family?” said Anna Gallagher, executive director of CLINIC. “Family is the building block of society and is recognized as fundamental in virtually every culture in the world. This assault on vulnerable asylum seekers and on families is immoral.”