W.G.A. v. Sessions, No. 16-4193 (7th Cir. 2018)

Annotate this Case
Justia Opinion Summary

In 2015, tattooed members of the Mara 18 gang, having previously abducted his brother, held a gun to W.G.A.’s head and threatened to kill him. With its rival, MS‐13, Mara 18 terrorizes the Salvadoran population and government. The gangs have orchestrated labor strikes and plotted to bomb government buildings. They brag about influencing elections and controlling political campaigns. They extort millions of dollars from businesses and are largely responsible for El Salvador’s homicide rate. Days after the threat, W.G.A. fled to the U.S. DHS apprehended him and began removal proceedings. W.G.A. applied for asylum, statutory withholding of removal, and deferral of removal under the Convention Against Torture, arguing that the gang would kill him if he returned to El Salvador. The IJ denied his applications. The BIA dismissed an appeal. The Seventh Circuit granted W.G.A.’s petition for review and remanded. W.G.A. established persecution based on his membership in a qualifying social group--family members of tattooed former Salvadoran gang members. Country reports and news articles throughout the record demonstrate widespread recognition that Salvadoran gangs target families to enforce their orders and discourage defection. The IJ and BIA did not address the extensive record, describing how corruption, judges’ refusal to protect witness anonymity, and the police’s fear of reprisal, allow gangs to act with impunity.

Download PDF
In the United States Court of Appeals For the Seventh Circuit ____________________ No. 16 4193 W.G.A., Petitioner, v. JEFFERSON B. SESSIONS III, Attorney General of the United States, Respondent. ____________________ Petition for Review of an Order of the Board of Immigration Appeals. No. Axxx xxx xxx. ____________________ ARGUED JANUARY 18, 2018 — DECIDED AUGUST 21, 2018 ____________________ Before SYKES and HAMILTON, Circuit Judges, and LEE, District Judge.* HAMILTON, Circuit Judge. In 2015, tattooed members of the Mara 18 gang held a gun to petitioner W.G.A.’s head and * Of the Northern District of Illinois, sitting by designation. 2 No. 16 4193 threatened to kill him.1 The Mara 18—also known as the “Calle 18,” “Barrio 18,” or “Eighteenth Street” gang—is one of the two main gangs operating in El Salvador. Together with their rivals, MS 13, the Mara 18 terrorize the Salvadoran pop ulation and government. The gangs use violence to exercise an enormous degree of social control over their territories, dictating where residents can walk, whom they can talk to, what they can wear, and when they must be inside their homes. The gangs have orchestrated labor strikes, brokered a now defunct truce with the government, and plotted to bomb government buildings. They brag about influencing elections and controlling political campaigns within their territories. They extort millions of dollars from local businesses through threats of violence, and they are largely responsible for El Sal vador’s homicide rate—one of the highest in the world.2 Two days after the Mara 18 threatened W.G.A., he fled to the United States. The Department of Homeland Security apprehended W.G.A. for illegally entering the United States and began re moval proceedings against him. W.G.A. applied for asylum, 1 We refer to petitioner with an initialed pseudonym to protect his identity. See Doe v. Gonzales, 484 F.3d 445, 446 (7th Cir. 2007). 2 According to a report in the record by the U.S. Department of State, the 2015 homicide rate in El Salvador was 103 murders per year for every 100,000 citizens. For context, Chicago has a murder rate of about 17.5 hom icides per 100,000 inhabitants. Matthew Friedman, Ames Grawert & James Cullen, NYU School of Law Brennan Center for Justice, Crime in 2016: Up dated Analysis, Table 2, p. 3 (data updated Dec. 19, 2016), available at http://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/crime 2016 updated analysis. The State Department estimates that the national homicide rate in the United States is about 4.5 murders per year per 100,000 citizens. No. 16 4193 3 statutory withholding of removal, and deferral of removal un der Article 3 of the Convention Against Torture, arguing that the Mara 18 gang would kill him if he returned to El Salvador. The immigration judge denied his applications and ordered removal. The Board of Immigration Appeals dismissed W.G.A.’s appeal, and he petitions this court for review. We grant W.G.A.’s petition for review and remand to the Board for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. I. Factual & Procedural Background W.G.A. is a citizen of El Salvador who arrived in the United States in January 2016. The immigration judge found W.G.A. credible, and the Board of Immigration Appeals af firmed that finding. We use W.G.A.’s testimony and the im migration judge’s findings to provide the factual context in this case. W.G.A. grew up in a small farming community of about 170 families. In 2013, the Mara 18 gang began operating in his rural community. By 2015 there were about 20 local gang members. The gang engaged in their usual activities: extort ing la renta, or “rent,” from local businesses, recruiting young men as new members, and “disappearing” (as a transitive verb) those who refused to join. One day in 2014, petitioner’s younger brother S.R.P. failed to return home from a trip to the store. Petitioner and his mother searched for S.R.P. When they could not find him, they guessed that the gang had forcibly recruited him. About two months later, S.R.P. called petitioner. He was crying and said that he did not know where he was and could not talk long because the gang might kill him. S.R.P. then hung up ab 4 No. 16 4193 ruptly. Petitioner told his mother of the call, but neither con tacted the police because they felt it would be useless. They had seen others in their community seek help from the police without success. Others had disappeared after reporting crimes to police. A few months later, the family learned that S.R.P. had been arrested. Petitioner’s mother attended a court proceed ing, where she saw that S.R.P. had a gang tattoo on his hand. S.R.P. remained in prison until November 2015 when, on the day of his release, he called W.G.A. to say that he did not want to be a part of the gang anymore. S.R.P. said he could not come home for fear of what the gang would do, but he did not tell W.G.A. where he was going. W.G.A. assumed that his brother headed toward Guatemala. The next day, a man called W.G.A. from a private number. The man told W.G.A. to “be careful” and that “they’re looking for you,” and hung up without identifying himself. The fol lowing day—two days after S.R.P. left prison—four tattooed gang members approached W.G.A. at his house. They asked him where his brother was. When W.G.A. responded that he did not know, one man grabbed him by the collar of his shirt, threw him to the ground, drew a gun, and put it to his head. One of the men told petitioner: “if you don’t [hand] over your brother, you’re going to die here.”3 The men told W.G.A. that he had four days to comply or they would kill him. They also told him that they would kill him and his family if anyone spoke to the police. 3 The transcript reads: “if you don’t have over your brother, you’re going to die here.” We read “have” as a typographical error. No. 16 4193 5 Fearing for his life, W.G.A. fled two days later. He traveled through Guatemala and Mexico to the United States. Since W.G.A. left El Salvador, gang members have repeatedly threatened his family—over the phone and in person—to de mand his and his brother’s whereabouts. Petitioner’s mother was so frightened by the threats that she arranged for her other teenage son, J.R.P., to go into hiding. In January 2016, W.G.A. entered the United States through Texas without valid entry documents. The Department of Homeland Security initiated removal proceedings against him. See 8 C.F.R. § 1239.1. W.G.A. conceded that he was re movable under 8 U.S.C. § 1182(a)(7)(A)(i)(I). He then applied for asylum under 8 U.S.C. § 1158, withholding of removal un der 8 U.S.C. § 1231(b)(3), and deferral of removal under Arti cle 3 of the Convention Against Torture, 8 C.F.R. §§ 1208.16(c), 1208.18. The immigration judge concluded that W.G.A. did not qualify for any of his asserted grounds of relief and ordered removal. W.G.A. appealed to the Board of Immigration Ap peals, which agreed with the immigration judge and dis missed W.G.A.’s appeal. The immigration judge’s order of re moval became final, see 8 C.F.R. § 1241.1(a), and W.G.A. peti tioned for review in this court, see 8 U.S.C. § 1252(a)(1), (b)(1). While W.G.A.’s appeal was pending before the Board, DHS wrongfully removed him to El Salvador. See 8 C.F.R. § 1003.6(a) (staying execution of immigration decisions while appeal is pending). This removal did not a ect the Board’s or our jurisdiction. Matter of Diaz Garcia, 25 I. & N. Dec. 794 (BIA 2012); Marin Rodriguez v. Holder, 612 F.3d 591, 593–94 (7th Cir. 2010). We ordered briefing on whether we had the authority to order DHS to permit W.G.A. to return to the United States 6 No. 16 4193 while his appeal was pending. Rather than litigate the issue further, the government agreed to facilitate W.G.A.’s return. The parties have successfully returned W.G.A. to the United States, where he remains detained. II. Scope of Review It is helpful to start by clarifying the scope of our review. The answer depends on whether the Board’s order is inde pendent of or supplemented the immigration judge’s deci sion. See Liu v. Ashcroft, 380 F.3d 307, 311 (7th Cir. 2004). When the Board issues an independent opinion that replaces the im migration judge’s reasoning with its own, our review is lim ited to the Board’s opinion. Jabateh v. Lynch, 845 F.3d 332, 337 (7th Cir. 2017), citing Sarhan v. Holder, 658 F.3d 649, 653 (7th Cir. 2011). Our review is broader when the Board relies on the immigration judge’s findings and supplements that opinion “with additional observations.” Sarhan, 658 F.3d at 653. In those cases, we review the immigration judge’s findings as supplemented by the Board’s. Id., citing Mema v. Gonzales, 474 F.3d 412, 416 (7th Cir. 2007). In a footnote, W.G.A. states that our review is limited to the Board’s opinion. The Attorney General argues that the Board’s order was supplementary to the immigration judge’s decision. We agree with the Attorney General’s reading and see no reason in this case to narrow our review. III. Asylum and Withholding of Removal To qualify for asylum, W.G.A. must show that he is “un able or unwilling to return” to El Salvador “because of perse cution or a well founded fear of persecution.” 8 U.S.C. §§ 1158(b)(1)(A), 1101(a)(42)(A). The persecution must be “on No. 16 4193 7 account of” one of five protected grounds: “race, religion, na tionality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” § 1101(a)(42)(A). If W.G.A. proves that he was per secuted in the past because of one or more of the protected grounds, he is presumed to have a well founded fear of future persecution on the same grounds. 8 C.F.R. § 1208.13(b)(1). The Attorney General can rebut that presumption by showing that country conditions have changed or that W.G.A. can safely relocate to another part of El Salvador. § 1208.13(b)(1), (b)(1)(i). Withholding of removal is similar. The Attorney General must withhold removal of W.G.A. if his “life or free dom would be threatened in” El Salvador because of one of the same five protected grounds. 8 U.S.C. § 1231(b)(3)(A). If he shows past persecution, W.G.A. is again entitled to a re buttable presumption that his life or freedom would be threat ened. 8 C.F.R. § 1208.16(b)(1)(i). W.G.A. has shown past persecution. He testified, and the immigration judge credited his testimony, that the Mara 18 threatened his life at gunpoint. That point is not in dispute in this case. The Board found that the threat amounted to perse cution. See Nakibuka v. Gonzales, 421 F.3d 473, 477 (7th Cir. 2005) (“A death threat, especially one that is accompanied by an attacker pressing a gun to the victim’s head, is a serious factor supporting a finding of persecution.”), citing Boykov v. INS, 109 F.3d 413, 416 (7th Cir. 1997), and Mitev v. INS, 67 F.3d 1325, 1331 (7th Cir. 1995). The first disputed issue is whether the persecution was motivated by a reason covered by the asylum statutes. W.G.A. contends that the gang was motivated by his membership in one of two particular social groups: (1) members of his nu 8 No. 16 4193 clear family or (2) family members of tattooed former Salva doran gang members. The immigration judge and the Board found that this persecution was not su ciently connected to W.G.A.’s membership in a particular social group. We decide the issue by addressing two questions: (1) whether W.G.A. has shown that he is a member of a qualifying social group; and (2) whether he has shown that the Mara 18 persecuted him on account of his membership in that group. We agree with W.G.A. that he has identified a cognizable social group and that the record compels the conclusion that the Mara 18 persecuted him on account of his membership in it. A. General Remand We first address the Attorney General’s request for a gen eral remand. The Attorney General made no substantive ar guments related to asylum or withholding of removal in this appeal. Instead, he requests that we remand to the Board for reconsideration without engaging in any review ourselves. In some past cases, we have allowed the Attorney General to seek a remand without confessing error so that the Board can reconsider asylum decisions “in light of the emerging case law.” Ren v. Gonzales, 440 F.3d 446, 448 (7th Cir. 2006). In some cases where we have accommodated these requests, we have been disappointed: the Board has disregarded the Attorney General’s stated reasons for remand. See, e.g. Reyes Mendez v. Lynch, 629 Fed. App’x 757, 761 (7th Cir. 2015) (criticizing Board for repeating “its social group analysis word for word” after the Attorney General requested general remand for Board to reconsider social group analysis); see also Marin Rodriguez v. Holder, 612 F.3d 591, 595–96 (7th Cir. 2010) (rejecting Attorney General’s request for a general remand for Board to reconsider merits, when Board’s position was that it No. 16 4193 9 did not have jurisdiction to consider merits). In light of these cases, we will grant a general remand only when there is a persuasive reason to do so, at least where, as here, the request is opposed by the petitioner. The Attorney General o ers two reasons for a general re mand. First, he requests that the Board have a chance to re consider whether “family members of tattooed former Salva doran gang members” is cognizable in light of circuit and Board precedents that predate this case. The Attorney General does not explain why the Board needs a second chance to ap ply case law that was available when it decided W.G.A.’s ap peal, and we decline to remand on that basis. Second, the Attorney General seeks a remand to permit the Board to consider Matter of L E A , 27 I. & N. Dec. 40 (BIA 2017) (requiring petitioner to demonstrate that family rela tionship is at least one central reason for persecution). The Board issued L E A after it dismissed W.G.A.’s appeal, and the Attorney General argues that L E A provides “critical guidance” for cases that involve “family based particular so cial groups.” But L E A did not establish a new rule. As the government agreed at oral argument, L E A applied the same analysis that the Board has followed since at least 2007. See In re J B N & S M , 24 I. & N. Dec. 208, 212–16 (BIA 2007) (inter preting the “one central reason” requirement for asylum). In this case, the immigration judge applied the already estab lished rules summarized in L E A and found that social group membership was not a central motivation for the Mara 18. We decline to remand on this basis as well. 10 No. 16 4193 B. Cognizable Social Group The first substantive question is whether W.G.A. is a mem ber of a particular social group within the meaning of the Im migration and Nationality Act, 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(42)(A). Whether a group qualifies as a “particular social group” is a question of law that we review de novo, though we give Chev ron deference to the Board’s “reasonable interpretation set forth in precedential opinions.” Cece v. Holder, 733 F.3d 662, 668–69 (7th Cir. 2013) (en banc), citing Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, 467 U.S. 837, 842–43 (1984). In Matter of Acosta, the Board interpreted “membership in a particular social group” to mean “an individual who is a member of a group of persons all of whom share a common, immutable characteristic.” 19 I. & N. Dec. 211, 233 (BIA 1985), overruled, in part, on other grounds by Matter of Mogharrabi, 19 I. & N. Dec. 439 (BIA 1987). The Board defined “immutable characteristic” to mean a characteristic “that either is beyond the power of an individual to change or that is so fundamental to his identity or conscience that it ought not be required to be changed.” Id. “Particular social group” is an ambiguous phrase, and we have deferred to the Board’s interpretation in Acosta. Cece, 733 F.3d at 669, citing Lwin v. INS, 144 F.3d 505, 511 (7th Cir. 1998). In the decades since Acosta, the Board has added social dis tinction (also called social visibility) and particularity as two requirements in addition to the immutable characteristic test. See, e.g., In re C A , 23 I. & N. Dec. 951, 957, 959 (BIA 2006). These two requirements are at issue here. W.G.A. proposed two social groups as the basis for asylum and withholding of removal: (1) members of his nuclear family; and (2) family members of tattooed former Salvadoran gang members. The No. 16 4193 11 Board and immigration judge accepted the first but rejected the second as overbroad and not “a socially distinct group within El Salvador.” W.G.A. correctly points out that we have not yet accorded Chevron deference to the Board’s interpretation that includes social distinction and particularity. He also cites several cases in which we have disapproved—sometimes strongly—of these two requirements. See, e.g., N.L.A. v. Holder, 744 F.3d 425, 438 (7th Cir. 2014) (“[I]t would be antithetical to asylum law to deny refuge to a group of persecuted individuals who have valid claims merely because too many have valid claims.”); Gatimi v. Holder, 578 F.3d 611, 615–617 (7th Cir. 2009) (rejecting social distinction because “it makes no sense” given examples of previously recognized particular social groups). Those cases, however, either predate or fail to ad dress intervening Board opinions that engage in statutory in terpretation and explain the Board’s reasoning. See Matter of M E V G , 26 I. & N. Dec. 227 (BIA 2014); Matter of W G R , 26 I. & N. Dec. 208 (BIA 2014); see also Gatimi, 578 F.3d at 615 (rejecting social distinction and particularity in part because Board failed to explain its reasoning “in this or any other case”). Whether the Board’s particularity and social distinc tion requirements are entitled to Chevron deference remains an open question in this circuit.4 4 W.G.A.’s arguments that the Board’s interpretation is unreasonable have some force. He argues that social distinction and particularity create a conceptual trap that is difficult, if not impossible, to navigate. The appli cant must identify a group that is broad enough that the society as a whole recognizes it, but not so broad that it fails particularity. And as we have stated, rejecting a social group because it is too broad “would be akin to saying that the victims of widespread governmental ethnic cleansing can not receive asylum simply because there are too many of them.” N.L.A., 12 No. 16 4193 We decline to make the Chevron determination in this case, where the government has chosen not to make any substan tive arguments on the issue and there are alternative grounds for decision. The Board and immigration judge agreed that W.G.A.’s second proposed group—membership in his nu clear family—is cognizable. See Torres v. Mukasey, 551 F.3d 616, 629 (7th Cir. 2008) (“Our prior opinions make it clear that we consider family to be a cognizable social group.”), citing Iliev v. INS, 127 F.3d 638, 642 & n.4 (7th Cir. 1997). Because we find that the record compels the conclusion that W.G.A. was persecuted on account of his membership in his nuclear fam ily, we need not resolve the Chevron question regarding the family members of former gang members. C. Nexus to Persecution Next, W.G.A. challenges the Board’s finding that he was not persecuted “on account of” his membership in his family. Whether W.G.A. met this burden is a question of fact that we review for substantial evidence. Martinez Buendia v. Holder, 616 F.3d 711, 715 (7th Cir. 2010), citing Mabasa v. Gonzales, 455 F.3d 740, 744 (7th Cir. 2006). We may reverse “only if we de termine that the evidence compels a di erent result.” Cece, 733 F.3d at 675–76, quoting FH T v. Holder, 723 F.3d 833, 838 (7th Cir. 2013); see also 8 U.S.C. § 1252(b)(4)(B). To be eligible for asylum, W.G.A. must show that he was persecuted “on account of” his social group membership. 8 744 F.3d at 438, citing Cece, 733 F.3d at 675. W.G.A. also claims that in the decade since the Board introduced social distinction and particularity, it has approved only one new particular social group. The Board has not responded to this troubling assertion. No. 16 4193 13 U.S.C. §§ 1158(b)(1)(A)–(B)(i), 1101(a)(42)(A). In 2005, Con gress clarified that the protected ground must be “at least one central reason” for the persecution. See REAL ID Act of 2005, Pub L. No. 109–13, § 101(a)(3), 119 Stat. 302, 303 (2005), codi fied at 8 U.S.C. § 1158(b)(1)(B). The protected trait does not have to be the only reason for the persecution, but it “cannot play a minor role.” L E A , 27 I. & N. Dec. at 44, quoting J B N & S M , 24 I. & N. Dec. at 214. Di erent language governs eligibility for withholding of removal. Congress has not amended the sections governing withholding to include the “one central reason” language. Compare 8 U.S.C. § 1158(b)(1)(B)(i) with 8 U.S.C. § 1231(b)(3)(A). To start, in W.G.A.’s case, the Board stated the wrong legal standard for withholding of removal. Confusingly, the Board reasoned that because “the respondent did not establish the lower burden of proof applicable to asylum, he necessarily did not establish his eligibility for withholding of removal, which carries a higher burden of proof.” This is not quite cor rect. Withholding of removal carries a higher burden on two questions: the severity of the harm the applicant faces (perse cution versus threat to life or freedom) and the likelihood that the applicant will be harmed (well founded fear versus clear probability). See Matter of H L H & Z Y Z , 25 I. & N. Dec. 209, 218 (BIA 2010) (reasoning that applicant who failed to show fear of persecution necessarily had not shown a threat to life or freedom); Toptchev v. INS, 295 F.3d 714, 720 (7th Cir. 2002) (reasoning that applicant who failed to show a well founded fear necessarily had not shown clear probability). The nexus requirement, however, is the same for both asylum and withholding of removal. At least, that’s the position the Board has taken in other cases. See, e.g., Matter of C T L , 25 I. 14 No. 16 4193 & N. Dec. 341, 343 (BIA 2010).5 Because W.G.A. does not argue that di erent standards should govern the two claims, we ap ply the “one central reason” standard throughout our analy sis. Returning to the merits, this record compels the conclu sion that W.G.A.’s membership in his nuclear family was one central reason for the persecution that both sides agree he suf fered. Testimony by W.G.A. and his family members leaves no doubt that the gang repeatedly targeted the entire family because of their relationship to S.R.P. Country reports and news articles throughout the record corroborate this testi mony and demonstrate widespread recognition that the Sal vadoran gangs target nuclear family units to enforce their or ders and to discourage defection. In other words, substantial evidence does not support the immigration judge’s finding on the lack of a nexus between the gang’s persecution of W.G.A. and his membership in the family. To start, the timing of the persecution demonstrates that W.G.A.’s family relationship with his brother caused the gang to target W.G.A. The gang members threatened W.G.A. at gunpoint just two days after S.R.P. said he was defecting. The immigration judge and Board doubted whether S.R.P. had ac tually defected, but that detail is unimportant. What matters is that the gang was looking for S.R.P., likely because they be lieved he had defected. What’s more, the gang’s own words reveal their motivation. When the gang held a gun to W.G.A.’s 5 The Ninth Circuit has recently held that position unreasonable and not entitled to Chevron deference. See Barajas Romero v. Lynch, 846 F.3d 351, 360 (9th Cir. 2017). No. 16 4193 15 head, they demanded that W.G.A. reveal his brother’s loca tion. And when the gang warned W.G.A. not to notify the po lice, they threatened to kill his entire family. W.G.A. also provided examples from his community as circumstantial evidence of the gang’s motivation. See Martinez Buendia, 616 F.3d at 715 (applicant can prove motivation by direct or circumstantial evidence), citing INS v. Elias Zacarias, 502 U.S. 478, 483 (1992). W.G.A. testified that when a young man he knew reported a robbery to the police, gang members “disappeared” him and his father in retaliation. W.G.A.’s mother submitted an a davit that described a young woman in the community who refused requests to become a “gang member’s woman.” In response, the gang disappeared her and her brother. These anecdotes are analogous to W.G.A.’s situation: S.R.P. crossed the gang, and they retaliated by targeting his nuclear family. Country reports and news articles corroborate this testi mony. A report by the U.S. Department of State says that “the families of gang members often face the same risks of being killed or disappearing as the gang members themselves.” R. 290. The United Nations also reports that family members can “also be a target for attacks and assassination by gangs, some times even after the person who was initially targeted by the gang in question has fled or has already been killed.” R. 368. One news article describes a woman who went into hiding after the gang accused her husband of talking to police. R. 477–78. Another describes a man who rescued his daughter after gang members abducted and raped her. As retribution, the gang shot and killed the man’s wife. R. 463. These reports are only a few examples. We see nothing in the record that 16 No. 16 4193 calls into question W.G.A.’s claim that he was targeted be cause of his family membership. Despite the extensive record, the Board adopted the immi gration judge’s conclusion that W.G.A. had not shown a suf ficient nexus because other family members continue to live in El Salvador unharmed. This is factually inaccurate. W.G.A., his mother, and his sister described how the gang continued to target the family. W.G.A.’s mother reported that she had received at least four threatening phone calls from “angry,” yelling gang members and that the calls continued until she threw her cell phone chip away. W.G.A.’s mother and sister described how masked gang members have appeared at their home at least twice, threatening them and demanding to know where S.R.P. and W.G.A. were. We cannot accept the immigration judge’s conclusion that threatening phone calls and home invasion by masked gang members are not evi dence that other family members have been harmed. Plus, as the government correctly acknowledged in oral argument, it was improper for the immigration judge to rely on a lack of harm to other family members, without more, to find that W.G.A. was not targeted on account of his kinship ties. See R.R.D. v. Holder, 746 F.3d 807, 809 (7th Cir. 2014) (reasoning that statute “does not require that all members of” the pro tected group “su er the same fate”); see also Cordova v. Holder, 759 F.3d 332, 339 (4th Cir. 2014) (refusing to uphold Board’s reasoning that petitioner could not have been targeted on ac count of his kinship ties because other family members were not targeted for same reason). The immigration judge also relied on W.G.A.’s testimony that the gang has a personal vendetta against him. But that testimony does not actually support the immigration judge’s No. 16 4193 17 finding. On cross examination, the government’s lawyer asked W.G.A. if the “gangs just have a … personal vendetta against you.” W.G.A. responded a rmatively. But this ques tion does not contradict the overwhelming record evidence that the gang targeted W.G.A. because of his familial relation ship to S.R.P. The government did not ask W.G.A. why the gang had a personal vendetta against him, and the most plau sible answer is because he is related to S.R.P. The record sug gests only one other potential motive for the persecution. W.G.A. testified that, in 2014, members of the gang asked him to do favors for the gang and he refused. Even if W.G.A.’s re fusal to help the gang in 2014 influenced the gang’s decision to target him in 2015, that one fact does not undermine the overwhelming evidence showing that W.G.A.’s familial ties were one central reason for his persecution. Finally, the immigration judge also improperly stressed that W.G.A.’s parents and seven siblings remain in El Salva dor. This is true, although the family is so fearful that they sent their other teenage son, J.R.P., into hiding. This is not ev idence of a safe family. Additionally, the fact that some family members have not relocated within El Salvador has little force in light of the rest of the record. Country reports describe how relocation is di cult and often dangerous: the choice is be tween remaining in the Mara 18’s territory and risking retri bution, or relocating to the rival gang’s territory and being killed by them. A United Nations report estimates that 600,000 to 700,000 Salvadorans—or 10% of the population— are a liated with the gangs and act as lookouts in the gangs’ territories. R. 338. The record describes various incidents when gangs killed non members who had crossed gang boundaries for innocent reasons like visiting a family member or walking to school. R. 338, 470, 547. And W.G.A. testified 18 No. 16 4193 about a community member who went to work at a business in MS 13 territory and who, upon arrival, was asked to iden tify himself and where he came from. When he revealed that he lived in Mara 18 territory, the questioner told him he would be killed if he entered MS 13 territory again. Once again, W.G.A.’s testimony corroborates the indirect evidence in the record. It means little, therefore, that W.G.A.’s family has not sought to move elsewhere to avoid threats. IV. Convention Against Torture As a third ground for relief, W.G.A. seeks to defer removal under Article 3 of the Convention Against Torture. W.G.A. bears the burden of showing “that it is more likely than not that he … would be tortured if removed” to El Salvador. 8 C.F.R. § 1208.16(c)(2). Recognizing that precise probabilities are di cult to prove and assess, we have interpreted this language to mean a “substantial risk that a given alien will be tortured if removed from the United States.” Rodriguez Molinero v. Lynch, 808 F.3d 1134, 1135–36 (7th Cir. 2015). Unlike asylum and statutory withholding of removal, W.G.A. does not have to show that the torture relates to any protected grounds. But the torture must be “inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public o cial.” 8 C.F.R. § 1208.18(a)(1). W.G.A. argues that a remand is necessary because the Board and immigration judge applied the wrong legal stand ard and ignored key evidence. We agree. Neither the immi gration judge nor the Board considered W.G.A.’s key evi dence that he would likely be tortured in El Salvador. The agency must consider “all evidence relevant to the possibility of future torture,” 8 C.F.R. § 1208.16(c)(3), and must “an nounce its decision in terms su cient to enable a reviewing No. 16 4193 19 court to perceive that it has heard and thought and not merely reacted.” Ferreira v. Lynch, 831 F.3d 803, 810 (7th Cir. 2016), quoting Solis Chavez v. Holder, 662 F.3d 462, 469 (7th Cir. 2011). Together, the Board and immigration judge considered only that W.G.A. had not been tortured in the past and that his family remained in El Salvador unharmed. Neither consid ered that the gang continues to threaten W.G.A.’s family and raid their house looking for him. Nor did they consider the strongest evidence of the risk of torture: that masked gang members raided the house of a close family friend at night and, when they found him there, murdered and dismem bered him for disobeying their orders.6 The Board also applied the wrong legal standard when it found that W.G.A. had not shown government acquiescence. The Board stated that W.G.A. had “not indicated that there was any involvement of a public o cial” in “any of the threats directed” at him. W.G.A. does not need to show that a public o cial was involved directly. Sarhan, 658 F.3d at 657–58. Per haps for this reason, the immigration judge and Board ig nored key evidence on this point too. They did not address the extensive record that describes how corruption, judges’ refusal to protect witness anonymity, and the police’s fear of reprisal all allow gangs to act with a high degree of impunity. And when the agency found that the police arrested S.R.P. twice for gang activity—and therefore do not acquiesce to any torture—the agency failed to consider the evidence that gang 6 The briefs misread what the record says about the gang’s motivation for this murder. W.G.A. testified that on that night, the gang was out look ing for the friend, W.G.A., and S.R.P. W.G.A.’s sister and mother both said that the gang murdered the family friend because he refused to join them and collect extortion on their behalf. 20 No. 16 4193 members continue to operate from within prisons. For these reasons, we also remand W.G.A.’s claim for deferred removal under the Convention Against Torture. Conclusion We remand to the Board for further proceedings con sistent with this opinion. On remand, the Board must also consider two issues that we do not discuss. First, the Board must consider the immigration judge’s finding that W.G.A. would be able to relocate within El Salvador. Because the im migration judge incorrectly found that W.G.A. had not been persecuted in the past, the judge applied the wrong burden on the question of relocation. See 8 C.F.R. §§ 1208.13(b)(1)(ii), 1208.16(b)(1)(ii) (placing burden on government to rebut pre sumption when applicant shows past persecution). Second, the Board must review the immigration judge’s findings that the Salvadoran government is not unable or unwilling to pre vent the persecution. See, e.g., Pramatarov v. Gonzales, 454 F.3d 764, 766 (7th Cir. 2006), citing Hor v. Gonzales, 421 F.3d 497, 501–02 (7th Cir. 2005). These issues remain open and require reconsideration on remand. We therefore GRANT the petition for review and REMAND the case to the agency for further proceedings con sistent with this opinion.
Primary Holding
An applicant for withholding of removal established persecution based on his membership in a qualifying social group: nuclear family members of tattooed former Salvadoran gang members.

Disclaimer: Justia Annotations is a forum for attorneys to summarize, comment on, and analyze case law published on our site. Justia makes no guarantees or warranties that the annotations are accurate or reflect the current state of law, and no annotation is intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice. Contacting Justia or any attorney through this site, via web form, email, or otherwise, does not create an attorney-client relationship.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.