Elvira Garcia-Arce v. William Barr, No. 19-2312 (7th Cir. 2019)

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In the United States Court of Appeals For the Seventh Circuit ____________________ Nos. 19 1453 & 19 2312 ELVIRA GARCIA ARCE, Petitioner, v. WILLIAM P. BARR, Attorney General of the United States, Respondent. ____________________ Petitions for Review of Orders of the Board of Immigration Appeals. No. A079 775 996 ____________________ ARGUED DECEMBER 11, 2019 — DECIDED DECEMBER 30, 2019 ____________________ Before FLAUM, HAMILTON, and BARRETT, Circuit Judges. FLAUM, Circuit Judge. Elvira Garcia Arce seeks withhold ing of removal to Mexico under the Immigration and Nation ality Act and the Convention Against Torture. She has filed two petitions for review of orders of the Board of Immigration Appeals (the “Board”). We deny both petitions. As to the first petition, the Board’s decision a rming the denial of Garcia Arce’s withholding application was supported by substantial 2 Nos. 19 1453 & 19 2312 evidence. As to the second petition, the Board did not abuse its discretion in concluding that Garcia Arce’s prior counsel’s assistance was not so deficient that Garcia Arce was pre vented from reasonably presenting her case. I. Background Elvira Garcia Arce, also known as Erika Esmeralda Fre goso Lopez, is a native and citizen of Mexico who was re moved from the United States in 2001 and illegally re entered the United States shortly thereafter. After she was arrested for driving under the influence and without a license in 2018, the Department of Homeland Security detained her and rein stated her 2001 removal order. Attorney Gwendolyn Smith prepared Garcia Arce’s appli cation for withholding of removal and represented her in sub sequent immigration proceedings. After an asylum officer in terviewed Garcia Arce, an immigration judge held a hearing on the merits of Garcia Arce’s application. Garcia Arce sought withholding of removal under the Immigration and Nationality Act, see 8 U.S.C. § 1231(b)(3), and the Convention Against Torture, see 8 C.F.R. §§ 1208.16–.18, based on her pur ported fear of persecution and torture if removed to Mexico. The immigration judge denied her request for withhold ing of removal. At her hearing before the immigration judge, Garcia Arce testified that she feared returning to Mexico be cause in her hometown she was physically assaulted by her brother and sexually assaulted by her uncle and a man named “Tacos,” who was a member of a gang to whom her brother “sold her” to repay a drug debt. The immigration judge noted that there were “serious problems” with Garcia Arce’s credi Nos. 19 1453 & 19 2312 3 bility due, in part, to her having presented a fake birth certif icate at the border and her statements to border agents that she did not fear returning to Mexico. The immigration judge nevertheless held that even assuming Garcia Arce had shown that she had been subjected to persecution in Mexico, it was both possible and reasonable for Garcia Arce to avoid the threat of persecution by relocating within Mexico. She testi fied that her brother had passed away from a drug overdose, that her uncle still lives in her hometown, and that she had previously lived in Mexico with the father of her son in a town that was four hours outside of her hometown, where she did not have contact with Tacos or other gang members. The immigration judge also found that Garcia Arce nei ther alleged that a Mexican government official had acqui esced in any torture of her nor established that a Mexican gov ernment official would acquiesce in any future torture of her. Although Garcia Arce had submitted general reports regard ing country conditions in Mexico describing gang violence and other safety issues, the judge noted that a 2017 State De partment report also stated that Mexican law imposes an “ab solute prohibition” on torture and that a new law “adds higher penalties for conviction of torturing vulnerable classes of victims,[] including women and persons with disabilities.” Garcia Arce appealed to the Board of Immigration Ap peals (the “Board”). In February 2019, the Board adopted and affirmed the immigration judge’s decision. The Board found no clear error in the immigration judge’s findings of fact and noted that Garcia Arce had not raised the Convention Against Torture as a ground for her appeal. Garcia Arce retained new counsel and filed with this Court a petition for review of the Board’s February 2019 order. 4 Nos. 19 1453 & 19 2312 Garcia Arce also filed with the Board a motion to reopen immigration proceedings based on Attorney Smith’s alleg edly ineffective assistance. Garcia Arce claimed that Attorney Smith was ineffective because she did not: (1) properly ad vance Garcia Arce’s claim that she would be persecuted upon return to Mexico as a result of her alleged mental illness; (2) properly advance her Convention Against Torture claim based on drug cartels and corrupt law enforcement in Mexico; and (3) correctly advise Garcia Arce regarding her eligibility for bond. In July 2019, the Board denied Garcia Arce’s motion to re open, holding that Attorney Smith “made tactical decisions based on her reasonable professional assessment of [Garcia Arce]’s case.” The Board concluded that it was reasonable for Attorney Smith to focus her arguments on Garcia Arce’s past mistreatment in Mexico at the hands of her family and the gang rather than on account of her mental health, because the “testimony and evidence did not ‘support a likelihood of harm based upon her mental health.’” And even if Attorney Smith was mistaken in advising Garcia Arce that she was eli gible for bond, the Board held that Garcia Arce had not shown that she suffered prejudice as a result. The Board also concluded that Garcia Arce had not “demonstrated excep tional circumstances warranting the Board’s exercise of its discretion to reconsider its prior decision sua sponte under 8 C.F.R. § 1003.2(a).” Garcia Arce then filed with this Court a petition for review of the Board’s July 2019 order denying her motion to reopen. Now before this Court are Garcia Arce’s petitions for re view of the Board’s February and July 2019 orders. Garcia Nos. 19 1453 & 19 2312 5 Arce argues that the Board’s February order should be re versed because the evidence compelled the conclusion that she was entitled to withholding of removal. She argues that the July order should be reversed because the Board abused its discretion in denying her claim of ineffective assistance. II. Discussion A. Denial of Application for Withholding The Board’s February 2019 decision affirming the immi gration judge’s denial of Garcia Arce’s application for with holding of removal is supported by substantial evidence. Where, as here, “the Board has adopted the decision of the immigration judge and added its own reasoning, we review both decisions.” Ruiz Cabrera v. Holder, 748 F.3d 754, 757 (7th Cir. 2014). We must not disturb the Board’s holding if it is “supported by reasonable, substantial, and probative evi dence on the record considered as a whole.” Khan v. Holder, 766 F.3d 689, 695 (7th Cir. 2014) (citation omitted). Under this “highly deferential standard,” Rodriguez Galicia v. Gonzales, 422 F.3d 529, 535 (7th Cir. 2005), we “reverse only if the evi dence compels a contrary conclusion,” Abdoulaye v. Holder, 721 F.3d 485, 490 (7th Cir. 2013) (citation omitted). The Board’s “findings of fact are conclusive unless any reasonable adjudi cator would be compelled to conclude to the contrary.” 8 U.S.C. § 1252(b)(4)(B). 1. Immigration and Nationality Act An alien is entitled to withholding of removal to a country under the Immigration and Nationality Act if the alien’s “life or freedom would be threatened in that country because of the alien’s race, religion, nationality, membership in a partic ular social group, or political opinion.” 8 U.S.C. 6 Nos. 19 1453 & 19 2312 § 1231(b)(3)(A). If the applicant establishes that she has suf fered past persecution on account of her membership in a pro tected group, she is entitled to a rebuttable presumption that she will be persecuted in the future on the same basis. 8 C.F.R. § 1208.16(b)(1)(i). The presumption may be rebutted if cir cumstances have changed such that the applicant’s life or freedom would not be threatened on account of her member ship in a protected class, id. at § 1208.16(b)(1)(i)(A), or if the applicant could avoid the threat by relocating to another part of the proposed country and it would be reasonable to expect the applicant to do so, id. at § 1208.16(b)(1)(i)(B). If the appli cant cannot establish past persecution, she must show a “clear probability” of future persecution, “meaning that it is more likely than not that [she] would be subject to persecution” if removed. Tsegmed v. Sessions, 859 F.3d 480, 484 (7th Cir. 2017). The Board’s conclusion that Garcia Arce could relocate within Mexico to avoid the threat of future persecution, and that it would be reasonable to expect her to do so, was sup ported by substantial evidence. Garcia Arce had previously lived four hours away from her hometown unharmed. Specif ically, the immigration judge found that Garcia Arce avoided contact with Tacos and the gang during a time period that “ranged from approximately 1997 until her entry into the United States in 2001.” Although Garcia Arce initially testi fied that Tacos abused her in 2000, she was asked clarifying questions and confirmed that she did not have contact with him after he last abused her in 1997. Garcia Arce offers no ev idence that compels a conclusion that she could not safely re locate within Mexico. Nos. 19 1453 & 19 2312 7 2. Convention Against Torture Garcia Arce also is not entitled to relief based on her un exhausted Convention Against Torture claim. “A failure to exhaust administrative remedies usually forecloses a peti tioner from raising an issue in federal court that was not raised before the immigration tribunal.” Duarte Salagosa v. Holder, 775 F.3d 841, 846 (7th Cir. 2014). “To exhaust an ad ministrative remedy an applicant must present to the Board any arguments that lie within its power to address.” Id. (inter nal quotation marks and citation omitted). “We deem exhaus tion necessary for appellate review because of the importance of providing the Board an opportunity to apply its specialized knowledge and experience to the matter, which provides us with reasoning to review.” Minghai Tian v. Holder, 745 F.3d 822, 826 (7th Cir. 2014) (internal quotation marks, brackets, and citation omitted). Garcia Arce’s Convention Against Tor ture claim is unexhausted because she did not raise before the Board any substantive arguments for why she should receive Convention Against Torture relief. “[W]e have recognized a limited class of exceptions to the administrative exhaustion requirement to include, among others, where a party has waived or forfeited objections, where the Board has addressed an issue on its own, or for other discretionary reasons.” Duarte Salagosa, 775 F.3d at 846. Garcia Arce argues that her Convention Against Torture claim was not raised before the Board due to no fault of her own, but because of Attorney Smith’s ineffectiveness. Even if we were to exercise our discretion here to review Garcia Arce’s unexhausted Convention Against Torture claim, Gar cia Arce would nevertheless not be entitled to relief. 8 Nos. 19 1453 & 19 2312 To qualify for relief under the Convention Against Tor ture, Garcia Arce was required to show that there is “a sub stantial risk” that she would be tortured if forced to return to Mexico. Barry v. Barr, 916 F.3d 666, 669 (7th Cir. 2019) (cita tions omitted). Torture is “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally in flicted on a person …, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capac ity.” 8 C.F.R. § 208.18(a)(1). It is “an extreme form of cruel and inhuman treatment and does not include lesser forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Id. at § 208.18(a)(2). Evidence that the applicant could relocate to another part of the country where she is not likely to be tor tured is relevant. Id. at § 208.16(c)(3)(ii). Garcia Arce has not pointed to evidence that compels a finding that there is a substantial risk that she would be tor tured if removed to Mexico or that any Mexican government official would acquiesce in such torture. Moreover, as dis cussed above, the Board’s finding that Garcia Arce could safely relocate within Mexico is supported by substantial evi dence. B. Denial of Motion to Reopen The Board did not abuse its discretion in its July 2019 de nial of Garcia Arce’s motion to reopen her immigration pro ceedings based on Attorney Smith’s allegedly ineffective as sistance. Garcia Arce filed a timely motion requesting that the Board reopen immigration proceedings pursuant to 8 U.S.C. § 1229a(c)(7) and 8 C.F.R. § 1003.2(c), which provide that a party may file a motion to reopen within ninety days of the Board’s final decision in the case. We review an order on such Nos. 19 1453 & 19 2312 9 a motion “for an abuse of discretion, upholding it unless it was made without rational explanation, inexplicably de parted from established policies, or rested on an impermissi ble basis.” Bathula v. Holder, 723 F.3d 889, 903 (7th Cir. 2013) (citation omitted). Ineffective assistance of counsel “is not easy to demon strate in an immigration proceeding: whatever right to effec tive counsel exists is present only because of the immigration statutes, and ultimately the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; the more familiar Sixth Amendment right is inapplicable because it is limited to crim inal proceedings.” Yusev v. Sessions, 851 F.3d 763, 767 (7th Cir. 2017). Garcia Arce was required to “show that the proceeding was so fundamentally unfair that [she] was prevented from reasonably presenting [her] case.” Habib v. Lynch, 787 F.3d 826, 831 (7th Cir. 2015) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). To make this showing, she needed to identify the errors that prevented her from presenting her case in favor of withholding of removal and show that she was prejudiced. Sanchez v. Sessions, 894 F.3d 858, 862 (7th Cir. 2018). “The prej udice prong requires a showing that counsel’s errors actually had the potential for affecting the outcome of the proceed ings.” Id. at 862–63 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Garcia Arce criticizes many of the tactical decisions Attor ney Smith made when presenting Garcia Arce’s case, but at torneys are afforded “wide latitude … in making tactical de cisions.” Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 689 (1984). While those criticisms might explain how Garcia Arce’s new attorney would have presented the case differently, they do 10 Nos. 19 1453 & 19 2312 not establish that the Board abused its discretion in conclud ing that Attorney Smith’s assistance was not so deficient that Garcia Arce was prevented from reasonably presenting her case. Garcia Arce also does not adequately explain how the outcome of the proceedings would have been different but for Attorney Smith’s alleged ineffectiveness. In Sanchez v. Keisler, we reversed the Board’s denial of a motion to reopen due to ineffective assistance where the peti tioner’s prior attorney abandoned a theory of relief “for no explicable reason” and there was “simply no basis on which to support the Board’s conclusion” that the attorney exercised professional judgment. 505 F.3d 641, 648, 650 (7th Cir. 2007). Here, however, Attorney Smith explained in a letter that she decided to ground her claims in the abuse Garcia Arce had suffered at the hands of her family and the gang in the past rather than speculate on possible future harms due to Garcia Arce’s mental health. After speaking with Garcia Arce and her husband and reviewing Garcia Arce’s medical history, Attorney Smith concluded that the evidence did not “support a likelihood of harm based upon her mental health.” While Attorney Smith uncovered evidence that Garcia Arce had been persecuted in the past on account of her famil ial relationships, she had not uncovered evidence that Garcia Arce had been persecuted in the past on account of her mental health. Garcia Arce therefore would not have benefited from the burden shifting of 8 C.F.R. § 1208.16(b)(1)(i) when ad vancing a claim based on mental health. Choosing to focus her arguments on the past persecution given the relative strength of the evidence here and the applicable burden shifting pro vision is the kind of “strategic choice[] made after thorough investigation of law and facts relevant to plausible options” Nos. 19 1453 & 19 2312 11 that is “virtually unchallengeable,” even in the more familiar Sixth Amendment context. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 690. Garcia Arce argues that Attorney Smith did not “properly raise [her] claim under the [Convention Against Torture] based on past and future persecution by drug cartels and cor rupt law enforcement officials in Mexico.” Attorney Smith ar gued before the immigration judge, however, that corrupt government officials in Mexico sometimes work in coordina tion with organized criminals. That the claim did not prove meritorious does not render Attorney Smith’s assistance inef fective. Garcia Arce cites cases that she contends Attorney Smith should have cited, but she does not adequately explain how citing those cases could have altered the outcome. She merely states that Attorney Smith’s arguments were too “gen eralized” and “minimized” the extent to which Mexican car tels work with corrupt government officials. Garcia Arce also has not provided a sufficient basis to call into question Attorney Smith’s professional judgment in de clining to pursue the Convention Against Torture claim on appeal. In the Sixth Amendment context, we have held that “appellate counsel need not (and should not) raise every non frivolous claim.” McNary v. Lemke, 708 F.3d 905, 920 (7th Cir. 2013) (ellipsis and citation omitted). Rather, appellate coun sel’s performance is deficient only if she abandoned, without strategic justification, a “claim that was both ‘obvious’ and ‘clearly stronger’ than the claim that [she] actually pre sented.” Shaw v. Wilson, 721 F.3d 908, 915 (7th Cir. 2013). As Attorney Smith explained, there was not an adequate basis upon which she could have established that a public official would acquiesce in torture of Garcia Arce, which is required for relief under the Convention Against Torture. See 8 C.F.R. 12 Nos. 19 1453 & 19 2312 § 208.18(a)(1). Instead, Garcia Arce’s claim grounded in past persecution was more promising. Finally, as the Board explained regarding Garcia Arce’s argument that Attorney Smith was ineffective for advising her that she was eligible for bond, Garcia Arce “would have still been denied bond if [Attorney Smith] has properly ad vised her,” and the suggestion that Attorney Smith’s time “could have been better spent on other aspects of [Garcia Arce]’s case is speculative.” Garcia Arce requested, in the alternative, that the Board exercise its sua sponte discretion to reopen immigration pro ceedings pursuant to 8 C.F.R. § 1003.2(a), which allows the Board to reopen a case on its own motion. “To the extent that [Garcia Arce] made, and the Board considered, an oxymo ronic request for the Board to exercise its discretion to reopen [her] removal proceedings sua sponte, see 8 C.F.R. § 1003.2(a), our jurisdiction is narrowly circumscribed to reviewing, at the very most, whether the Board misunderstood the basis for the request.” Villa Serrano v. Barr, 784 F. App’x 455, 456 (7th Cir. 2019). There is no reason to conclude that the Board misun derstood the basis for Garcia Arce’s claim of ineffective assis tance. Indeed, the Board’s order discussed that claim at length. Garcia Arce quibbles with the statement in the Board’s July 2019 order that it would not “reconsider its prior deci sion.” Garcia Arce argues that the Board’s use of this phrase demonstrates that the Board failed to properly consider her evidence and arguments because there was no prior decision on a motion to reopen for the Board to reconsider. The context of the July 2019 order makes clear, however, that the prior de cision to which the Board was referring was its February 2019 Nos. 19 1453 & 19 2312 13 decision concluding that Garcia Arce is not entitled to with holding of removal. There is nothing to suggest that the Board mistakenly believed that Garcia Arce had previously filed an other motion to reopen. The Board’s statement that it would not “reconsider its prior decision” therefore does not under mine this Court’s confidence that the Board properly under stood and evaluated Garcia Arce’s request. III. Conclusion For the foregoing reasons, we DENY both petitions for re view.