A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit has remanded to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) for reconsideration a claim for relief under the Convention Against Torture (CAT) by a gay man from Jamaica who was subject to deportation based on some state law convictions in Connecticut. Walker v. Lynch, 2016 WL 4191844, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 14554 (August 9, 2016). The panel, consisting of Circuit Judges Pierre N. Leval, Reena Raggi, and Raymond J. Lohier, Jr., found that the BIA had misapplied the law and inexplicably failed to respond to strong evidence from the U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Report on Jamaica as well as from a former leader of a Jamaican gay rights group about the dangers facing men known to be gay in Jamaica.
The court designated this decision as an “unpublished summary order,” so it does not include a detailed account of what the petitioner claimed to have happened to him growing up in Jamaica, but it mentions his claim that he was raped by an uncle, who allegedly threatened to “slit his throat for revealing the rapes and spreading rumors” that the uncle is gay, and that a cousin (the son of this uncle) had threatened to kill him “for levying accusations of homosexuality” at the cousin’s brother and father, who were “the two individuals responsible for his childhood sexual traumas.” The petitioner claimed that he was widely known to be gay in Jamaica.
The petitioner is resorting to a CAT claim because his criminal record in the U.S. precludes an application for asylum or withholding of removal. A non-citizen can be deported by the government, even if there is a probability that he would be subjected to persecution in his home country, if he is convicted of a serious crime in the U.S. The court in this case is not specific about the crimes for which the petitioner was convicted, merely commenting in passing that he was found to be removable “by reason of having been convicted of, inter alia, an aggravated felony and a controlled substance offense.” In order to claim protection against deportation to his home country under the CAT, the petitioner has to show that (1) “it is more likely than not that he or she would be tortured if removed to the proposed country of removal” and (2) “government officials would inflict such torture, or otherwise acquiesce in it.” In this context, torture is defined as being “subjected to acts ‘by which severe pain or suffering is intentionally inflicted for any reason based on discrimination of any kind.’” Acquiescence by the government describes a situation where the government “knows of or is willfully blind to anticipated acts of torture and breaches its legal responsibility to prevent it.”
The main evidence presented to the Immigration Judge (IJ) in addition to the petitioner’s credible claims about sexual assault and threats from relatives was a 2013 Human Rights Report published by the U.S. State Department, the kind of document that is supposed to carry great weight in these kinds of proceedings. The court wrote that this document “states that, in Jamaica – where laws criminalize ‘acts of gross indecency … between persons of the same sex’ – lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (“LGBT”) individuals suffer ‘serious human rights abuses, including assault with deadly weapons, ‘corrective rape’ of women accused of being lesbians, arbitrary detention, mob attacks, stabbings, harassment . . . by hospital and prison staff, and targeted shootings.” The Report “further states that ‘brutality against [gay men], primarily by private citizens, was widespread in the community,’ and that ‘gay men hesitated to report such incidents against them because of fear for their physical well-being.’ Moreover, ‘although individual police officers expressed sympathy for the plight of the LGBT community and worked to prevent and resolve instances of abuse, the police force in general did not recognize the extent and seriousness of violence against members of the LGBT community, and failed to investigate such incidents.”
The court also referred to a letter from “the former director of the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals & Gays (‘J-FLAG’),” placed in evidence before the IJ, which stated that while “there have been improvements in the overall response of the police in the past year, the police frequently refuse to investigate crimes against gay individuals.” As a result, said the letter, “gay Jamaicans are not simply subject to violent persecution, but also are understood as safe targets for robbery, extortion and murder because of their outcast status.”
The IJ concluded based on this evidentiary record that the petitioner had failed to show “government acquiescence” because there was “insufficient evidence that the Jamaican government ‘indirectly condones the torture’ of gay individuals,” and the BIA approved this based on its conclusion that the evidence “does not describe whether the failure to investigate in most cases was purposeful and because of the victim’s sexuality.” The 2nd Circuit panel found that the IJ’s statement “appears to have ‘totally overlooked’ the contrary record evidence, and the BIA’s statement “appears to have misapplied the applicable standard by ‘conflating’ the CAT’s ‘specific intent requirement with the concept of state acquiescence.” In other words, it is not necessary for the petitioner to show that the government wants people to torture gays or intends to leave gays at the mercy of the mob; it is enough to show that the government “know of or remain willfully blind to an act and thereafter breach their legal responsibility to prevent it.” In short, if gays in Jamaica can’t depend on the government to bring to bear reasonable law enforcement efforts to combat anti-gay persecution amidst an environment that is extreme hostile to gay people, the standard set by the CAT has been met.
In this regard, the CAT standard resembles the “deliberate indifference” standard the courts use in 8th Amendment cases challenging prison living conditions that pose serious risk of harm to inmates. The plaintiff has to show that government officials are aware of the situation and are effectively refusing to deal with it, leaving the plaintiff in danger of serious harm. This sounds very much like what the State Department found in Jamaica. (As a matter of political note, it is worth observing that during the Bush Administration the State Department itself seemed willfully blind to anti-gay persecution in many of its Human Rights Reports, while the Obama Administration, with Hillary Clinton and John Kerry heading the State Department, provided much more inclusive and accurate reporting about anti-gay conditions around the world.)
“Accordingly,” wrote the court, “we remand for the agency to consider, consistent with the controlling precedent referenced, whether it is more likely than not that [Petitioner] will be tortured if removed to Jamaica and that the government will acquiesce in such torture, particularly in light of (1) the evidence discussed herein regarding the general failure of the Jamaican police to investigate crimes against gay individuals, and (2) [Petitioner’s] testimony regarding threats he received from family members.”
The ruling is an effective bench-slap against the BIA for ignoring the strongly-worded State Department Human Rights report on Jamaica – a report that is regularly confirmed by press accounts of anti-gay activity in the country – and a major victory for the Petitioner’s attorney on appeal, Jon Bauer of the Legal Clinic at the University of Connecticut School of Law.