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Orellana-Arias v. Sessions

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

July 25, 2017

Jose Orellana-Arias, Petitioner,
v.
Jefferson B. Sessions III, Attorney General of the United States, Respondent.

          Argued November 10, 2016

         Petition for Review of an Order of the Board of Immigration Appeals. No. A078-678-415.

          Before Ripple, Manion, and Rovner, Circuit Judges.

          ROVNER, Circuit Judge.

         Jose Orellana-Arias is a native and citizen of El Salvador. Immigration officials detained him and took him into custody as he entered the United States near McAllen, Texas in April 2013. This was not his first time entering the United States without being admitted or paroled. In spring 2001, he came to the United States, but border patrol agents stopped him, and after the Department of Homeland Security prevailed in immigration proceedings, he was removed to El Salvador on October 3, 2001. In 2007, he returned to the United States again to find work to allow him to provide for his family in El Salvador and this time was able to stay and work undetected from 2007 through December 2011, when he returned to his family.

         Orellana-Arias testified that while he was in the United States, his wife informed him that gang activity and crime had increased significantly during his time away. Approximately one month after returning to El Salvador, on his way home from work, three masked men confronted him. Orellana-Arias recognized the men from their voices and knew that they were neighborhood members (along with a leader) of the gang MS-13 who were believed to be behind the deaths of people in the neighborhood. The men threw him to the ground, kicked him, tried unsuccessfully to steal his shoes, and successfully stole his phone and money. One suggested that they kill Orellana-Arias, but he pleaded for his life and managed to run away. During the incident, Orellana-Arias twisted his ankle but did not receive any medical care as a result of the attack other than taking pills he received from a pharmacy.

         Two days later the same men approached Orellana-Arias as he bathed in a pond and suggested that he contribute $5, 000 to the MS-13 gang. When Orellana-Arias stated he did not have the money, the gang members insisted that he must, as he had just returned from the United States. They threatened that he would "disappear" if he did not comply. Orellana-Arias negotiated with the men and, in the end, paid them $500. Following this incident, the gang members extorted money from Orellana-Arias on a number of occasions, and each time they demanded money, he gave them whatever he had on hand -anywhere from $l-$5. On one occasion they stopped Orellana-Arias to remind him to call a number they had given him to report any sightings of police officers.

         To escape the extortion and fear, in April 2012, Orellana-Arias fled back to the United States where he was arrested at the border and detained for 45 days before being removed once again. Back in his home town, the demands by MS-13 gang members continued. Gang members commanded Orellana-Arias to call them whenever he saw the police and they entered a phone number into his cell phone such that he would also be suspected of being in the gang if stopped by the police. Orellana-Arias testified that he refused to comply with the demand to act as a lookout if he saw the police, as it conflicted with his morals. He also did not report his encounters to the police, believing from seeing gang members go free after arrest, that the police would be of no help.

         In October 2012, three men in civilian clothes shot at Orellana-Arias as he tried to escape them. They later identified themselves as police officers and stated that they were looking for two of the gang members who had once assaulted Orellana-Arias. They handcuffed Orellana-Arias and reviewed the numbers in his cell phone, but took no action against him. Orellana-Arias noticed that the men the police were looking for were never arrested, confirming his belief that the police were unable or unwilling to protect him from future harm by gang members.

         In February 2013, these same gang members, along with two others, again approached Orellana-Arias, asked him if he had seen the police, and again gave him a number to call should he see the police in the future. That same month, Orellana-Arias heard that members of MS-13 killed two bus drivers who drove a route through his town after they failed to pay demanded extortion fees. These events prompted Orellana-Arias to flee the escalating violence and gang activity that he perceived as infecting the entire country. He arrived in McAllen, Texas in April 2013, where immigration officials took him into custody. While Orellana-Arias was in custody, gang members twice approached his wife-once at home and once on the street-asking his whereabouts. The gangs did not contact his wife thereafter and none of Orellana-Arias's family members have been physically harmed by the gangs.

         After being detained following his April 2013 reentry, Orellana-Arias requested a reasonable fear interview with the asylum office in Chicago. The asylum officer determined that Orellana-Arias did not have a reasonable fear of persecution or torture. Yet upon Orellana-Arias's request, the case was transferred to an immigration judge who found that Orellana-Arias did indeed have a reasonable fear of returning to El Salvador and vacated the asylum officer's underlying decision, thus allowing Orellana-Arias to apply for withholding of removal and Convention Against Torture protection.

         On October 16, 2013, Orellana-Arias appeared before a different immigration judge by televideo. He testified regarding his interactions with and fear of gang members in El Salvador, including the facts we have recounted above. He testified that he feared that he would be kidnapped and killed in El Salvador, that he has religious and moral objections to gangs, and that he did not believe there was any other part of El Salvador to which he could relocate safely. Along with his testimony, the immigration judge considered affidavits of family members and experts, and many articles on gang activity in El Salvador. The immigration judge denied the applications and Orellana-Arias waived his right to appeal.

         Shortly thereafter, Orellana-Arias filed an unopposed motion to reconsider, stating that he wished to withdraw his waiver of appeal. The Board, granting the motion, remanded the case back to the immigration judge for preparation of a written decision. In her September 4, 2014 decision, the immigration judge found that Orellana-Arias was credible, but that he had not demonstrated that the mistreatment he suffered previously in El Salvador rose to the level of past persecution as opposed to mere harassment, and that the risk of future mistreatment was too speculative to constitute a clear probability of future persecution. Finally, the immigration judge determined that Orellana-Arias did not establish a nexus between any protected ground and alleged harm. The proposed group of "young Salvadoran males who oppose gang and other criminal activities due to their religious and/or moral beliefs, " the immigration judge found, was not "sufficiently particular" because the core attribute is opposition to gangs, likely a common attribute held by every Salvadoran citizen who is not a member of a gang. R. 136. She then ruled that even if the group was cognizable, Orellana-Arias offered no evidence that the gang had any knowledge of his beliefs and opposition to the gang. Similarly, she held that the social group of "Salvadorans who have lived in the United States for many years and who are perceived by drug cartels, criminal organizations, gangs, and corrupt government officials to have money upon their return to El Salvador" was likewise not sufficiently particular to be cognizable. Id. The judge found that the record evidence did not support Orellana-Arias's assertion that he faced a more particularized risk than others because he lived in the United States. Finally, the immigration judge found that Orellana-Arias had not met his burden for CAT protection-that is, he did not experience past torture, and any fear of future torture was too speculative to warrant protection under CAT.

         Following the immigration judge's decision, Orellana-Arias's case wound through a series of procedural snafus that we relegate to a footnote for the sake of efficiency.[1] Once back on track, on March 24, 2016, the Board issued a decision denying Orellana-Arias's appeal. The Board's decision concluded that Orellana-Arias had not established past persecution or that he faced a clear probability of future persecution on account of his membership in a social group of young Salvadoran males who oppose gang membership and other criminal activities due to their religion and/or moral beliefs. The Board concluded that the group has not been shown to be cohesive and socially distinct in El Salvador, and that it was too loosely defined to meet the requirement of particularity because it is overbroad. The Board also concluded that Orellana-Arias had not established past persecution or that he faced a clear probability of future persecution on account of his membership in a social group of individuals who are perceived by drug cartels, criminal organizations, gangs, and corrupt government officials to have money because they are returning from the United States. The Board again concluded that it was not sufficiently distinct or defined with sufficient ...


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