“Confirmed Judges, Confirmed Fears” is a blog series documenting the harmful impact of President Trump’s judges on Americans’ rights and liberties. Cases in the series can be found by issue and by judge at this link.
Trump Sixth Circuit judge Eric Murphy tried to uphold a Bureau of Immigration Affairs (BIA) decision that refused to withhold the deportation of a man who has lived in the U.S. for 20 years, despite strong evidence that he would be persecuted or killed if he returned to Mexico. The Sixth Circuit majority rejected Murphy’s dissent, vacated the BIA order, and sent the case back for rehearing in its May 2020 decision in Guzman-Vazquez v. Barr.
Mexican native Manuel Guzman-Vazquez has lived in the U.S. since 1998. In 2014, immigration authorities sought to deport him, and he applied for asylum and withholding of removal because of concerns about violence and persecution if he is forced to return to Mexico.
At his hearing before an immigration judge (IJ), Guzman-Vazquez testified that his family faced violence in his hometown, including the murders of both his father and grandfather. After his mother remarried, they moved to another town, where he “suffered mistreatment at the hands of his mother and stepfather.” He testified that his stepfather “regularly subjected him to physical abuse,” including hitting him and whipping and marking his “whole body.” He left home to escape the abuse at age 14.
Guzman-Vazquez explained that he fears returning to Mexico because he is afraid that his stepfather, who “still has connections to the police” and resents him for leaving the family behind, “would kill him.” In addition, he stated that he fears that the people who murdered his father and grandfather would try to kill or injure him, noting that they had murdered his cousin a few months before the hearing.
Although the IJ found that Guzman-Vazquez was “generally credible,” he ruled against him because he did not present any corroborating evidence. The BIA agreed. On a petition for review, the Sixth Circuit vacated the BIA decision in a 2-1 ruling and sent the case back for further proceedings. As the majority explained, the IJ and the BIA made three crucial errors:
- First, they violated the law by requiring corroborating evidence of his relationship with his stepfather “without giving the applicant the opportunity to explain” why none was provided.
- Second, the majority went on, the record revealed that there was not “substantial evidence” to support the judge’s and BIA’s conclusion that Guzman-Vazquez inadequately explained why he did not ask his mother or sister to write a letter corroborating his claims that his stepfather abused him. (He had stated that his mother, who is illiterate, abused him, and that she herself was abused by his stepfather; his sister lives in a remote area in Mexico where “there’s really no communication.”)
- Finally, as to the third error, the majority concluded that the immigration authorities had misinterpreted the law and improperly required Guzman-Vazquez to show that the reason, as opposed to a reason, for his stepfather’s persecution was the fact that he was the child of his biological father.
Murphy’s dissent supported the BIA’s position, but the majority opinion demonstrated specifically why Murphy was wrong:
- Murphy asserted that Guzman-Vazquez was specifically required to “try to obtain corroboration,” but the majority noted that such a requirement is “absent” from the statute and that the evidence was clear that it was “unavailable.”
- Murphy complained that Guzman-Vaszquez had not “explicitly linked” the reasons why he could not obtain an affidavit from his mother: she had abused him as a child, and was still married to and being abused by his stepfather. The majority criticized this argument as an “impoverished” effort to ignore that the “record as a whole” clearly showed that those factors made an affidavit effectively unavailable.
- Murphy claimed that the immigration statute stated that it must be shown that the reason for his stepfather’s persecution was that he was the child of his natural father. But the majority explained that despite Murphy’s “professed adherence” to interpreting a law according to its “plain text,” Murphy’s interpretation “is found nowhere” in the law’s “plain text.”
As a result of the majority’s ruling, Guzman-Vazquez will have another chance to show that he should not be deported using the correct legal standards concerning his fear of persecution claim. If it had been up to Murphy, however, he would have been deported without such an opportunity.