M. Buck Dixon of Troutman Sanders has won asylum for a 14-year-old boy who fled his village in rural Guatemala to escape gang members who’d beaten him, set fire to his home and threatened to kill him after he refused to join and sell drugs.
It is the first asylum approval for the new Atlanta office of Kids in Need of Defense, which is housed at Troutman. Dixon, a second-year associate, took the case pro bono in February 2016, just after KIND opened. The group said Atlanta lawyers have opened more than 100 cases pro bono since then.
Dixon said the asylum case was a big change from his environmental law practice. “Going from reading administrative federal register notices to reading about gang violence in Guatemala—these cases are heart-wrenching,” he said.
He was also surprised at how different the adjudication process is from other areas of law. “There are not a lot of rules,” he explained.
A petitioner must convince an immigration judge that he fears persecution in his home country because of either his race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group—and establish that his country’s government is involved in the persecution or unable to control those who are.
There is no case law except for a few published appellate opinions. “It’s super-subjective. So much depends on who your asylum officer is and how they’re feeling that day,” Dixon said, referring to a petitioner’s interview after filing an application.
He said he relied heavily on KIND’s local director, Christina Iturralde, as well as Kathrine Beno-Valencia and Maria Rodriguez, also of KIND. “I couldn’t have done it without them,” he said.
Dixon said his client, whom he declined to name to protect his privacy, was only 12 when gang members started pressuring him to join. One day, they attacked the boy after school and beat him up badly enough to put him in the hospital, Dixon said. “They held a knife to his throat and threatened to kill him,” he added.
Teachers who witnessed the attack called the police, but no one answered, he said. Later, he discovered that the municipal courts and the police had withdrawn all services from the village.
The gang members burned down the outdoor kitchen at the boy’s grandmother’s house, where he lived, and killed all their chickens. Soon after, as the boy returned to the village from collecting firewood, he heard screaming. The gang had “put one of the villagers in a hole, set him on fire and watched him burn to death in the middle of the village,” Dixon said.
The boy fled for the United States in an attempt to reach his parents, who had immigrated to Atlanta. He made it through Central America and Mexico, but ICE picked him up at the border and instituted deportation proceedings. He’s been living with his parents since then, Dixon said.
Asylum approval is notoriously difficult to secure through Atlanta Immigration Court, which has a 10.4 percent approval rate—the lowest in the nation, according to TRAC Reports at Syracuse University, which tracks immigration proceedings. In fiscal 2017, 1,500 Guatemalans applied for asylum from the Atlanta Immigration Court—more than from any other country and making up 31 percent of all petitioners.
Instead Dixon petitioned U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Asylum Office, which is a less adversarial process. (Guatemalans are eligible under the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act.) Even so, the Asylum Office grants only 37 percent of asylum claims, according to the most recent figures from February.
Dixon went to great lengths to document his client’s claims, which he said was not easy. The hospital in Guatemala kept no records of his client’s stay there, for instance.
With help from his client’s family, Dixon procured sworn statements from four witnesses—a teacher who saw him being beaten, the boy’s grandfather and another relative attesting to the gang persecution, and the village’s interim mayor saying the police and courts had withdrawn services.
“It was like opening a bag of gold,” he said, when he received the envelope with the affidavits from Guatemala.
Dixon wrote a 200-page brief establishing the factual basis for the asylum application and submitted it with the affidavits, his client’s declaration and a report on conditions in Guatemala to demonstrate that the government cannot protect his client. The social group under which his client feared persecution, he added, was “young Guatemalan men who refuse to join gangs.”
An asylum officer interviewed the boy, and a month later, in July, the Asylum Office approved his petition. That means Dixon’s client can stay with his parents under an asylum visa and apply for a green card.
Dixon said the Asylum Office’s approval notice did not explain why the claim was granted. “That was a bit frustrating, when I’d prepared a huge brief, making lots of claims,” he said.
Dixon thinks the village’s lack of police or courts was “a major crux of the case.” His client was particularly vulnerable, he added, since he didn’t have any parents there and belongs to an indigenous people preyed on by the gang. “But that’s just me speculating,” he said.
Dixon said he plans to take another asylum case, but he’s focusing on billable hours for the moment since he spent about 200 hours on this one. “Troutman was super-supportive,” he added.
He hopes more lawyers will volunteer for these cases. “The more lawyers that can help the better,” he said. “If you go into these hearings unarmed, without the needed resources, you’re going to face a terribly uphill battle.”