502 U.S. 478 (1992), 90-1342, Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Elias-Zacarias

Docket Nº:No. 90-1342
Citation:502 U.S. 478, 112 S.Ct. 812, 117 L.Ed.2d 38, 60 U.S.L.W. 4130
Party Name:Immigration and Naturalization Service v. Elias-Zacarias
Case Date:January 22, 1992
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 478

502 U.S. 478 (1992)

112 S.Ct. 812, 117 L.Ed.2d 38, 60 U.S.L.W. 4130

Immigration and Naturalization Service

v.

Elias-Zacarias

No. 90-1342

United States Supreme Court

Jan. 22, 1992

        Argued Nov. 4, 1991

        CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

        FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

        Syllabus

        Respondent, a native of Guatemala, was apprehended for entering the United States without inspection. In his deportation proceedings, the Board of Immigration Appeals determined that he was ineligible for a discretionary grant of asylum. In reversing that determination, the Court of Appeals ruled that a guerrilla organization's acts of conscription constitute persecution on account of political opinion, and that respondent therefore had a well-founded fear of such persecution.

        Held: A guerrilla organization's attempt to coerce a person into performing military service does not necessarily constitute "persecution on account of . . . political opinion" under § 101(a)(42) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(42). Even one who supports the political aims of a guerrilla movement might resist military combat, and thus become the object of such coercion. Moreover, persecution on account of political opinion is not established by the fact that the coercing guerrillas had "political" motives. In order to satisfy § 101(a)(42), the persecution must be on account of the victim's political opinion, not the persecutor's. Since respondent did not produce evidence so compelling that no reasonable factfinder could fail to find the requisite fear of persecution on account of political opinion, the Court of Appeals had no proper basis to set aside the BIA's determination. See 8 U.S.C. § 1105a(a)(4); NLRB v. Columbian Enameling & Stamping Co., 306 U.S. 292, 300. Pp. 481-484.

        921 F.2d 844, reversed.

        SCALIA, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, KENNEDY, SOUTER, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined, post, p. 484.

Page 479

        SCALIA, J., lead opinion

        JUSTICE SCALIA delivered the opinion of the Court.

        The principal question presented by this case is whether a guerrilla organization's attempt to coerce a person into performing military service necessarily constitutes "persecution on account of . . . political opinion" under § 101(a)(42) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, as added, 94 Stat. 102, 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(42).

        I

        Respondent Elias-Zacarias, a native of Guatemala, was apprehended in July, 1987, for entering the United States without inspection. In deportation proceedings brought by petitioner Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), Elias-Zacarias conceded his deportability, but requested asylum and withholding of deportation.

        The Immigration Judge summarized Elias-Zacarias' testimony as follows:

[A]round the end of January in 1987 [when Elias-Zacarias was 18], two armed, uniformed guerrillas with handkerchiefs covering part of their faces came to his home. Only he and his parents were there. . . . [T]he guerrillas asked his parents and himself to join with them, but they all refused. The guerrillas asked them why, and told them that they would be back, and that they should think it over about joining them.

Page 480

[Elias-Zacarias] did not want to join the guerrillas, because the guerrillas are against the government and he was afraid that the government would retaliate against him and his family if he did join the guerrillas. [H]e left Guatemala at the [112 S.Ct. 815] end of March [1987] . . . because he was afraid that the guerrillas would return.

        The Immigration Judge understood from this testimony that Elias-Zacarias' request for asylum and for withholding of deportation was "based on this one attempted recruitment by the guerrillas." She concluded that Elias-Zacarias had failed to demonstrate persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, and was not eligible for asylum. See 8 U.S.C. §§ 1101(a)(42), 1158(a). She further concluded that he did not qualify for withholding of deportation.

        The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) summarily dismissed Elias-Zacarias' appeal on procedural grounds. Elias-Zacarias then moved the BIA to reopen his deportation hearing so that he could submit new evidence that, following his departure from Guatemala, the guerrillas had twice returned to his family's home in continued efforts to recruit him. The BIA denied reopening on the ground that, even with this new evidence, Elias-Zacarias had failed to make a prima facie showing of eligibility for asylum, and had failed to show that the results of his deportation hearing would be changed.

        The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, treating the BIA's denial of the motion to reopen as an affirmance on the merits of the Immigration Judge's ruling, reversed. 921 F.2d 844 (1990). The court ruled that acts of conscription by a nongovernmental group constitute persecution on account of political opinion, and determined that Elias-Zacarias had a "well-founded fear" of such conscription. Id. at 850-852. We granted certiorari. 500 U.S. 915 (1991).

Page 481

        II

        Section 208(a) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, 8 U.S.C. § 1158(a), authorizes the Attorney General, in his discretion, to grant asylum to an alien who is a "refugee" as defined in the Act, i.e., an alien who is unable or unwilling to return to his home country

because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

        § 101(a)(42)(A), 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(42)(A). See INS v. Cardoza-Fonseca, 480 U.S. 421, 423, 428, n. 5 (1987). The BIA's determination that Elias-Zacarias was not eligible for asylum must be upheld if "supported by reasonable, substantial, and probative evidence on the record considered as a whole." 8 U.S.C. § 1105a(a)(4). It can be reversed only if the evidence presented by Elias-Zacarias was such that a reasonable factfinder would have to conclude that the requisite fear of persecution existed. NLRB v. Columbian Enameling & Stamping Co., 306 U.S. 292, 300 (1939).[1]

        The Court of Appeals found reversal warranted. In its view, a guerrilla organization's attempt to conscript a person into its military forces necessarily constitutes "persecution on account of . . . political opinion," because

the person resisting forced recruitment is expressing a political opinion hostile to the persecutor, and because the persecutors' motive in carrying out the kidnapping is political.

        921 F.2d at 850. The first half of this seems to us untrue, and the second half irrelevant.

Page 482

       Even a person who supports a guerrilla movement might resist recruitment [112 S.Ct. 816] for a variety of reasons -- fear of combat, a desire to remain with one's family and friends, a desire to earn a better living in civilian life, to mention only a few. The record in the present case not only failed to show a political motive on Elias-Zacarias' part; it showed the opposite. He testified that he refused to join the guerrillas because he was afraid that the government would retaliate against him and his family if he did so. Nor is there any indication (assuming, arguendo, it would suffice) that the guerrillas erroneously believed that Elias-Zacarias' refusal was politically based.

        As for the Court of Appeals' conclusion that the guerrillas' "motive in carrying out the kidnapping is political": it apparently meant by this that the guerrillas seek to fill their ranks in order to carry on their war against the government and pursue their political goals. See 921 F.2d at 850 (citing Arteaga v. INS, 836 F.2d 1227, 1232, n. 8 (CA9 1988)); 921 F.2d at 852. But that does not render the forced recruitment "persecution on account of . . . political opinion." In construing statutes, "we must, of course, start with the assumption that the legislative purpose is expressed by the ordinary meaning of the words used." Richards v. United States, 369 U.S. 1, 9 (1962); see Cardoza-Fonseca, supra, 480 U.S. at 431; INS v. Phinpathya, 464 U.S. 183, 189 (1984). The ordinary meaning of the phrase "persecution on account of . . . political opinion" in § 101(a)(42) is persecution on account of the victim's political opinion, not the persecutor's. If a Nazi regime persecutes Jews, it is not, within the ordinary meaning of language, engaging in persecution on account of political opinion; and if a fundamentalist Moslem regime persecutes democrats, it is not engaging in persecution on account of religion. Thus, the mere existence of a generalized "political" motive underlying the guerrillas' forced recruitment is inadequate to establish (and, indeed, goes far to refute) the proposition that Elias-Zacarias fears persecution on account of political opinion, as § 101(a)(42) requires.

Page 483

        Elias-Zacarias appears to argue that not taking sides with any political faction is itself the affirmative expression of a political opinion. That seems to us not ordinarily so, since we do not agree with the dissent that only a "narrow, grudging construction of the concept of `political opinion,'" post at 487, would distinguish it from such quite different concepts as indifference, indecisiveness and risk-averseness. But we need not decide whether the evidence compels the conclusion that Elias-Zacarias held a political opinion. Even if it does, Elias-Zacarias still has to establish that the record also compels the conclusion that he has a "well-founded fear" that the guerrillas will persecute him because of that political opinion, rather than because of his refusal to fight...

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