Court holds man with bipolar disorder should get asylum in the U.S.

A Tanzanian man recently won an appeal at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals on his asylum case.  The man argued that he had been persecuted in Tanzania for having severe bipolar disorder.  The Board of Immigration Appeals denied his asylum application, finding that the man was not a member of a social group as defined in the Immigration and Nationality Act and, that even if he was a member of that group, he had failed to estalbish that his persecution occurred because he was in that group.  The Fourth Circuit reversed the BIA and sent the case back for further adjudication.

A Mental Breakdown

During the man’s final year at university, his mother passed away, spurring a mental breakdown that forced him to leave school.  During his manic episodes, the man believes he has super powers.  He acts erratically and walks into traffic.  He spent years in asylums and prisons where he suffered violent physical abuse.  An expert testified below that in Tanzania, bipolar disorder is treated as “shameful.”  Sufferers are referred to as “mwenda wzimu” which means demon-possessed.  According to the expert, laymen and doctors alike believe that demonic possession is contagious.

As such, treatment is almost non-existent.  The man’s hands and feet were bound 5 to 7 hours per day, 4 days per week.  He was beaten with leather straps and fists.

A plea for asylum

Upon entering the U.S., the man sought immigration relief in the forms of asylum, withholding of removal and relief under the Convention Against Torture (“CAT”).  He argued that he faced severe persecution because of his membership in the social group of “individuals with bipolar disorder who exhibit erratic behavior.”

The immigration judge denied the claim, finding that the proposed group lacked the elements of immutability, particularity and social visibility necessary to constitute a particular social group.  The IJ also held that even if such a group existed, the man failed to establish that he was persecuted because of his membership in this group.  The Board of Immigration Appeals agreed with the IJ and affirmed.

An appeal to the Fourth Circuit

On appeal, the Court addressed two issues.  First, did the proposed group of “individuals with bipolar disorder who exhibit erratic behavior” qualify as a social group.  Second, was the asylee persecuted because of membership in that group.

Because courts are to give deference to the BIA’s determination of factual issues, the Court could only reverse if “no rational factfinder could reach the same conclusion.”  But in spite of this high hurdle, the Court concluded that a rational factfinder could not simultaneously credit all of the man’s testimony (which all parties agreed was credible and undisputed), but then reject his claim that his torture was because of his perceived demon possession.  The BIA’s decision was “internally contradictory and advances diametrically opposed conclusions within paragraphs,” which the appellate court found “is the very essence of irrationality.”

The Court also rejected the BIA’s social visibilty analysis.  As the Court noted, “a group can qualify as a social group even if one cannot identify members of the group by sight.”  The test is whether a group is in fact recognized as a group.  Because “Tanzanians still appear to view the ‘mwenda wazimu’ as a group, they are socially visible for puprposes of asylum.  The Court also found BIA error in concluding that the group lacked particularity.  The BIA erred in breaking down the man’s group into pieces and rejecting each piece, instead of analyzing the group as a whole.  Finally, the BIA erred in failing to find immutability, which the Court said was “easily satisfie[d].”