Mikhail Nifadev v. Eric Holder, Jr.
OPINION filed GRANTING Nifadev s petition for review, VACATING and REMANDING with the following instructions: (1) The BIA should determine whether the conduct of the Uzbek officials to which Nifadev credibly testified amounts to persecution. (2) Should the BIA find the Uzbek officials conduct to constitute persecution, the BIA should determine whether Nifadev s circumstances warrant a favorable exercise of the Attorney General s discretion to grant his application for asylum. (3) The BIA should also reconsider its determinations regarding Nifadev s application for withholding of removal and protection under CAT in light of this opinion. Decision not for publication. Danny J. Boggs, Authoring Circuit Judge; R. Guy Cole , Jr., Chief Circuit Judge and Jane Branstetter Stranch, Circuit Judge. [13-3704, 13-4222]
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR FULL-TEXT PUBLICATION
File Name: 14a0641n.06
UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT
ERIC H. HOLDER, JR.,
Aug 18, 2014
DEBORAH S. HUNT, Clerk
ON PETITION FOR REVIEW
FROM THE BOARD OF
BEFORE: COLE, Chief Judge; BOGGS and STRANCH, Circuit Judges.
BOGGS, Circuit Judge: Mikhail Nifadev, an Uzbek national of Russian descent, seeks
review of the decision of the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) denying his applications for
asylum, withholding of removal, and protection under the Convention Against Torture (CAT), as
well as his motion to reopen proceedings. For the reasons given below, we grant Nifadev’s
petition for review.
Nifadev was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in what was then the Soviet Union. Though
born in Uzbekistan, Nifadev is visibly of Russian descent and does not speak Uzbek.
addition, though he was raised Russian Orthodox, he has since become a Baptist. Nifadev came
to the Unites States in May 2003 as a nonimmigrant visitor for pleasure with leave to remain for
six months. Having exceeded his leave to remain, he filed an asylum application in April 2004,
which was denied by an asylum officer.
Shortly thereafter, the Department of Homeland
Security (DHS) sent Nifadev a Notice to Appear (NTA), which alleged removability under 8
U.S.C. § 1227(a)(1)(B) for having remained in the United States beyond his departure date
Removal proceedings against Nifadev began with an initial hearing on September 27,
2004 and were continued for two calendar hearings April 19 and September 6, 2005. There then
followed two merits hearings. At the first merits hearing, held on October 18, 2007, the IJ took
documentary submissions and testimony from Nifadev. At the second merits hearing, on March
10, 2011, the IJ took testimony from two of Nifadev’s friends, both of whom were also ethnic
Russians and Uzkbek nationals.
Nifadev testified that, following Uzbekistan’s independence from the Soviet Union, the
treatment he received at the hands of Uzbek officials became steadily worse, presumably because
of his Russian ethnicity. As background, Nifadev stated that he attended university to become an
aircraft engineer and was employed as a maintenance engineer at the Tashkent airport.
According to Nifadev, his first encounter with Uzbek officials came in 1999 upon his return from
a business trip to Georgia and China when he was interrogated by an Uzbek national-security
agent about the purpose of his trip abroad. The next encounter occurred in 2000 when a police
officer detained Nifadev at a subway station, searched him, examined his passport and
interrogated him about his travels. Though he was eventually allowed to leave unharmed, the
police took 30% of the money Nifadev had at the time he was arrested. Another incident
occurred in 2001 upon Nifadev’s return from a trip to the United States. The same security
official who interrogated Nifadev in 2000 summoned him to the national security agency’s
headquarters. The official accused him of committing bribery and questioned him about his trip
to the United States.
The incidents recounted by Nifadev became markedly worse starting in the winter of
2002. Nifadev testified that, during a night shift at the airport, a national-security agent accused
him of permitting lax security at his facility and of overseeing employees who spread Christian
propaganda. As the incident escalated, the security agent drew his pistol, pointed it in Nifadev’s
face, and said, “what[,] do you think I don’t have a weapon?”
Nifadev was eventually fired from his job at the airport in 2002 while he was on vacation
in the United States. Though he did not know it at the time, a friend told him years later that he
was fired at the demand of the national-security agency because he was travelling in the United
States and the agency’s officials became suspicious of him. Upon his dismissal, his company did
not return his employment book, a very important document without which Uzbek workers
cannot obtain a legitimate job. Because he lacked an employment book, Nifadev was unable to
obtain legitimate work and he and his wife were forced to earn a living by taking odd jobs—
Nifadev as an unlicensed taxi driver and his wife selling flowers.
His work as a taxi driver resulted in even greater exposure to police interference. On one
occasion, in 2003, Nifadev was pulled over by police who conducted an illegal search of his car
and then attempted to purchase his vehicle from him at a discounted rate, allegedly a common
practice brought about by the number of ethnic Russians willing to sell their possessions at very
low prices because they were fleeing harassment in Uzbekistan. On another occasion in 2003, a
police officer pulled him over for an illegal turn. The officer demanded that Nifadev sign a
blank citation form and, when Nifadev refused, demanded a signature after he filled out the
citation in Uzbek. Again, Nifadev refused. Another officer arrived, accused Nifadev of driving
while intoxicated, and the two escorted him to a mobile sobriety lab located in the back of a
minivan. Once inside, the police handcuffed him behind his back, asphyxiated him by placing a
plastic bag over his head for approximately 20 seconds and threatened him saying, “Russian
Ivan, do you understand that we can do anything we want toward you here?” He was released
after the police confiscated his driver’s license.
After detailing his encounters with Uzbek officials, Nifadev testified regarding the
systematic discrimination against ethnic Russians in Uzbekistan and regarding the consequences
of being a Baptist were he to return to Uzbekistan.
Two witnesses, Tatiana Kalugina and Vladimir Izgarodin, both Uzbek nationals of
Russian ethnicity like Nifadev, testified at the second merits hearing.
substantially similar testimony regarding the political climate of Uzbekistan, the mistreatment of
ethnic Russians at the hands of the national-security agency, and their fear of being charged as
traitors for having lived so long outside the country should they attempt to return to Uzbekistan.
The IJ rendered her decision on November 2, 2011. As an initial matter, the IJ found
Nifadev credible. Nifadev corroborated many of his claims with external evidence and there
were no inconsistencies within his testimony or between his testimony and his evidentiary
submissions. Also important was the fact that when Nifadev testified, the government did not
argue that he was not credible or attempt to rebut his evidence. The IJ also found the two
witnesses credible, though she pointed out that the value of their testimony was limited.
Having found Nifadev credible, the IJ went on to deny Nifadev’s asylum application
because he “did not establish he suffered past persecution on account of his race, nationality or
religion.” She determined that the incidents recounted by Nifadev “do not cross the line from
harassment to persecution” and that for some of the incidents Nifadev “did not establish that the
stops were on account of any protected ground.” She went on to find that Nifadev also failed to
demonstrate an objectively reasonable fear of persecution should he return, a prerequisite for
demonstrating the alternate basis of claiming asylum should an alien fail to demonstrate past
persecution. The IJ concluded by denying Nifadev’s application for withholding of removal and
protection under CAT.
Nifadev filed a timely appeal to the BIA in which he argued that, because his unrebutted
testimony was considered credible, there was sufficient evidence as a matter of law to have
found persecution. He also argued that the IJ was in error in denying withholding of removal
and protection under CAT. Lastly, Nifadev filed a concurrent motion to reopen based on
intervening Sixth Circuit case law. On May 14, 2013, the BIA, reviewing the IJ’s findings of
fact for clear error and her legal conclusions de novo, rejected Nifadev’s arguments. The board
dismissed his appeal and denied his motion to reopen proceedings.
Following the BIA’s
dismissal of his appeal, Nifadev filed a timely motion to reconsider, which the BIA denied for
having raised the same arguments he raised in his motion to reopen. Nifadev filed a timely
petition for review.
“When the BIA adopts the IJ's reasoning and supplements the IJ's opinion, that opinion,
as supplemented by the BIA, becomes the basis for review.” Zhao v. Holder, 569 F.3d 238, 246
(6th Cir. 2009). We review the BIA’s findings of fact, including any credibility determinations,
under the deferential substantial-evidence standard. Ibid. Under that standard, we “uphold a
BIA determination as long as it is supported by reasonable, substantial, and probative evidence
on the record considered as a whole.” Marku v. Ashcroft, 380 F.3d 982, 986 (6th Cir. 2004)
(internal quotation marks omitted).
Substantial-evidence review does not permit reversal
“simply because we would have decided the matter differently.” Koulibaly v. Mukasey, 541 F.3d
613, 619 (6th Cir. 2008). The BIA’s findings of fact are conclusive unless “any reasonable
adjudicator would be compelled to conclude to the contrary.”
Ibid. (quoting 8 U.S.C.
§ 1252(b)(4)(B)). In contrast, this court reviews the BIA’s legal conclusions de novo and in
doing so defers “to the BIA’s reasonable interpretations of the [Immigration and Nationality Act
(INA)].” Patel v. Gonzales, 432 F.3d 685, 692 (6th Cir. 2005).
“The decision to grant or deny a motion to reopen . . . is within the discretion of the
Board.” 8 C.F.R. § 1003.2(a). Accordingly, the BIA’s denial of a motion to reopen is reviewed
for abuse of discretion. See Allabani v. Gonzales, 402 F.3d 668, 675 (6th Cir. 2005). The same
abuse-of-discretion standard applies to this court’s review of the BIA’s denial of a motion to
reconsider. Sswajje v. Ashcroft, 350 F.3d 528, 532 (6th Cir. 2003). In reviewing for abuse of
discretion, the court will reverse when the BIA’s decision “was made without a rational
explanation, inexplicably departed from established policies, or rested on an impermissible
basis . . . .” Allabani, 402 F.3d at 675.
In spite of the fact that the IJ found the un-rebutted testimony of Nifadev and his two
witnesses credible, she nevertheless found that, as a matter of law, Nifadev did not make a
sufficient showing that he suffered persecution at the hands of Uzbek authorities.
The BIA’s decision as to whether to grant an application for asylum has two parts. First,
the Board determines whether an asylum-seeker is a “refugee” and second, it determines whether
the applicant’s circumstance “merits a favorable exercise of discretion by the Attorney General.”
Perkovic v. I.N.S., 33 F.3d 615, 620 (6th Cir. 1994). In this petition for review, we examine the
BIA’s determination of whether the petitioner is a refugee. In such cases, if the BIA was in error
and the petitioner is a refugee, we then remand the petitioner’s case for the BIA’s further
consideration as to whether the petitioner’s circumstances warrant a discretionary grant of
asylum. See I.N.S. v. Cardoza-Fonseca, 480 U.S. 421, 428 n.5 (1987) (“It is important to note
that the Attorney General is not required to grant asylum to everyone who meets the definition of
refugee. Instead, a finding that an alien is a refugee does no more than establish that ‘the alien
may be granted asylum in the discretion of the Attorney General.’” (quoting INA § 208(a))
(second emphasis omitted)).
The INA confers discretion upon the Attorney General to grant asylum to aliens that he
determines to be a “refugee.” 8 U.S.C. § 1158(b)(1)(A). A refugee includes “any person who is
outside [his or her] country of [nationality] . . . and who is unable or unwilling to return to . . .
that 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 . . . .” 8 U.S.C.
§ 1101(a)(42)(A); see I.N.S. v. Elias-Sacarias, 502 U.S. 478, 481 (1992).
Persecution has not been defined by either the INA or the BIA. Japarkulova v. Holder,
615 F.3d 696, 699 (6th Cir. 2010). However, it has been described by the BIA as, “the infliction
of harm or suffering by the government, or persons a government is unwilling or unable to
control, to overcome a characteristic of the victim.” Pilica v. Ashcroft, 388 F.3d 941, 950 (6th
Cir. 2004) (referencing a description of persecution originally formulated by the BIA in the
context of political opinion and activity); In re Kasinga, 21 I.&N. Dec. 357 (BIA 1996).
Persecution is not mere harassment, but is “an extreme concept that does not include every sort
of treatment our society regards as offensive.” Japarkulova, 615 F.3d at 699. A successful
demonstration of persecution requires “more than a few isolated incidents of verbal harassment
or intimidation, unaccompanied by any physical punishment, infliction of harm, or significant
deprivation of liberty.” Ouda v. INS, 324 F.3d 445, 452 (6th Cir. 2003). Persecution can take a
wide variety of forms; the “types of actions that might cross the line from harassment to
persecution include: detention, arrest, interrogation, prosecution, imprisonment, illegal searches,
confiscation of property, surveillance, beatings, or torture.” Haider v. Holder, 595 F.3d 276,
286–87 (6th Cir. 2010) (internal alterations omitted). Lastly, no single particular incident or type
of incident is necessary to constitute persecution. Events that would not be deemed persecution
when taken on an individual basis might well cross the line to persecution when viewed in the
aggregate. See id. at 287.
An asylum-seeker, in attempting to establish that he is a refugee, can satisfy the
persecution requirement in one of two alternate ways. The first method is by demonstrating that
he was subject to past persecution. Such a demonstration, if successful, raises a (rebuttable)
presumption that he has a well-founded fear of future persecution. 8 C.F.R. § 208.13(b)(1); see
Mikhailevitch v. I.N.S., 146 F.3d 384, 389 (6th Cir. 1998). If the asylum-seeker did not suffer
persecution in the past, he can still qualify for asylum by demonstrating that he “has a fear of
persecution in his or her country” on account of protected grounds, that “[t]here is a reasonable
possibility of suffering such persecution if he  were to return,” and that he “is unable or
unwilling to return to . . . that country because of such fear.”
8 C.F.R. § 208.13(b)(2)(i).
Further, in order to demonstrate a well-founded fear of future prosecution, the asylum seeker’s
fear must be both “subjectively genuine and objectively reasonable.” Mikhailevitch, 146 F.3d at
Nifadev sought, by the first method, to establish that he was a refugee by detailing
incidents of what he believed to be past persecution. He testified that his Russian ethnicity made
him a target of ill-will in post-Soviet Uzbekistan, that he was harassed by security officials after
travelling and at traffic stops. He testified that he lost his job at the behest of the nationalsecurity agency and that, once fired, the airport authorities refused to surrender his work
documentation, thus prohibiting subsequent legitimate employment. Last, he testified about two
incidents of real and threatened violence, the first when a national-security agent drew a pistol
and pointed it in his face and the second when he was detained for an alleged traffic violation
and had a bag placed over his head, briefly obstructing his breathing. The government did not
attack Nifadev’s testimony and the IJ found him credible. None of the facts are in dispute.
This case turns on the IJ’s finding that Nifadev “did not establish he suffered past
persecution on account of his race, nationality, or religion.” The IJ justified her decision by
saying that, while evidence supports Nifadev’s claim that he lost his job and suffered incidents of
non-violent harassment because of his Russian ethnicity, he was still able to support himself and
his family. She further found that the police stops, including the one in which a bag was placed
over his head, were not based on a protected ground. In the end, the IJ found that “[e]ven viewed
collectively, these incidents did not rise to the level of persecution as they were very brief
detentions with no harm inflicted. The court finds they do not cross the line from harassment to
persecution.” The BIA affirmed the IJ’s reasoning: “We find, for the reasons set forth in the
Immigration Judge’s decision, that the respondent failed to meet his burden of proving that he
suffered past persecution or has a well-founded fear of future persecution . . . .”
Since the IJ found all of Nifadev’s testimony and evidence credible, she must have
concluded that the evidence submitted was not sufficient to demonstrate past persecution as a
matter of law—a decision subject to de novo review. This is not as clear-cut as it might seem.
There is a great breadth of mistreatment that has been deemed persecution and a great breadth
that has been found mere harassment. It is worth repeating that, since the IJ found Nifadev’s
testimony credible, on review we take all of Nifadev’s representations as true. See Gilaj v.
Gonzales, 408 F.3d 275, 285–86 (6th Cir. 2005).
The IJ’s determinations notwithstanding, the incident in the mobile lab in which Nifadev
was handcuffed and had a bag placed over his head certainly appears to meet the definition of
persecution: “the infliction of harm or suffering by the government, or persons a government is
unwilling or unable to control, to overcome a characteristic of the victim.” Pilica, 388 F.3d at
950. All of the encounters Nifadev had with the national-security agency, from losing his job to
having a gun pointed at him to being briefly suffocated, stand together as “more than a few
isolated incidents of verbal harassment or intimidation, unaccompanied by any physical
punishment, infliction of harm, or significant deprivation of liberty.” Ouda, 324 F.3d at 452
(internal quotation marks omitted).
The IJ stated that the encounters did not cross the line from harassment to persecution.
But fundamentally, the line between the two is clear: “Persecution entails punishment or the
infliction of suffering or harm, but harassment or discrimination without more does not rise to
the level or persecution.” Ali v. Ashcroft, 366 F.3d 407, 410 (6th Cir. 2004) (internal quotation
marks omitted). The threat to Nafadev’s life embodied in the security agents’ declaration that
they could do anything they wanted, his suffocation with a plastic bag demonstrating that his
murder could be accomplished easily, and the deprivation of Nifadev’s ability to defend himself
by handcuffing, seem to constitute “infliction of suffering or harm.”
Moreover, there was a critical error in the IJ’s reasoning that bears particular
consideration. The IJ bolstered her finding by stating that Nifadev was subject to the 20-second
suffocation for reasons other than protected grounds. This is almost certainly incorrect. Nifadev
testified that, once the police removed the bag from his head one of them said, “Russian Ivan,”1
do you understand that we can do anything we want toward you here?” Even under substantialevidence review, we find that the IJ misinterpreted Nifadev’s testimony. Perhaps the IJ was
Nifadev’s first name is Mikhail, not Ivan.
correct that the traffic stop was not based on a protected ground, but the subsequent interrogation
and mistreatment in the mobile lab was. The ethnic slur and threat to Nifadev’s life were both
because of his Russian ethnicity.
Thus, Nifadev was subjected to credible threats to his life and subjected to a period of
suffocation at the hands of the police when handcuffed and helpless in a police vehicle on
account of a protected ground. This treatment bears a striking resemblance to torture, one of the
grounds explicitly stated by this court to be a potential basis by which an asylum-seeker can
demonstrate past persecution. 8 C.F.R. § 1208.18(a)(1) (defining torture as “any act by which
severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted” in order to punish,
intimidate, coerce, gain information or if it is done “based on discrimination of any kind, when
. . . inflicted by . . . a public official”); Haider, 595 F.3d at 286–87 (“[T]he types of actions that
might cross the line from harassment to persecution include: detention, arrest, interrogation,
prosecution, imprisonment, illegal searches, confiscation of property, surveillance, beatings, or
torture.”). Under a strict reading, Nifadev was abused by police in their official capacity by
means of mental suffering inflicted by threatened suffocation. Even if Nifadev’s treatment is not
severe enough to constitute torture, it very likely rises to the level of persecution.
Because the IJ appears to have erred in her determination that Nifadev did not suffer past
persecution and because the IJ clearly misinterpreted Nifadev’s credible testimony regarding the
ethnic animus of the Uzbekistan security officials, we find that Nifadev has made out a credible
case of being a refugee under the definitions of 8 U.S.C. § 1158(b)(1)(A).
For the reasons above, we GRANT Nifadev’s petition for review, VACATE the BIA’s
decision, and REMAND with the following instructions: (1) The BIA should determine whether
the conduct of the Uzbek officials to which Nifadev credibly testified amounts to persecution.
(2) Should the BIA find the Uzbek officials’ conduct to constitute persecution, the BIA should
determine whether Nifadev’s circumstances warrant a favorable exercise of the Attorney
General’s discretion to grant his application for asylum. (3) The BIA should also reconsider its
determinations regarding Nifadev’s application for withholding of removal and protection under
CAT in light of this opinion.
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