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Gutierrez v. Lynch

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

August 24, 2016

Eber Salgado Gutierrez, Petitioner,
Loretta E. Lynch, Attorney General of the United States, Respondent.

          Argued August 9, 2016

         Petition for Review of an Order of the Board of Immigration Appeals. No. A205-154-421

          Before Bauer, Posner, and Sykes, Circuit Judges.

          Sykes, Circuit Judge.

         Eber Salgado Gutierrez, a 40-year-old citizen of Mexico, was ordered removed from the United States for being unlawfully present in the country and for having been convicted of a drug crime. He petitions for review of an order of the Board of Immigration Appeals upholding the immigration judge's denial of withholding of removal (based on social-group membership) and relief under the Convention Against Torture. We have jurisdiction to review only two of his arguments: (1) his claim that the agency improperly rejected his proposed social group, and (2) his claim that the agency misapplied the legal standard under the CAT. Because these arguments are without merit, we dismiss in part and deny in part Salgado's petition for review.

         I. Background

         Salgado unlawfully entered the United States in 1996 and lived in this country continuously for the next 20 years. In 2001 he met his current girlfriend, Mariela Rico Cuervas, also a Mexican citizen without lawful status in the United States. They have two children, a daughter born in 2001 and a son born in 2003-both U.S. citizens.

         In 2005 Salgado was convicted in Wisconsin of possessing cocaine. See Wis. Stat. § 961.41(3g)(c). The Department of Homeland Security got wind of the drug conviction eight years later, in mid-2013, when Salgado was arrested for driving under the influence. The agency detained him in early 2014 and issued a Notice to Appear charging him with removability for having been convicted of a con-trolled-substance offense, 8 U.S.C. § 1182(a)(2)(A)(i)(II), and for being present in the United States unlawfully, id. § 1182(a)(6)(A)(i). Salgado admitted through his attorney that he was removable on both grounds and sought no relief from removal; the IJ ordered him removed to Mexico, but the Board of Immigration Appeals later remanded the case so that the immigration court could address Salgado's claim that his lawyer had provided ineffective assistance by neglecting to seek relief from removal. On remand the IJ concluded that Salgado had been prejudiced by his first lawyer's ineffective assistance and permitted him to apply for relief.

         Salgado applied for both statutory withholding of removal, see id. § 1231(b)(3)(A), and withholding under the Convention Against Torture, see 8 C.F.R. §§ 1208.16(c), 1208.18.[1] He argued that he has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of his membership in two social groups: (1) "Mexican nationals whose family members have suffered persecution at the hands of the Zetas and other drug cartels in Veracruz" and (2) "Mexican nationals who have lived in the U.S. for many years and who, upon being removed to Mexico, are perceived as having money." (Salgado also sought withholding of removal based on political opinion but has abandoned that argument.)

         Salgado and his girlfriend testified at the removal hearing about why he feared returning to Mexico, and the IJ found them largely credible. They provided the following account: Before moving to the United States, Salgado lived with his parents in Tres Valles, a town in the Mexican state of Veracruz, and worked at the butcher shops owned by his father. The family closed the shops sometime after Salgado went to the United States because the Zetas, a Mexican drug cartel, extorted them and pressured all local businesses to sell drugs on the gang's behalf.

         Salgado testified that three of his family members had been harmed by Mexican drug traffickers. In 1995, shortly before Salgado left Mexico, his cousin was killed by a local drug gang, purportedly for having witnessed a murder by members of the gang. Ten years later, when Salgado's half-brother was visiting Tres Valles from the United States, Zetas tried to kidnap him while he was walking down the street. The kidnapping was foiled when the brother resisted and witnesses called for help, but the Zetas beat him up before fleeing. Finally, one of Salgado's nephews was kidnapped in Tres Valles in 2014 and found alive three days later, having been left for dead. Salgado attributed the kidnapping to the Zetas.

         Salgado said that he feared he would be kidnapped or even killed by the Zetas if he returned to Mexico. He testified that the Zetas identify people who have returned from the United States and target them for kidnapping. Three of Salgado's siblings still live in Tres Valles, and he maintained that they, too, would be endangered if he returned. Salgado also has two sisters who live elsewhere in Mexico -one in Mexico City, the other in the state of Oaxaca-but he stated that the Zetas would target him even if he relocated to those areas. Salgado insisted that he would not be safe anywhere in Mexico and that the Mexican authorities could not protect him from the Zetas.

         In support of his claims for relief, Salgado also submitted documentary evidence, including (among other things) letters from family members and friends stating that he would be targeted by drug gangs in Mexico, especially if he returned to Tres Valles; newspaper articles describing the criminal activities of the Zetas (including murders of journalists and other citizens) in Tres Valles and the rest of Veracruz; and country-conditions reports chronicling violence by drug cartels across Mexico.

         In a comprehensive 18-page opinion, the IJ concluded that Salgado was ineligible for both statutory withholding of removal and withholding under the CAT. The IJ began by finding that Salgado had not established past persecution. The IJ then determined that Salgado's proposed social group -"Mexican nationals who have lived for a long time in the United States and will be perceived as wealthy individuals by the Zetas upon return to Mexico"-was not cognizable because "wealth alone is not an immutable characteristic." Even if this social group were cognizable, the IJ continued, Salgado did not have a well-founded fear of persecution because the country-conditions documents "do not show that drug cartels or organized criminal groups in Mexico have specifically targeted Mexican citizens returning from the United States because of their perceived wealth."

         Likewise, the IJ stated, there was no evidence that the Zetas would target Salgado because of his family ties. The IJ acknowledged that there was pervasive violence by drug cartels in Mexico and that Salgado had a subjective fear that the Zetas would harm him. But the "general civil strife" in Mexico did not constitute persecution, the IJ reasoned, and moreover, ...

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