What a "Particular Social Group" Means for Asylum Purposes

The membership in a “particular social group” (“PSG”) asylum category is the most difficult of the five grounds to define, and the subject of many legal arguments. Learn more here.

By , Associate Professor, Creighton University School of Law

In order to apply for asylum, you must meet the definition of a "refugee." That is, you must have suffered persecution (or fear future persecution) inflicted on you on at least one of the following five grounds: your race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

The membership in a "particular social group" ("PSG") category is the most difficult of the five grounds to define, and is the subject of many legal arguments. Here, we'll discuss:

  • the legal definition of a particular social group
  • examples of particular social groups that have been recognized in the past
  • why PSG recognition can vary by country, and
  • the importance of also claiming another ground for asylum, if possible.

Defining Particular Social Group Under U.S. Immigration Law

Different U.S. Asylum Officers and Immigration Judges view the "PSG" concept in various ways. However, a PSG is generally understood as an identifiable group of people viewed by their government or the persecutor as a threat. It is also often described as a group sharing a common characteristic that is so fundamental to their individual identities that the members cannot—or should not be expected to—change it. (See, for example, Matter of Acosta, 19 I&N Dec. 211, 233-34 (B.I.A. 1985).)

Another way that the U.S. government commonly expresses this definition is that the group is:

  • made up of members who share a common immutable characteristic
  • socially distinct within the society in question (though group affiliation doesn't need to be readily visible, and could even be hidden by the members), and
  • has been defined with particularity (in other words, has distinct boundaries, so that decision-makers can figure out who would be a member or not).

Broadly speaking, a PSG is normally composed of persons who have a similar background, social status, lineage, experiences, or habits. The shared, immutable characteristic might be something the person was born with (such as gender, color, clan, ancestry, or family ties), or it might be a shared experience in their past (such as former property ownership, widowhood, or former gang or military conscription).

PSG affiliation doesn't need to be voluntary, as in a group that they actually, officially joined. Members don't even have to know each other. Then again, membership can be voluntary, as with women who refuse to comply with gender-specific laws on what they must wear.

There's no size minimum or limit on a PSG, but extremely narrow or broad definitions are unlikely to succeed. After all, most societies don't actively persecute groups of just a few people; and it's rare (but not unheard of) to see persecution of the majority of a country's citizens.

Examples of Particular Social Groups

PSGs that have frequently been recognized by the U.S. government include tribes or ethnic groups, social classes (such as educated elites), family members of dissidents, occupational groups, LGBTI persons or those perceived as such (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex), child soldiers, members or former members of the police or military (who might be targeted for assassination), and, in some cases, disabled persons and women.

What if your home government mistakenly views you as a member of a PSG and persecuted you because of that? You could still claim asylum on that basis, even if you are not actually a member of a PSG.

In relatively recent years, the U.S. government began to recognize persecution based on gender as a PSG. This allowed women to gain asylum based on having undergone (or fearing that they'll be forced to undergo) cultural practices such as female genital cutting/mutilation, Islamic dress code requirements, forced marriage, or domestic violence.

(In 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a Trump appointee, took steps to undermine the possibility of asylum based on domestic violence in a case called Matter of A-B.; however, the Biden Administration later overruled this decision.)

A group is more likely to be considered a PSG if it is perceived as a unique collection of people in its own society, and if its unique defining trait is not merely subjective. For example, while members of "poor" or "rich" classes might be easily perceived as such, that trait cannot be objectively defined. Therefore, it would be hard to prove the existence of a PSG based solely on that trait.

On the flip side, a group of women who are rape victims of militants in their home country is objectively definable, but such women are not easily identified as such by others in their home country. Hence, they are also unlikely to form a PSG. On the other hand, owning one's own business in a socialist country that forbids private commerce is both easily observable to others, and objectively defined. Therefore, that might constitute a PSG.

Identities of Particular Social Groups Can Vary by Country

Note that what is a PSG in one country, for purposes of asylum, might not be a PSG in another country. For example, married women who are abused by their partners in El Salvador, cannot leave those relationships, and cannot obtain help from the police have been found to form a PSG, whereas married women in Canada who are in abusive relationships are not a PSG. That is because different legal protections and different cultural expectations allow for very different treatment of such women in those two countries.

Because the PSG category is poorly defined, you might be able to create new arguments of why you should be considered a member of a new PSG. If that is what you'll need to do, definitely seek the help of an attorney.

Can You Also Claim Asylum Based on One of the Other Five Grounds?

Because it can be hard to predict whether your claim will fit within the definition of a PSG, if possible, you should argue that you should also be granted asylum based on your persecution on account of another protected ground. This might be, for example, based on your religion or political opinion. You aren't limited to choosing just one. Basing your asylum application on your persecution on account of more than one ground, if warranted, can significantly increase your chances of winning asylum.

Getting Legal Help

An experienced immigration attorney can be hugely helpful in analyzing and preparing an asylum case. The attorney can, for example, gather supporting documents from independent sources, link you up with medical professionals (to confirm whether you experienced something like rape, torture, or genital mutilation), evaluate the strength of your asylum claim and basis for persecution, draft affidavits, prepare witnesses, prepare legal arguments, and accompany you to in-person interviews or court hearings.

If you're low-income, also see How to Get a Lawyer to Represent You Pro Bono (Free) in Immigration Court Removal Proceedings.

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