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 because of at least one of the following 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.
Different Asylum Officers and Immigration Judges understand this term in various ways. Here is an overview of how most of them define the PSG ground. For a more general discussion of all the factors that affect whether you will be eligible for asylum, see How to Prepare an Affirmative Asylum Application and Asylum or Refugee Status: Who Is Eligible?
A PSG is generally understood as an identifiable group of people viewed by government 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.
The shared characteristic might be something you were born with (such as gender, color, or family ties), or it may be a shared experience (such as former property ownership, or former gang or military conscription). Broadly speaking, a PSG is composed of persons who have a similar background, social status, lineage, experiences, or habits.
In the past, 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, homosexuals, child soldiers, members or former members of the police or military (who may be targeted for assassination), and, in some cases, women. It might suffice if your home government mistakenly views you as a member of a PSG and persecuted you because of that, even if you are not actually a member of a PSG.
In recent years, the U.S.government began to recognize persecution based on gender as a PSG. This allowed some 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. However, in 2018 Attorney General Jeff Sessions took steps to undermine the possibility of asylum based on domestic violence in a case called Matter of AB, so this area of law is likely to see further change in the future.
A group is more likely to be considered a PSG if it is perceived as a unique group 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 is both easily observable to others, and objectively defined. Therefore, that might constitute a PSG.
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 in the past (until Attorney General Sessions got involved in interpreting this area of law), 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 some new arguments of why you should be considered a member of a new PSG. If that is the case, seek help of an attorney.
The lack of clear legal standards in this area also gives Asylum Officers and Immigration Judges great latitude in deciding who can satisfy the definition of a refugee based on membership in a PSG. Some groups, such as women victims and homosexuals, have recently been more widely recognized as PSGs, particularly where the asylum applicants suffered a great degree of abuse.
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, such as religion or political opinion. Basing your asylum application on your persecution on account of more than one ground, if warranted, can only increase your chances of winning asylum.