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The Eleventh Circuit grants Venezuelan journalist's appeal and request for political asylum

On March 2, in an unpublished opinion, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a decision of the Board of Immigration Appeals and granted Duannie G. Bello Vallenilla's application for asylum based on political persecution in Venezuela.

Ms. Vallenilla testified that she had worked as a journalist for the website La Patilla since 2010. She also claimed to be a member of Voluntad Popular, a group that opposes the Chavista and Maduro regimes that have systemically destroyed Venezuela's economy and left its society starving and beset with violence.

She testified that she had been persecuted by the Tupamaros, a paramilitary group which is supported by the Venezuelan government and carries out violence against political opposition on the government's behalf. In 2014, she repeatedly took pictures of the National Guard attacking protesters at demonstrations and of the Tupamaros throwing tear gas. Upon being observed taking photographs at various political events, she was repeatedly kicked, had her camera stolen, and was herself teargassed. At one point three men broke into her home, abused her mother, and demanded Vallenilla's photographs at gunpoint. A few days later two men on motorcycles shot bullets through her windshield, causing her to lose control of her car. She subsequently fled to the United States.

The immigration judge ("IJ") hearing her asylum case asserted that she had failed to present credible evidence of past persecution or a well-founded fear of future persecution based on her political opinion and that the incidents she described did not rise to the level of persecution.

The IJ found it relevant that her mother (apparently in an affidavit or letter) did not refer to the home invaders as "Tupamaros" but simply called them "three armed men." The IJ therefore decided Vallenilla had not proven they were associated with the government. The IJ also determined that she had not proven she was a member of Voluntad Popular because she had not presented a membership card. Finally, the IJ determined that she had not testified credibly because she did not state until cross-examination that the man that shot holes in her car while she was driving it were Tupamaros.

The BIA adopted and affirmed the IJ's decision.

On Appeal, the 11th Circuit found that the record contained no support for the BIA and IJ's decision. The court pointed out, quite obviously, that attempted murder is persecution. Furthermore, the court determined that no reasonable fact finder could have concluded that her testimony contained material and plausible inconsistencies. In particular, regardless of how they referred to the perpetrators, both Vallenilla and her mother testified that the men who came to their home had come to destroy evidence that Vallenilla had gathered at demonstrations. The court additionally determined that she had provided a substantial amount of corroborative evidence and that the BIA had made no finding that her Voluntad Popular card was reasonably available to her. Furthermore, she had provided documentation of her political activities in the form of social media posts and photographs. The court therefore found that the BIA and IJ's holdings that her application was not sufficiently corroborated was not supported by substantial evidence. The court reversed the BIA's decision and granted the application for asylum.

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