Simply providing a list of affected groups like race, religion, national origin, or political opinion does not provide a complete accounting of all the affected refugees that the United States wishes to help, so there is another ground in U.S. asylum law that is protected, the particular social group. It is vaguely defined, on purpose, so that other groups of people that have been wrongly persecuted have an opportunity to show that they have been wrongly persecuted in a way that fits under the spirit of U.S. asylum law. This is an especially complicated area of the law, which makes working with an experienced asylum attorney that much more valuable.
A particular social group is defined as a group of people that have a particular, common characteristic which may be innate, such as sex, color, kinship, or some past shared experience. This “common characteristic” must be one that people in the group either cannot change or should not be able to change because it is fundamental to their identities or consciences. The size of the social group is irrelevant; it can be very big or very small as long as there is social visibility.
The key between what does and does not qualify as a social group is that group’s social visibility. If the group is seen by that culture to exist, then it is more likely that it will be considered a social group for asylum purposes.
One group of people that has been considered a social group in many asylum cases has been the gay community. You can see more specific details about this issue in our “LGBT Asylum” section. Generally, if there is a gay or lesbian group in a country that is sufficiently visible in society, someone persecuted for their sexual identity can qualify for asylum. Furthermore, in some countries HIV/AIDS victims has been considered a particular social group.
Another group that has taken advantage of the social group definition is victims of domestic violence. In some cultures, domestic violence is widespread and allowed by government, and many women have no way to escape abuse from a husband or boyfriend. Some of these victims have used their status as a domestic abuse victim to gain asylum.
Some groups that have been considered social groups for asylum purposes are: ethnic groups, clans, people with mental illness, former gang members, and witnesses. One group that has had particular trouble as qualifying as a social group is young men who are targeted for gang membership. There are many cases currently in the court system challenging this finding, so hopefully this will change.
Note that just because someone in one country qualified as a social group does not mean that other people in other countries will qualify for the same social group for U.S. asylum purposes. Consulting with an experienced asylum lawyer can help you to determine if you might fit into one a particular social group and qualify for asylum.