A Door Opens for Asylum Seekers

by Alika Mathur, Media Intern


In July 2009, the Obama administration opened the way for foreign women who are victims of domestic violence to receive asylum in the United States. This marked a major turning point in the United States’ policy on political asylum. Until very recently, gender aspects of the policy had received only cursory public attention, usually in the aftermath of high-profile cases.


The administration laid out its position in April, in an immigration appeals court filing in the case of a woman from Mexico – identified only by her initials, L.R. – who requested asylum, saying she feared being murdered by her common-law husband there. The Department of Homeland Security moved to allow her to receive asylum. In their brief, the DHS stated that abused women seeking asylum should be able to show that they are treated as subordinates or property by their abusers, in a country where domestic abuse is widely tolerated and no institutions provide protection.


By the definition under the Geneva Convention, American law has limited asylum to those who are persecuted due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or “membership in a particular social group.” Historically, the legal question in such cases has always been whether women who suffer domestic abuse are in fact part of such a “particular social group.” Reflecting on recent cases, the Department of Homeland Security has pointed to some specific ways that battered women would meet this definition. The department “continues to view domestic violence as a possible basis for asylum,” a department spokesperson, Matthew Chandler said.


Immigration lawyers said the administration had taken a major step toward clarifying a murky area of asylum law and defining the legal grounds on which abused women in foreign countries can seek asylum in the United States. Prior to this ruling, battered women did not meet the standards of asylum under American law. Victims of gender-based violence often are not persecuted for their race, religion, nationality or political opinion, so in order to win asylum, they need to be recognized as members of a social group. Following this filing, the Department of Homeland Security has concluded that it is possible for applicants who have experienced domestic violence to qualify for asylum.


In addition to meeting other strict conditions for asylum – such as showing that they are treated as subordinates by their abuser, and that domestic abuse is tolerated in their country – women must show that they could not find protection from institutions within their home country. The Obama Administration also injected a caveat – asserting that the new ruling does not mean that every victim of domestic violence would be eligible for asylum.


The new policy marks the end of one Guatemalan woman’s 14-year struggle for protection in the United States. In 1996, Rody Alvarado was granted asylum by an immigration court, based on her account of enduring years of abuse from her husband. Three years later, an immigration appeals court overturned Ms. Alvarado’s asylum, saying that, under American law, she was not part of any persecuted group. After 14 years of controversy, indecision and inaction, the Department of Homeland Security told a court in San Francisco in late October that it considered Ms. Alvarado eligible for asylum. This decision cleared the way for a judge to grant her, at last, the right to stay.

In an interview with the New York Times, Ms. Alvarado said she hoped the resolution of her case will mean that other women in similar situations would receive quicker, favorable decisions from immigration courts.


In a November 10, 2009 editorial, the Washington Post said: “The administration’s move should serve as an important symbolic victory for the human rights of battered women everywhere, a message that brutality at the hands of a spouse and administered with the acquiescence of the state is never acceptable.”


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