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Battered Women Now Eligible For Immigration Asylum

On December 18, 2009, an immigration judge in San Francisco ruled that Rody Alvarado, a native of Guatemala, is eligible for asylum in the United States because of abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband.

In the U.S., in order to be eligible for asylum, an applicant must show that they are being persecuted, or have a reasonable fear of persecution in their homeland on the basis of race, religion, political beliefs, nationality, or membership in a particular social group.

In the vast majority of cases, asylum-seekers allege that the government in their home country is perpetrating this persecution. It is also not terribly uncommon for such persecution to occur at the hands of organized groups, such as criminal gangs or paramilitary organizations, especially in countries that are experiencing social unrest or civil war.

However, it is extremely rare for persecution carried out by individuals, not on behalf of any larger ideology or cause, to serve as a basis for an asylum claim. Of course, there is nothing in the law above requiring that the alleged persecution be carried out by a large number of people – persecution is persecution, whether it’s at the hands of one person or a thousand people.

What makes this case more complicated than many other asylum cases is the requirement that the alleged persecution be based on race, religion, political beliefs, nationality, or membership in a particular social group. It’s not clear from the article linked above how Mrs. Alvarado met this requirement. It’s highly doubtful that her husband’s persecution could be found to be motivated by race, religion, nationality, or political views. That leaves “membership in a particular social group” as the only alternative.

This is problematic. What particular social group did Mrs. Alvarado belong to that motivated the persecution she suffered at the hands of her husband. Is it women (i.e., did the court find that her husband would have abused whatever woman he was married to?) or is it the class of women who happen to be married to Mrs. Alvarado’s husband, which presumably only has one member (Mrs. Alvarado).

Make no mistake, I’m personally glad that Mrs. Alvarado was able to come here and escape her abusive husband. Few details of her abuse are publicly available, but from what is available, it’s clear her husband did some truly horrific things to her. From an academic perspective, however, I’m interested in what this means for the future of asylum law.

Some anti-immigration groups complain that this ruling will make it easier for more people to come to this country (while, as usual, taking it as self-evident that this is a bad thing).

However, most immigration attorneys and other experts agree that this decision will have little impact on the overall numbers of asylum-seekers coming to the U.S.

Recent LegalMatch case data seem to bear this out. First of all, Asylum cases are relatively uncommon. Secondly, most of them claim political opinion or nationality as the reason for their persecution.

As the article cited above mentions, it is often very difficult for victims of domestic abuse to leave the relationship, let alone their home country.

On balance, however, it seems like a good thing that the victims of abuse in other countries have one more avenue of escape.

Ken LaMance

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