The Center for Gender & Refugee Studies has been instrumental in helping women gain refuge from domestic violence.
This summer, in cases that made national headlines, two women whose legal teams were supported by CGRS won asylum after suffering years of abuse and lack of protection from authorities in their home countries.
Aruna Vallabhaneri lived first with abuse from her husband in Hyderabad, India, and then with the threat of deportation when she fled to the U.S. She initially filed for asylum and was denied in 1998 and ordered deported. But after hearing testimony of the abuse in her arranged marriage, she was granted asylum on the basis of domestic violence in June 2012.
"I'm very happy for Aruna that after all these years of uncertainty, she can finally feel the relief of being granted asylum," said Professor Karen Musalo, the director for the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies at the UC Hastings College of Law in San Francisco.
"But the decision shouldn't have been so difficult," Musalo added. "If one takes the refugee definition and applies it in an unbiased way, these cases clearly fit."
Under current U.S. law, individuals should be granted asylum if they have suffered persecution or have a well-founded fear of persecution for one of five reasons — political opinion, race, religion, nationality or membership in a particular social group. Domestic abuse claims most often fall under the statutory ground of particular social group, the murkiest and most contested category.
Until recently, the Department of Homeland Security, which both adjudicates some asylum claims and prosecutes others, has not supported domestic violence claims, and regulations promised in 2000 have yet to be issued. In April 2009, the department filed a legal brief in a domestic violence case known as L.R., taking the position that women who are victims of domestic violence may qualify for asylum. Despite this recognition, the brief is not binding on immigration judges, and many Homeland Security attorneys have continued to fight domestic violence cases.
Musalo said there would be more victories for such women if the federal government provided clearer, binding guidance. Instead, immigration judges are forced to make case-by-case subjective decisions, Musalo said.
"Some judges just don't see this as an appropriate reason to grant asylum," she said. "And women like Aruna are paying the price for this."
Ms. N.S., a woman from Guatemala, suffered years of physical and sexual abuse by her common-law husband. She filed police reports, but authorities provided no help to her. After a beating and rape that left her hospitalized for three days, she fled to the U.S.
Daniel Sharp, an attorney with the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles, argued that the Guatemalan government was unable or unwilling to protect her. But in her first bid for asylum, the Dept. of Homeland Security argued she was not eligible.
She appealed to the Board of Immigration Appeals, which has never stated explicitly that victims of domestic violence are eligible for asylum. And so her case, like those of many other women, sat in limbo.
In September 2011, however, Homeland Security agreed Ms. N.S. did qualify for asylum. Sharp and Homeland Security filed a motion asking the Board to send the case to the immigration judge and grant asylum. On July 19, 2012 the immigration judge heard the case and granted asylum.
“Under proper interpretation of the law, women like Ms. N.S. qualify for asylum. However, judges have been resistant, and it often takes DHS acknowledgement, as happened in this case, for women to be granted the asylum they are entitled to,” Musalo said.
Of the 619 domestic violence asylum cases for which the center has provided counsel between 1994 and 2011, 422 women were granted asylum, and 192 were denied. CGRS recently submitted an article to the International Journal of Refugee Law examining 206 domestic violence asylum decisions over the last 17 years, arguing that jurisprudential or regulatory guidance is desperately needed in this area.
July 22, 2012 Chicago Tribune "After Years, Woman Gets Political Asylum After Citing Domestic Violence"