[Stop-traffic] News/US: Change planned in asylum rules on domestic abuse

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Subject: [Stop-traffic] News/US: Change planned in asylum rules on domestic abuse
From: Melanie Orhant (morhant@igc.org)
Date: Wed Dec 27 2000 - 11:40:59 EST

Change planned in asylum rules on domestic abuse
By Patrick J. Mcdonnell
Los Angeles Times, December 7, 2000, pg 3 Metro Desk

The U.S. Justice Department is expected to propose groundbreaking new rules
today easing the way for victims of domestic violence to gain asylum in the
United States.

The move would represent a major victory for women's groups, immigrant
advocates and others who have waged a national campaign to make it easier
for women to win claims alleging persecution based on gender.

"It makes refugee law in the United States consistent with the
international understanding that women's rights are human rights and
women's rights are universal," said Deborah Anker, a Harvard Law School
expert on asylum.

Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Britain have already moved to provide
greater protection to battered women filing gender-based claims for asylum,
experts say.

A critic denounced the change as the latest example of expanding the
definition of asylum beyond a traditional reading based strictly on
government repression. In recent years, asylum seekers have filed claims
alleging persecution based on gender prejudice, sexual orientation and clan

"The intent of the political asylum law was to protect people from
political persecution," said Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American
Immigration Reform, which contends that broadened definitions draw
fraudulent asylum seekers. "Now it's protecting people from a whole variety
of misfortunes that might befall them."

However, officials in the Immigration and Naturalization Service--the
Justice Department branch that evaluates asylum cases--say the new rules
are fair and will not open any floodgates. Applications from victims of
domestic violence are not expected to number more than several hundred
annually, according to officials and attorneys.

The new rule, in essence, allows domestic violence victims to be considered
members of a "social group," an important designation in immigration law.

Under U.S. statutes, asylum applicants must show that they cannot return to
their homelands because of persecution or fear of persecution arising from
at least one of five categories--race, religion, nationality, political
opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most gender claims
arise under the last category.

Homosexuals and women with gender-related claims won asylum claims during
the 1990s as persecuted members of specific social groups. However, federal
officials stress that all applicants must still meet the high standard of
proving they face persecution if sent back to their homelands.

"We have simply not seen a dramatic increase in the number of applications
from persons following decisions by the Department of Justice to recognize
a new particular social group," said Kelly Ryan, an INS attorney who helped
draft the new language.

The proposed rules are scheduled to be published today in the Federal
Register, the official chronicle of regulatory business. Interested parties
will have 45 days to comment before a final rule is considered.

The new rules attempt to eliminate considerable confusion and clarify
conflicting interpretations that have emerged in recent years as claims of
gender-related persecution have become more common. The INS in 1995 issued
guidelines to assist officers evaluating such matters.

Before that milestone move, advocates say, women fleeing persecution based
on gender had little chance of success; their problems were largely viewed
as personal or family matters.

The following year, a decision by the Board of Immigration Appeals--an
administrative body that reviews immigration court rulings--bolstered the
case for gender-based claims. The board approved an asylum petition by a
young woman who said she could not go home because she faced female genital
mutilation, a ritual still practiced in some parts of Africa.

However, last year a sharply divided board issued a decision that many
regarded as a retreat: It reversed an immigration judge's grant of asylum
to a Guatemalan woman, Rodi Alvarado, who, records showed, had been
brutalized for more than 10 years by her husband, a former soldier. She
finally fled and now lives in San Francisco.

The board did not dispute that Alvarado had suffered terribly. But the
panel rejected the judge's ruling that the persecution was based on social
group membership. Alvarado is appealing in federal court.

The new Justice Department rules, once made final, experts said, would have
the effect of overturning the board ruling in the case of Alvarado and
easing the barrier for others alleging persecution based on domestic abuse.

Melanie Orhant
Stop-Traffic Moderator

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