Hope For Immigrant Women Who Are Domestic Violence Victims

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What would you do if you lived with a housemate who beat or sexually assaulted you? Would you call the police? Throw this person out of your house? Change the locks? Get a restraining order? Testify against the criminal in court?

But what if you weren’t able to get the help you needed to be safe? How would you feel if the police ignored your requests for help, the culprit prevented you from accessing money and assets, refused to move out and blocked you from leaving? Imagine how you would feel if your family and friends would not get involved to help you, and there were no social services or shelters available to provide you with what you needed to escape this horrible and dangerous home situation.

This hypothetical situation is reality for an untold number of women who live in cultures that do nothing or little to protect them from domestic violence. Between 1999 and 2005 it is believed that more than 6,000 women and girls were murdered in Mexico. That is an average of 1,000 every year, or three murders a day. Put most graphically, a girl or a woman was murdered every eight hours, the overwhelming majority of the deaths the result of violence in the household.

They are the kind of statistics you would expect of a country at war. In the U.S., we offer asylum to qualified individuals who face danger due to war in the streets. Why should we fail to offer the same protection to women who face danger due to war in their own homes?

Today, we have good news to offer women around the world who are suffering at the hands of their spouses. This week, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) ruled that a woman who suffered from domestic abuse in her native country can seek asylum in the United States.

The BIA made the decision on Tuesday in favor of Aminta Cifuentes, a Guatemalan mother of three who came to the U.S. on December 25, 2005. An immigration judge initially denied her request for asylum, but she made an appeal and presented evidence that her home country “has a culture of machismo and family violence.”

Cifuentes married in Guatemala at the age of 17. After she gave birth to their first child, her husband beat her weekly.

“On one occasion, the respondent’s husband broke her nose,” reads the decision. “Another time, he threw paint thinner on her, which burned her breast. He raped her.”

Cifuentes alerted the police, who told her that they wouldn’t get involved in a domestic dispute. Authorities once came to their home after Cifuentes’ husband hit her head. He wasn’t arrested.

After several attempts of leaving the relationship, Cifuentes and her children left for the U.S. She believes that if she returns, her husband will hurt her.

Before Tuesday’s decision, immigration judges routinely denied asylum to domestic violence victims because U.S. asylum law does not protect people who are persecuted on account of their gender. The law only shields people who are persecuted because they are members of a certain race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or particular social group. Tuesday’s ruling, however, recognized “married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship” as a unique social group—giving the Guatemalan woman standing to make an asylum claim.

Even though this ruling only applies to Guatemalan women, the decision could open the door to asylum claims for women from other countries. Ultimately winning asylum in the U.S. may still be difficult for most immigrants, but just having a pending asylum case in immigration court can be something of a victory for immigrants fearful of being sent home. Those who can convince a federal asylum officer that their case should be heard by a judge are allowed to stay in the country and legally work while their case is decided.

We are pleased that our immigration system may be opening the doors to protect women who so desperately need help. If you or someone you know needs advice regarding this or other immigration issues, please contact us today to schedule your consultation.

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