Harm rising to the level of persecution

Well this is huge.

In a ruling that advocates described as a historic victory for Central American refugees, a federal immigration board said Tuesday that a married woman fleeing domestic violence in Guatemala, where authorities could not or would not protect her, can seek political asylum in the United States.

A woman who has been brutally beaten by her husband, who tried to prevent her from leaving, has suffered “harm rising to the level of persecution,” said the Board of Immigration Appeals, which oversees the Justice Department‘s immigration courts.

Observing that Guatemala “has a culture of machismo and family violence,” the board said a married woman there who flees an abusive relationship can be considered a member of a “particular social group” – a crucial qualification for asylum eligibility.


Monday’s case, from an unidentified Midwestern state, involved a mother and three children who entered the United States in 2005. The immigration board said the woman’s husband beat her weekly, burned her with paint thinner and raped her. Police told her they would not interfere in a marital relationship, and her husband then threatened to kill her if she contacted authorities again, the board said.

After she and her children applied for asylum, an immigration judge ruled she had been the victim of criminal acts, not persecution. But the board said a woman’s inability to leave a violent marriage, or get help from her government, can be evidence of persecution that is grounds for asylum.

The board ordered the immigration judge to review the case and determine whether the woman would face renewed persecution if deported to Guatemala. If so, she and her children would be eligible for asylum.

Well unless her husband has gone to join the choir invisible, it seems a pretty safe bet she would be.

Another win for Emma Lazarus.


  1. Katherine Woo says

    This ruling is sentimentality over reason. Can all 3 billion women who face inadequate police responses to domestic violence and misogyny move here? Where does the ‘social justice’ mind draw a line?

    When Emma Lazarus wrote her doggrel, there was no welfare system, no regulation of labor markets, no income tax, etc. It was a dog-eat-dog society like South Korea until the turn of the millennium. Worse, a then on-going conquest of the indigenous peoples and systemic racism was what underpinned the perpetual opportunity that seemingly allowed America to absorb white immigration in an uncontrolled fashion. Chinese and Koreans were certainly not welcome when ‘progressives’ of that era were smugly putting that poem on the Statue of Liberty. Hell, women could not even vote and family planning was a crime. Is that what Lazarus’ thought was just bully?

    Mass immigration by abusing the asylum process is just going to create more social and political tensions. We have plenty of problems at home without trying to solve Central America’s social ills. And spare me the ‘we caused it’ paternalistic bullshit. U.S. meddling and intervention is actually a relatively neutral factor relative to societal outcomes as South Korea and Taiwan both show.

  2. quixote says

    That decision feels like the first time US authorities have admitted that gendered persecution exists. That it’s not just something between a man and his property. Wow. As you say: Huge.

    (And Katherine @1? Go soak your head, assuming you have one even though you’re not using it. If enlightened laws are pointless because too many people don’t have them, we should all just become the Caliphate. That makes as much sense as your point.)

  3. Katherine Woo says

    Your complete lack of a meaningful rebuttal is noted and resort to childish hyperbole about “the Caliphate” is noted.

  4. Maureen Brian says

    quixote @ 2,

    It’s a difficult area of law but this is not the first time such a case has been favourably considered in the US. I’m not managing to track them down at the moment but I’m pretty certain there are cases going back to the 1990s.

    As is the case in the UK, there seems to be a difficulty in persuading judges at the lowest level that there are places in the world where the local police are so plugged in to their town’s or the drug cartel’s power structure that they really, really have lost track of what their laws and constitution say and cannot be relied upon to enforce the law, one where criminal acts are pursued very selectively or not at all.

    Rotherham, South Yorkshire, springs to mind and in Ferguson MO, has Darren Wilson been arrested or interviewed under caution yet? No, not even with a Constitution which says accountability is to “We the people …” So why is a possibly even worse system in Guatemala not credible and not the background to a valid asylum claim?

  5. John Morales says

    Katherine Woo @1:

    This ruling is sentimentality over reason. Can all 3 billion women who face inadequate police responses to domestic violence and misogyny move here? Where does the ‘social justice’ mind draw a line?


    First of all, all jurisprudence is essentially sentimentality: codified morality. Rules and principles for social interaction.

    Second, obviously not — though you claiming 3 billion women are possibly in that position is remarkable.

    Third, the issue is a ruling presumably based on extant law, which is not normally termed “the ‘social justice’ mind”.

    You hardly need rebutting; not only do you imagine that it’s sentimentality to apply the law as it stands, you further imagine it’s reasonable to believe this ruling opens the door to the mass migration from a pool of three billion women.

    Me, I think it’s your sentiment (not the nicest sentiment, at that) which has overridden your reason, given the absurdity of the worries you propose.

  6. DaveL says

    On the contrary, Katherine, the ruling is a triumph of reason. When a person is the target of systematic violence in their home country, and the authorities of that country systematically deny that person protection and redress from such violence, the law states that such a person may be considered for asylum. This woman was repeatedly and systematically targeted for violence. She was systematically denied protection and redress by the authorities of her home country. She can be expected to face the same or worse violence if she were forced to return. Therefore she may be considered for asylum.

    The ruling simply declines to carve out a special exception to this direct logic in the case of domestic violence. If that means we need to re-examine how many potential asylum applicants are out there in the world and what our criteria should be for admitting them, so be it. But surely we can come up with a better criterion than “being beaten, burned with paint thinner, and raped doesn’t count if it’s done by a woman’s husband.”

  7. lorn says

    If this was a singular, or rare situation, I would wholeheartedly back establishing this status as protected but this sort of thing is endemic to that society and at some point we need to address the source of the problem instead of just the symptoms.

    At some point it is necessary to reform the Guatemalan society.

    This is the central problem of immigration. People flee broken and dysfunctional societies but in fleeing they relieve much of the pressure and urgency for those societies to reform themselves.

    In not demanding change we become a codependent. We get to ride our high horse of moral superiority and heap condemnation upon others but we never get around to addressing the problem. I’ve seen this in action very directly. Where people sympathetic to refugees are wiling to harshly criticize the individual abuser but are completely unwilling to criticize the social norms that allow such behavior because it is part of a “native and national culture”.

    Taking in the most hard pressed refugees as a stopgap measure is noble enough humanitarian undertaking to be justified on its own but delaying social progress by allowing other nations to use the US to hide its own dysfunction from itself, and avoid making necessary difficult social and economic changes, is not noble. It is the area under the curve of small numbers, sometimes not so small numbers, over long periods of time where the greatest suffering resides. For every woman that makes it to the US there are scores more still in Guatemala who are just as sorely pressed.

    Address the problem in Guatemala and you are relieving the suffering of vast numbers of women and children.

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