For the first time, domestic violence victims who cross into the U.S. illegally may be able to qualify for asylum in the United States — potentially opening a legal path to citizenship for thousands of undocumented women.
The ruling, by the Justice Department's Board of Immigration Appeals, comes in the case of a Guatemalan woman who crossed into the U.S. illegally in 2005 fleeing her husband. The unidentified immigrant argued she called local police in Guatemala to report the abuse but was repeatedly told that the authorities would not interfere in her marriage. She argued that the abuse and the lack of police response should make her eligible for asylum.
In the first-of-its kind ruling, the appeals board agreed, at least in part. In the nine-page decision, it concluded that the unidentified immigrant met at least one criterion for asylum: as a married Guatemalan woman who couldn't leave her relationship, she was part of a particular social group.
The Homeland Security Department, which prosecutes deportation cases, did not contest the immigrant's argument. The appeals board sent the case back to an immigration judge for a final ruling.
In recognizing domestic violence victims as a potentially protected class of people seeking refuge in the United States, the decision establishes a broad and firm foothold for an untold number of women whose asylum claims have been routinely denied in the past.
But proving all the elements of any asylum case can still be difficult. Those seeking protection have to prove they will be persecuted in their home country because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. They also have to prove that their home government is either involved in the persecution or unable or unwilling to stop it.
It wasn't immediately clear how the ruling will impact thousands of pending asylum cases and thousands more that could be filed now that the government has recognized domestic violence victims as a potential class of persecuted people.
More than 62,000 people traveling as families, most of them women and young children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, have been apprehended at the Mexican border since Oct. 1. They all face deportation.
Even though ultimately winning asylum in the U.S. is a long shot for most immigrants, 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 countr and legally work while their case is decided. Because of a backlog of about 375,000 pending deportation cases, that process can take several years.
Tuesday's ruling does not automatically mean the woman and her children will be granted asylum, though her lawyer told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he believes she will ultimately win.
"We are going to win, (but) it's going to be a long time," said Roy Petty, an Arkansas immigration lawyer who represented her in the case. He said the court backlog could delay a final decision for years longer.
Guatemala ranked third in the world for the murder of women, according to statistics cited by the Center for Strategic and International Studies last year. In a 2012 report on violence against women, the Pan American Health Organization said that from 2008 to 2009 more than one-quarter of Guatemalan women said they had at some point suffered physical or sexual violence from a spouse or partner.
The ruling technically affects only Guatemalan women, but Petty and other immigration advocates said the decision could open the door to asylum claims for women from other countries.
"The decision for this Guatemalan woman has clear implications for other Central American women, that's for sure," said Benjamin Casper, director of Center for New Americans at the University of Minnesota Law School. "This is the first binding decision ... to recognize this social group of women."
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.