Asylum System May Open Door for Femicide Survivors

A narrow window to humanitarian relief could be opening in the for survivors of femicide in the U.S. asylum system.

By Michelle Chen Jul 21, 2010

"Femicide" isn’t a word you hear too often. The public silence surrounding that term is due to the same reason why it happens in the first place: women around the world who are systematically brutalized and killed are rendered invisible on two levels–first by their murderers, and then by a society that looks the other way. But a narrow window to humanitarian relief could be opening in the for survivors of femicide in the U.S. asylum system.

Ms. Magazine reports that a recent court ruling involving a Guatemalan immigrant could set a precedent for aiding those who are escaping, or want to avoid deportation to, communities where it is dangerous to be a woman.

The case of Lesly Yajayra Perdomo represents the silent plight of thousands of women in impoverished and conflict-ridden regions, where gender-based violence takes place regularly and with impunity. (Beware cultural determinism: it happens right here at home, too.)

After migrating to the U.S. as a teen, Perdomo faced deportation in 2003 and argued that her life would be endangered if she were sent back to Guatemala, where a wave of several thousand murders of women over the past decade have gone largely unpunished (though the government has taken measures to address this, on paper). The judge agreed that she had a valid asylum claim, and she will now argue her case afresh in court.

Carrie Baker explains:

The Immigration and Nationality Act allows asylum for people persecuted because of religion, political belief, race, nationality or particular social group. Gender is not an explicit basis for asylum under U.S. law. However, advocates have argued that women who are subject to gender-based violence should be eligible for asylum as a "particular social group." Courts have granted asylum to women fleeing domestic violence, female genital cutting, honor killing, forced marriage and widow abuse. At the end of last year, an immigration judge granted asylum to Rody Alvarado, a Guatemalan woman who had a history of extreme abuse by her husband and who feared he would kill her if she returned to Guatemala. The Perdomo decision follows and expands this line of reasoning.

So U.S. asylum law, although gender itself does not automatically confer victim status, forms of persecution that are tied to the social position of women might.

Right wingers claim the asylum system is easy for women to game, but empirical evidence reveals that, in fact, the court system that is often rigged against immigrants, resulting in arbitrary and endless legal limbo.

The ruling could dovetail with other gender-conscious legal remedies for undocumented immigrant women under the Violence Against Women Act and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. But again, we see piecemeal reforms building a lattice of protections for certain groups, though nothing could substitute for a broad human-rights based framework across the entire immigration system.

In the absence of a comprehensive overhaul that would establish a more uniform standard of justice, decisions like Perdomo are the best hope women have for enfranchisement in a world that treats them, on many levels, as second-class citizens.

Image: flickr via