Safe Haven in Peril?

Granted asylum 13 years ago, a domestic violence victim returns to court.

By Sara Campos Jul 02, 2009

Desperate after a decade of brutal violence at the hands of her husband, Rody Alvarado fled her native Guatemala in 1995 and applied for asylum in the United States. An immigration judge granted her an asylum claim and Alvarado expected she would soon be able to petition the government to bring her children into the U.S. But three years later, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) reversed that decision and ordered her deportation.

Alvarado’s case has since been swept up in an ideological maelstrom. For the last 10 years, the attorney general’s office passed the case back and forth between its office and the BIA. Numerous domestic violence cases have suffered a similar fate as judges held the cases pending a decision in Alvarado’s case. Karen Musalo, Alvarado’s attorney, believes the case has taken so long because many within the government fear that if asylum is expanded to include domestic violence cases, there will be thousands of applicants. “They also view domestic violence asylum as a cultural matter that the U.S. should not be handling,” Musalo said. Domestic violence is recognized as a basis for refugee protection by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as by countries including Canada, Argentina and Australia.

Last fall, after no activity in the case for many years, then-Attorney General Mukasey returned the case to the BIA, and as this issue of ColorLines went into production, a preliminary hearing had been set. The judge will be considering evidence that had not been required when Alvarado’s case was first decided.

Alvardo has testified in court that at the age of 16, she married Francisco Osorio, a former soldier, who sadistically brutalized her. He used her head to break windows and mirrors. Once, when her menstrual period was 15 days late, he dislocated her jaw. When she was three-months pregnant and refused to have an abortion, he kicked her in the spine. He brutally raped her, pistol-whipped her and almost maimed her limbs. He constantly told her that she belonged to him and that he could do whatever he wanted to her because she was his woman. The police and judges did nothing, since Guatemalan authorities don’t interfere with domestic matters. Alvarado saw no solution other than to escape to the U.S. At the time of her departure, no shelter for domestic violence victims existed in Guatemala.

Despite finding that Alvarado’s story was credible and that she had been persecuted, the BIA reversed the case in 1999. The decision dealt a devastating blow to women’s refugee claims and resulted in numerous denials of serious human rights cases involving gang rape, trafficking and “honor killing,” as well as domestic violence. Thousands of refugee and women’s advocates urged Janet Reno to reverse the case when she was attorney general. She issued proposed regulations on gender asylum and annulled the BIA decision, with instructions that Alvarado’s case should be decided once the regulations were finalized. However, the Bush administration never finalized those rules, and Alvarado remains in limbo.

“Ms. Alvarado has remained patient and brave throughout this protracted battle,” Musalo said. “With many cases pending because of hers, she understands that she is part of a bigger issue. However, there is no denying that the case has taken a tremendous toll. She left when her children were small. They’re teenagers now; she lost all that time with them.” 

Sara Campos is a writer and lawyer in Northern California.