To qualify for asylum in the US, immigrants have to prove not only that they have a credible fear of persecution in their home countries but also that they belong to a particular social group and are being persecuted because they belong to that group. Not all victims of violence qualify. That burden of proof, as Emily Bazelon points out, leaves many asylum seekers in the lurch, including victims of domestic abuse and gang violence:
In 1996, the Board of Immigration Appeals, which functions as the country’s central immigration court (with review by the federal appeals courts) “broke new ground” on gender-related claims by “granting asylum to a Togolese woman who fled her country to escape female genital cutting,” as Blaine Bookey, a staff attorney for the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, explains in this 2012 article. The idea was that the risk of cutting both depended on gender and was widespread in some African countries.
Domestic violence, however, didn’t easily get the same kind of recognition as a basis for persecution worthy of asylum. In 1999, the Board of Immigration Appeals rejected the asylum claim of Rody Alvarado Peña, a Guatemalan woman whose husband, she testified, treated her “as something that belonged to him and he could do anything he wanted.” Alvarado said she spent 10 years suffering frequent abuse, including the dislocation of her jawbone and a kick in the spine when she was pregnant. She was dragged by the hair, pistol-whipped, and raped. When she tried to run away, the Guatemalan police and the courts did not protect her. The BIA accepted that Alvarado had been abused but ruled that she was not part of a recognized social group—“Guatemalan women subjugated by their husbands” didn’t make the list—and that she had not shown she was abused because she was a Guatemalan woman living under male domination.