After a protracted 14-year legal battle, asylum was granted in 2009 to a Guatemalan woman who fled to the United States to escape severe domestic abuse. The grant of asylum to Rody Alvarado has opened doors for other women, despite the absence of legal norms and regulations in this area of asylum law.
CGRS director Karen Musalo coordinated and co-authored an amicus brief for the BIA in 1996, and in 1999, Ms. Musalo became sole counsel in the case.
Rody Alvarado Peña is a Guatemalan woman who suffered a decade of brutal violence at the hands of her husband, a former soldier. She faced unimaginable horrors. Despite her repeated attempts to obtain government protection, the police and the courts refused to intervene. When she ran away, her husband found her and beat her unconscious. Desperate to save her life, Ms. Alvarado finally fled to the United States, making the heart-wrenching decision to leave her two children behind with relatives.
The trajectory of Ms. Alvarado’s case from the time she first applied for asylum in 1995 until she was finally granted asylum in 2009, illustrates the level of controversy surrounding such claims. Her case became the battleground on the issue of whether domestic violence can be a basis for asylum, which is still an unsettled area of the law. Many claims involving domestic violence are pending at the Board of Immigration Appeals, and the lack of precedent has led to inconsistent outcomes, but the outcome in Rody’s case has been persuasive for other adjudicators in some instances. You can read more about the case in this article. CGRS also has an advisory regarding domestic violence asylum claims that can be requested by filling out this form.
By way of summary, here is a short timeline relevant to the case:
- 1985: Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) decides Matter of Acosta, which requires fundamental and immutable characteristics to form a cognizable PSG, recognizes that sex is an immutable characteristic.
- 1996: BIA decides Kasinga, which applied Acosta criteria to recognize a social group defined by gender, ethnicity, not having been subjected to female genital cutting, and opposition to the practice.
- 1999: BIA decides Matter of R-A-, reversing a grant of asylum in the case of a Guatemalan woman who had suffered years of domestic violence. BIA rules there had been no showing of cognizable PSG, or political opinion (PO), and no nexus.
- 2000: Department of Justice (DOJ) issues proposed regulations regarding asylum/withholding, including guidance on gender claims.
- 2001: Attorney General (AG) Janet Reno vacates Matter of R-A-, with order of remand to the BIA to decide the case when the DOJ regulations are finalized.
- 2004: After AG John Ashcroft certifies Matter of R-A- to himself again, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) files a brief urging asylum for Rody Alvarado, explaining, among other things, how domestic violence related PSG meets the Acosta test.
- 2005: AG John Ashcroft remands the case to BIA, with order to decide when asylum regulations are finalized.
- 2008: AG Michael Mukasey certifies R-A- to himself, with order to not wait for the finalization of regulations, but to decide the case pursuant to BIA, and other relevant precedent. The Board remandes the case back to the IJ.
- 2009: In April, DHS files a brief in the case of Mexican woman, L-R-, explaining how domestic violence related PSG can meet the BIA’s new requirements of “social visibility” and “particularity” for the “particular social group” ground of asylum.
- 2009: In December, an immigration judge in San Francisco grants asylum to Rody Alvarado.
- 2010: In July, an immigration judge in San Francisco grants asylum to L-R-.
CGRS Reports and Articles
Blaine Bookey, Domestic Violence as a Basis for Asylum: An Analysis of 206 Case Outcomes in the United States From 1994 to 2012, 24 Hastings Women’s L. J. 107 (2013).
Karen Musalo, Matter of R-A-: An Analysis of the Decision and its Implications, 76 Interpreter Releases 1177 (August 9, 1999) Reprint permission provided by Federal Publications, a West Group Company
Lisa Frydman, “Recent Developments in Domestic-Violence-Based Asylum Claims,” LexisNexis Emerging Issues Analysis 4075, August 2009
Karen Musalo et al., Crimes Without Punishment: Violence Against Women in Guatemala, 21 Hastings Women’s L.J. 161 (2010)
Karen Musalo, A Short History of Gender Asylum in the United States: Resistance and Ambivalence May Very Slowly Be Inching Towards Recognition of Women’s Claims, Refugee Survey Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 2 (2010).
CGRS Legal Documents
Decisions in the Case
The BIA's decision in Matter of R- A-, Int. Dec. 3403 (BIA 1999), vacated (AG 2001)
- 2003: Letter to Attorney General Ashcroft from 49 members of the House, initiated by Rep. Gregory Meeks.
- 2003: Amnesty International USA's Refugee Action NSA.
- March 2002: CGRS, Amnesty International USA and the Family Violence Prevention Fund together call for INS to drop its appeal of Rody Alvarado's 1996 grant of asylum.
- March 2000: Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) quizzed INS Commissioner Ziglar about INS progress on the social group regulations during his appearance before the House Appropriations Committee.
- September/October 2000: Members of both the House and Senate sent letters to the Attorney General in September, again urging her to take immediate action to reverse Matter of R-A-. In response, she met with members of Congress to discuss their concerns.
- February 2000: Senators Leahy, Brownback, Jeffords, Kerry, Kennedy, Feingold and Schumer sent a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno asking her to reverse the BIA's decision in an honor killing case, referring to Matter of R-A- and expressing concern that "the BIA lacks sufficient understanding of current standards in both United States asylum law and policy and international human rights law."
- December 1999: Five Senators sent the Attorney General a letter expressing their concern about Matter of R- A-. Also, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) made a statement on Ms. Alvarado's case.
- August 1999: Representatives Luis Gutierrez, Chris Smith, Connie Morella, Carolyn Maloney, & Rosa DeLauro, sent a letter to all House members, asking their support in asking the Attorney General to reverse Matter of R- A-. Dozens of members of the House of Representatives responded by signing a letter to the Attorney General.
- July 1999: Congressional Hispanic Caucus, letter to Attorney General Reno supporting Ms. Alvarado's asylum claim and requesting certification of Matter of R- A-.
- May 1999: Amnesty International's original Refugee Action on the Alvarado case.
- Karen Musalo, “Toward Full Recognition of Domestic Violence as a Basis for Asylum,” American Constitution Society Blog, August 20, 2010
- Lisa Frydman, “After Rody Alvarado’s Victory, Obstacles Remain for Domestic Violence Victims Seeking Asylum” National Immigration Forum, ImmPolitic Blog, February 2, 2010
- Juan Manuel Castillo, “EE.UU da asilo politico a guatemalteca,” El Periódico Guatemala, December 19, 2009
- Lisa Skeen, “Rody Alvarado Peña and Guatemala's Lingering War” North American Congress of Latin America, December 17, 2009
- “Por fin resuelto el caso de asilo de Rody Alvarado, guatemalteca víctima de abuso,” El Vocero Hispano, December 2009
- Paul Elias, “Domestic violence victim granted asylum in US,” Associated Press, December 18, 2009
- “Asylum Victory” Miami Herald, November 11, 2009
- “Fleeing Abuse” Washington Post, November 10, 2009
- “Rody Alvarado’s Odyssey” New York Times, November 9, 2009
- "EEUU daría estatuto de refugiada a guatemalteca abusada por su marido,” Univisión, October 30, 2009
- “Posible asilo a mujer abusada,” Univisión, October 30, 2009
- Anna Grau, “EE.UU. concederá asilo por primera vez a una víctima de violencia doméstica,” ABC.es, October 30, 2009
- Edwidge Danticat, "A Crime to Dream", The Nation, May 2, 2005
- Esta Soler and Karen Musalo, "Time to End an Asylum Limbo for Abused Women", The Washington Post, July 18, 2009
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