Change for Domestic Violence Victims May Herald New Stance on Immigration

A change in policy spearheaded by the Obama administration toward victims of domestic violence seeking asylum in the U.S. has anti-domestic violence and immigrant advocates cautiously celebrating. It’s one of a series of actions by the administration that suggest a new approach to immigration laws and has advocates anxious to see what follows

Domestic disturbance, by Nathalie Renaud/Flickr - Click to visit

Domestic disturbance, by Nathalie Renaud/Flickr - Click to visit

The latest sign surfaced last week when the Board of Immigration Appeals ordered an immigration judge to further review the case of a battered Mexican woman who filed a petition for asylum in California, arguing that she moved to the U.S. to escape severe violence by her common-law husband in Guanajuato, Mexico. The New York Times’ Julia Preston described the case in detail here.

Lawyers and women’s rights advocates have argued that physical and sexual abuse victims should be counted as one of the groups protected by American asylum law, which holds that people seeking the status of refugee must demonstrate a fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or “membership in a particular social group.”

“The truth is that this social group is consistent with the intent and legal principles of asylum law and the protection of persecuted individuals, and we should welcome the administration’s position,” Bitta Mostofi, a staff attorney for Safe Horizon’s Immigration Law Project wrote in an e-mail. Safe Horizon is the largest provider of support services for victims of domestic violence in the country.

Safe Horizon currently only has a couple of cases directly affected by this policy. “One of the cases was adjourned on this exact issue pending further support for the theory of our client’s social group as a battered woman. The administration’s position creates an opportunity to better advocate for this woman who has been subjected to beatings, sexual abuse and severe threats,” Mostofi said.

Cecilia Gaston, executive director of Violence Intervention Programs, a New York-based Latino group that serves approximately 500 victims of domestic violence in non-residential and residential settings, welcomed the new policy even though most of her clients will not be affected by it.

“From a legal perspective, the window is very small. It’s very complicated to get asylum, because the level of proof seems to be very high, but at least this change recognizes that domestic violence is an issue that deserves attention. This is visibility that will benefit all of us. We are very happy with this change,” said Gaston, noting the appointment of Lynn Rosenthal as the new White House Advisor on Violence Against Women as another sign of change.

Other recent changes in immigration policy include a shift that moves the focus of immigration enforcement from employees to employers and the reevaluation of all 287 (g) agreements, which give local law enforcement the power to enforce federal immigration laws.

“We do believe that the Obama administration is trying a more balanced approach to some of the most pressing issues that our broken immigration system is facing, but in the end we need a comprehensive immigration reform to be able to address those issues in an effective, fair and humane way,” said Maribel Hastings, senior advisor to America’s Voice, a national campaign for comprehensive immigration reform.

Allan Wernick, director of the Citizenship and Naturalization Project of the City of New York (CUNY), and author of an immigration column in the New York Daily News, took a cautious approach to the changes affecting domestic violence victims. In a brief phone conversation Wernick said, “all I have to say is that it is very important to let people know that it is not going to be easy to get asylum on the basis of domestic violence.”

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