Friday, April 28, 2006


By William Fisher

In the unlikely event that our senators and congresspersons come together to pass an immigration bill sometime in this century, it is virtually certain to overlook a heartbreakingly simple humanitarian issue: battered women seeking asylum.

This is far from a new issue. It has been kicking around for years - and it has been kicked around for years.

Kicked from the old Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS) within the wildly dysfunctional Department of Homeland Security. And to compound this bureaucratic nightmare, BCIS now shares jurisdiction with the Justice Department (DOJ) for preparation of new guidelines that would cover this category of asylum seeker.

Rewind to 1995, when the INS actually produced some acceptable guidelines concerning women's issues. There was only one problem: the INS failed to follow its own guidelines.

That little lapse resulted in the bizarre case of Rodi Alvarado, a Guatemalan woman who was subjected to extreme domestic violence by her husband, who broke her jaw, kicked her when she was pregnant, wielded a machete and threatened that if she tried to escape he would leave her wheelchair bound for the rest of her life.

In 1995, Mrs. Alvarado did escape -- to the United States, which granted her asylum. But this decision was immediately appealed by the INS and overturned by the Justice Department's Board of Immigration Appeals in 1999.

The Board claimed she was not seeking asylum due to membership in a social group, political opinion, race, religion or nationality. They claimed she needed to show a nexus between the beatings and her political opinion or membership in a social group.

She was allowed to remain in the U.S. pending an appeal of the appeal. And she's still here, living in California and working in a convent.

Near the end of the Clinton Administration, Attorney General Janet Reno proposed regulations to expand the ability of victims of domestic violence (and other gender-related human rights abuses like trafficking, sexual slavery and honor killing) to seek asylum in the United States.

But those regulations were never implemented. And when John Ashcroft became attorney general, he failed to recommend that the regulations be adopted. Instead, he re-certified Ms. Alvarado's case to himself in order to review it, since the Attorney General has authority to make decisions on any immigration case.

But Ashcroft left office in 2004 without making a decision. He said the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security should agree on a set of guidelines covering women's issues, including domestic violence.

Since then, both agencies continue to claim they are working on these guidelines. Despite the fact that proposed regulations were drawn up back in December 2000, nothing has been finalized in more than five years.

According to Rodi Alvarado's lawyer, Karen Musalo of the University of California's Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, "The complication, as we understand it, is that now both DHS and DOJ have jurisdiction over the regulations because of the reorganization of the INS, and there has not been consensus between the two agencies on how to proceed."

One has to wonder about how hard these two taxpayer-funded behemoths are working to solve the problem.

Meantime, Mrs. Alvarado - and others in her predicament - remains in legal limbo.

The current immigration debate has rekindled interest in cases like that of Mrs. Alvarado. But a coalition of refugee and human rights groups is taking a new approach: it is urging congress to examine the "root causes" of population movements.

Responding to the claim by some congresspersons that easing asylum restrictions would "open the floodgates" to still more undocumented aliens, a report by one of the members of the coalition, The Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California at Hastings, argues that "the solution is not to deny protection, but to look at the root causes of refugee flows, and to craft foreign policy responses to address them."

And it is taking its case not to immigration agencies but to a few key members of congress who, they hope, will help them to take their message to the State Department.

The reason they want State involved is that there is credible evidence that domestic violence is part of a larger and even more deadly phenomenon: Femicide. And the State Department is a major funder of programs to strengthen the judiciary and other rule of law institutions in Guatemala and elsewhere around the world.

For example, in Mrs. Alvarado's country, Guatemala, the coalition says "there is violence and murder of women with total impunity - with more than 2,200 women
killed since 2100, and perhaps 10 or 11 prosecutions and convictions. Local media has largely ignored the issue.

Femicide is also a problem elsewhere in Latin America. Earlier this year, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala sent a delegation of activists to the
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington to focus attention on Femicide.

Incomplete murder rates presented to the Commission cite 373 known murders of women in Bolivia from 2003 to 2004, 143 in Peru during 2003, and more than 2,000 in Guatemala. In Colombia, a woman is reportedly killed every six days by her partner or ex-partner. Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua City, Mexico, two cities where the Femicide trend was first widely noticed, have suffered the murder of more than 500 women from multiple causes since 1993, according to press and other sources. Dozens more remain missing.

Globally, the problem is no less severe. In many parts of South Asia and the Middle East, for example, so-called "honor killings" usually go unpunished.

Leading the Femicide campaign are four non-governmental organizations -- the Washington Office on Latin America, Amnesty International USA, the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, and the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission.

Three members of congress - California Democrats Barbara Lee, Tom Lantos, and Hilda Solis - are drafting a letter to the State Department, which they hope will be signed by most of their colleagues, regardless of party. The letter will urge State to provide funding and personnel to examine the Femicide issue as well as the murder of human rights activists.

It would be tough to think of two issues less controversial than Femicide and asylum for battered women. They are not immigration issues - they are issues of compassion, justice and basic fairness. Congressmen like James Sensenbrenner and Tom Tancredo ought to be able to sign on in a heartbeat.

But, given the incredible rancor generated by the immigration issue, I'm not holding my breath.