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Is domestic violence cause for US to grant asylum?

Emerging federal policy allows asylum-seekers to request US sanctuary on grounds they are fleeing domestic violence. Humane, or an immigration floodgate?

By Amy Lieberman/ contributor / February 1, 2011

Angie, who still fears retribution from her ex-boyfriend, has been living in Holly Springs, N.C., and was granted asylum in December. The Honduras native fled an abusive relationship with sons Gerlin (age 8) and Jhaniel (6).

Alfredo Sosa/Staff

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Leesport, Pa.

Angie didn't know what would happen when she and her family turned themselves in to US border agents after their guide retreated to Mexico and they wandered for three days in the Texas wilderness. She just knew they couldn't go without food and water much longer.

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Even after she and two of her sons arrived here, at the Berks Family Shelter Care Facility, the only US immigration detention center that holds families, it took Angie several weeks to realize she could apply for asylum, given her history of domestic violence – and months more to believe that she had a chance of winning it.

Traditionally, the United States grants asylum to people persecuted in their home countries because of their race, religion, nationality, or political beliefs. In the past year, however, women seeking asylum on grounds of domestic violence are starting to win their cases with greater regularity.

"We're seeing a real increase in grant rates for domestic-violence asylum cases. There are a number of judges who feel like they are able to grant these cases that they weren't able to grant before," says Lisa Frydman, senior attorney at the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies in Berkeley, Calif., which tracks gender-based asylum cases. Last year, the center helped a record 650 lawyers handling such cases.

Each year, about 70,000 foreigners – some held in immigration detention centers and some not – request asylum in America, and about 20,000 receive it. Only a few have gained sanctuary on domestic-violence grounds, but a policy shift signaled by the Obama administration is starting to change that. Supporters herald the move as an important assertion of human rights – and critics decry it as opening an irresponsibly wide immigration floodgate.

The groundbreaking case: 'L.R.'

Two events have spurred such asylum applications. First, in April 2009 the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued a brief, in response to a federal case, that stipulated what domestic-violence victims must prove to gain asylum.

Second, the asylum applicant in that case, known as L.R., won asylum last August. While asylum seekers who can be classified as members of "a particular social group" have long prevailed, L.R. was the first to win asylum on the grounds of her membership in the groups of "Mexican women in domestic relationships they are unable to leave" and "Mexican women who are viewed as property by virtue of their positions within a domestic relationship."

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