An unmarried Albanian woman who feared she would be kidnapped and forced into prostitution if deported to her home country is eligible for asylum in the US, a federal appeals court ruled on Friday.
The decision, which does not mean the woman will necessarily be granted asylum, is important nevertheless because it embraces an expansive reading of the potential grounds that asylum applicants may claim to receive the protection of the US government.
It is also important because it is in direct opposition to two other federal appeals courts that rejected similar claims for asylum by young Albanian women.
That split within the appeals courts could set the stage for review at the US Supreme Court.
The central issue in the case was whether the Albanian woman, Johanna Cece, could credibly claim to be a member of a persecuted “social group” that would make her eligible for asylum.
In Ms. Cece’s case, the appeals court identified the protected group as young women living alone in Albania who are targeted for prostitution by sex traffickers.
Cece told US officials that in 2001 her parents left Albania and that she was forced to live alone. It is unusual for unmarried women to live alone in Albania outside a protective family group, according to the court record.
Cece said she soon attracted the attention of one of the leaders of a criminal gang known to kidnap Albanian women and force them into prostitution. She said that after being threatened several times, she moved to another city and eventually made her way to Italy. There she obtained a false Italian passport, traveled to the US, and applied for asylum.
The decision by the full Seventh US Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago reverses an earlier ruling by the Board of Immigration Appeals. The BIA had rejected Cece’s asylum request, saying she was not a member of a recognized social group eligible for protection.
The BIA also said she could reduce her risk of falling prey to sex traffickers by moving to a different part of Albania.
To be eligible for asylum in the US, an applicant must show he or she has a well-founded fear of persecution in his or her home country on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
Cece’s claim was based on her membership in a social group comprised of young Albanian women at risk of being forced into prostitution.
Writing for the majority, Judge Ilana Rovner said the broad social group category endorsed by the Seventh Circuit was not unlike other groups of women that have been granted asylum in the US, such as women in tribes that practice female genital mutilation, Jordanian women who face “honor killings” because of social and religious norms in that country, and Christian women in Iran who are forced to adhere to the Islamic female dress code.
In a dissent, Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook said the appeals court’s decision expands asylum law to embrace “everyone threatened by criminals, rebels, or anyone else a nation’s government does not control.”
“This makes eligible for asylum everyone who faces a substantial risk of harm in his native land, no matter the reason,” Chief Judge Easterbrook wrote.
Easterbrook said US asylum laws are designed to protect individuals from persecution by other governments – not mere criminals.
“Crime may be rampant in Albania, but it is common in the United States too. People are forced into prostitution in Chicago,” he said.
“Must Canada grant asylum to young women who fear prostitution in the United States, or who dread the risk of violence in or near public-housing projects? If there were reason to think the Albanian government in cahoots with the traffickers, Cece would have a better case; but when the record shows no more than ineffective law enforcement, there’s no basis to infer persecution,” Easterbrook said.
Judge Rovner defended the majority decision against criticisms in two dissents.
“Those who fear that the slope leading to asylum has been made too slick by broad categories need not worry,” she wrote.
She said that while the category may include many people, only a few with legitimate claims would be able to make the necessary linkage to prove that the persecution was being carried out because of membership in the designated group.
“In order to be entitled to asylum, Cece must be able to demonstrate a particular link between her mistreatment and her membership in the stated social group,” Rovner said.
The Seventh Circuit decision sends the case back to the lower courts to consider whether to grant Cece asylum.
“Although the court decides today that Cece is eligible for asylum, it does not hold that she is entitled to it; that question, at least, remains open to decision on remand,” Easterbrook said.
The case is Johanna Cece v. Eric Holder (11-1989).