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December 9, 2000

U.S. may soon open doors to battered wives

New justice proposal

Pauline Jelinek
The Associated Press
National Post

WASHINGTON - Advocates for women and immigration rights are cheering a U.S. Justice Department proposal that would make it easier for the world's battered wives to get asylum in the United States.

"This is definitely encouraging ... it's a step forward," said Bernadette Cisse, adviser on women's issues at the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

"It is a long-overdue and a great thing," said immigration lawyer Michael Maggio.

The advocates said the proposed rule change, which involves "social groups" facing persecution, is groundbreaking because it would recognize that women sometimes face persecution because of their gender.

The change also would bring the United States more in line with the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, which already have recognized asylum cases filed by victims of domestic violence.

The Justice Department and Immigration and Naturalization Service proposal allows victims of domestic violence to be considered members of a "social group," one of five categories in U.S. immigration law.

Under U.S. law, asylum applicants have to show they can not go home because they face persecution on the basis of religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

While the first four have been considered "pretty clear cut," said INS spokesman Bill Strassberger, the handling of people who belong to special groups has been evolving in recent years, incorporating growing numbers of special circumstances.

Mr. Strassberger noted that claims by homosexuals were first recognized under the category in 1994, those by members of clans -- such as Somalis -- in 1994. Claims by women facing genital mutilation were recognized in 1996.

The government and advocacy groups have been looking for a way to clarify policy on social groups since the highly publicized 1999 case in which an immigration board denied asylum to Rodi Alvarado Pena, a Guatemalan women long brutalized by her husband, a former soldier.

That case was stayed and is under review by Janet Reno, the U.S. Attorney General, who believes the government needs to lay down better guidance on gender-based cases, said a statement from the Justice Department.

Ms. Cisse said UN refugee officials have long said women sometimes experience persecution in different ways from men -- for instance, more in their homes than in public.

With the proposed change, women applying for asylum would still have to show that they are victims of domestic violence, that they would likely continue to be victims or that that their country is unable or unwilling to protect them, Mr. Strassberger said.

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