Guatemalan Women Seek Refuge In U.S. An appeals court is questioning whether a Guatemalan woman can seek asylum in the United States due to high rates of female murders and/or sexual violence in that country, also described as “femicide.” Host Michel Martin discusses the case with Alan Hutchinson, an attorney for the Guatemalan woman whose deportation has been delayed based on the new ruling. And, Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, talks about the impact of the court’s decision.

Guatemalan Women Seek Refuge In U.S.

Guatemalan Women Seek Refuge In U.S.

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An appeals court is questioning whether a Guatemalan woman can seek asylum in the United States due to high rates of female murders and/or sexual violence in that country, also described as “femicide.” Host Michel Martin discusses the case with Alan Hutchinson, an attorney for the Guatemalan woman whose deportation has been delayed based on the new ruling. And, Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, talks about the impact of the court’s decision.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program, we'll begin our series Dealing with Drugs. We're looking ahead to a conversation we'll be having later this week with the head of the office charged with coordinating strategy to fight illegal drug use. That's the so-called drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske. We'll be talking about current trends and challenges in curtailing drug abuse. Some of those may surprise you. Today, we take a look at family center drug treatment.

But first, we want to take another look at another of this country's most emotional and pressing political issues: immigration. Earlier this week, an appeals court ordered immigration judges to consider granting asylum to a Guatemalan woman who said she feared she would be murdered if she went back to Guatemala. Her novel argument was that women in Guatemala were, quote, "murdered at a high rate with impunity."

Lesly Yajayra Perdomo arrived in the United States from Guatemala illegally as a teenager in 1991. She lives in Reno, Nevada, where she works as a Medicaid account executive at a medical facility. Joining me now from Reno is her attorney, Alan Hutchinson. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. ALAN HUTCHINSON (Attorney): Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: First of all, would you just tell us a little bit about Ms. Perdomo? She, as I understand it, she came here as a teenager with her parents, went to high school and so forth. And how did this idea of this particular claim arise? Do you know?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Well, (unintelligible) she came in with her mother. Her mother's - her father was murdered in the marketplace in Guatemala City, and the mother filed a claim for asylum based on the death of her husband. She finally got a hearing before an immigration judge who ruled that was basically a criminal act, because in order to gain asylum just generally based on your political opinion, your race, your religion, or we have this other category called you're a member of a particular social group.

Now, when Lesly reached the age of 21, she had to - she wanted to remain in the United States. She had to file an asylum application of her own. Normally, asylum is granted if you have suffered persecution in your home country. Now, Lesly had not. She just merely fled at the height of the civil war - over 200,000 people were killed, and this is the longest civil war in the history of Latin America - and grew up as an American.

And at that time, what's known as femicides was being publicized, that women were being murdered at a very, very high rate - not only murdered, but raped, mutilated and murdered. And the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, a group at the Hastings College of Law and Gender Studies, had published studies about this. And we claimed that if you don't suffer past persecution, you can claim a well-founded fear of future persecution, which Lesly had, based on the high murder rate.

And this is particularly true for Guatemalans returning from the United States, because they're recognized as Americans and considered rich, and they're at a much higher risk than the other citizens. Nonetheless, there's still murder.

MARTIN: And are they at much higher risk than men? Are they at much higher risk than men?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Oh, much higher. Yes.

MARTIN: Because what you're talking about is civil disorder. That affects both men and women.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Well, civil disorder is not a basis for asylum. The situation in Guatemala was so acute that last year, the government of Guatemala enacted a law against femicide. The problem is in the last five years or so, almost 5,000 women have been murdered, and only three convictions out of 5,000. The police just ignore the problem.

MARTIN: Well, according to Amnesty International, between 2001 and 2006, more than 1,900 - that's about 2,000 Guatemalan women and girls were killed. You're saying that the number was higher than that.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: No, perhaps it varies.

MARTIN: But Amnesty says many of these killings involve sexual violence and an exceptional level of cruelty. And it is fair to point out that other gender-based social groups have been granted asylum in the past. For example, the women who argued that they would be subjected to forced marriage, for example, or genital mutilation.

But the - obviously, the concern here is that being a woman overall is such a broad social group, that this really isn't about this young woman, per se, and her particular circumstances. And what do you say to that?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Well, the Board of Immigration Appeals and their landmark case defining what constitutes membership in a particular social group said it must be a characteristic that cannot be changed, and they mentioned sex as one of them. So, as you mentioned, sex has been used, and gender, in a number of other asylum cases. This, perhaps, is the broadest definition to date.

MARTIN: And do you think that this argument - well, this argument only affects this particular circuit. What's the next step from here?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Well, the court ruled that all the women in Guatemala could be members of a particular social group. They remanded the case to the board of immigration appeals, which is located in the Department of Justice, to make the final determination because the ninth circuit said you misinterpreted your own case, Matter of Acosta, that sex is one of the characteristics.

Now, they analyzed the case very carefully, and it's a very strong opinion and it's a full panel. The three judges agreed. So I think we have a very strong case going forward at the Board of Immigration Appeals.

MARTIN: That was Alan Hutchinson. He's an immigration and naturalization law attorney with a focus on family immigration. He joined us from KUNR in Reno, Nevada. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: You're very welcome.

MARTIN: We have another perspective now from Mark Krikorian. He's the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. He's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome back to you.

Mr. MARK KRIKORIAN (Executive Director, Center for Immigration Services): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Your initial reaction to this decision by the ninth district?

Mr. KRIKORIAN: It's breathtakingly irresponsible, because what we're doing here is potentially expanding asylum to huge populations of people. Because up to now, the people - for instance, women who've been granted asylum for something related to their sex - it's always been something specific to these women - in other words, a woman who was suffering domestic violence at home. Now, frankly, I think that's a very problematic grounds for asylum itself, because it has nothing to do with politics or political opinion or religion. Nonetheless...

MARTIN: Well, it could. It could be a cultural predisposition to treat women in a certain way and to not respect the rights of women relative to men. It could be.

Mr. KRIKORIAN: But it still relates specifically to the person in question. This is the way it's always been. There was a Jordanian woman who got asylum on such grounds - a Guatemalan woman, likewise. What we're talking about here is granting potentially granting asylum to someone simply because she's a woman. And Guatemala has, what, seven million, eight million people. Half of them are women.

And even the facts of that they've described in Guatemala itself really don't seem to buttress this. I mean, if you look at the numbers of women who were killed, we're looking at something like maybe 400 per year over the past five or 10 years. That's obviously 400 too many. But that's a crime issue. It's -and the woman in question here is not individually been targeted. She hasn't fled violence herself.

This is I mean, this opens the door, frankly, to very promiscuous use of asylum. And the problem is that once that happens, you then undermine the public support for asylum at all.

MARTIN: Well, that might be the intent, and the public relations impact of that is certainly one issue. But is that an issue that the court is supposed to take into account?

Mr. KRIKORIAN: No, but the court does have to understand that they need to interpret the law clearly, and I would say narrowly. A particular social group was intended, when it was invented after World War II, to apply to, for instance, Kulaks. Those were the well-off peasants that Stalin wiped out. They had no political or ethnic or religious categories, but they were targeted, nonetheless.

Now it's being used for pretty much all different groups. In other words, it's a catchall category for judicial mischief.

MARTIN: Well, but again I have to ask if that's the court's responsibility. If a reading of the law suggests that this is a woman who belongs to a social group, which is a target of particular persecution in this country. Is that a legitimate thing for the court to consider? I mean what I hear you saying is that the traditional interpretation of the law has to do with that particular individual's particular circumstances. This person holds a particular set of views.

Mr. KRIKORIAN: Right.

MARTIN: Belongs to a political party, has written something, has advocated certain positions which has then put this individual at risk. But it has also been the case that there have been people who have been subjected to certain cultural practices that we don't consider appropriate here, such as genital mutilation that has been grounds for asylum.

I mean the argument that I heard Mr. Hutchinson make is that this young woman, partly because she's been raised in the United States and for some reason that seems to stimulate particular animus among certain groups, should be considered.

Mr. KRIKORIAN: Really what you're talking about here is what do we mean by particular? What is the meaning of particular? And, frankly, if you're using obviously it's a matter of interpretation. How do we how broadly do we describe, you know, do we apply the word particular. And when you include all women in a that's not particular anymore. You know what I mean? It just isn't.

MARTIN: I think it's legitimate to ask Mr. Hutchinson to offer his response to that because surely he's heard this argument before. Mr. Hutchinson, I'm sure you heard Mr. Krikorian's argument that the idea that this is a young woman who is at risk simply because she is a woman is overly broad and it's an abuse of, really, what the asylum what the sort of the asylum is meant to do. It's meant to be related to an individual's particular circumstances, beliefs, et cetera. What do you say to that?

Mr. KRIKORIAN: Well, this is the argument that the government made before the ninth circuit. That they thought they'd be opening the floodgates of women flocking to the United States from Guatemala. I think in actual practice we'll find is rather narrow. It applies to a number of Guatemalan women who have lived in the United States for a number of years who fled the civil war and are in immigration removal proceedings now. And this is an appropriate defense for them.

MARTIN: And is it your argument that because this young woman has lived in the United States that she is a particular target? Is that the argument? Is that in part the argument?

Mr. KRIKORIAN: Well, this is an argument I made at one point in the proceedings, but it was not an argument we made before the ninth circuit. In the ninth circuit we argue that all women in Guatemala are under risk for femicide and they are they cannot change their sex. And this meets the qualification and definition of membership in a particular social group.

MARTIN: Okay. All right, Mr. Krikorian, final word. I gave Mr. Hutchinson the first word, I'll give you the last word. What is your sense of what happens next?

Mr. KRIKORIAN: There are two, 300,000 Guatemalan women illegal immigrants in the United States. I don't know the exact number, but it's something like that. This opens the door to all of them saying they deserve asylum. And that's really the point of this continual expansion of the grounds of asylum is to hobble the government's efforts to actually enforce the immigration laws.

MARTIN: Well, we'll see. We'll see what happens in the next stage. That's Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. Thank you for coming in. We previously heard from Alan Hutchinson. He is the attorney for a young woman who's seeking asylum saying that women are a particular risk if they return to Guatemala. And we thank you both for joining us.

Mr. KRIKORIAN: Thank you.

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