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Ashley Michelle Papon
Aug 16, 2010

A Mexican woman with a history of domestic violence at the hands of her common-law husband was granted asylum by the Obama administration in a groundbreaking case that holds promise for future seekers of asylum with similar backgrounds.

The woman, whose identity in the press has been abbreviated to "L.R." due to the confidential nature of asylum cases, had first filed for asylum five years ago, but her case's implications will redefine policies that are nearly two decades in the making. A similar case featuring a woman from Guatemala had been pending for 15 years before receiving approval last December.

"The Department of Homeland Security has recognized that asylum should be available to women who have suffered domestic violence and whose governments won't protect them," Simona Agnolucci, a lawyer with the Howard Rice law firm in San Francisco who represented L.R., tells The New York Times. "Now the day finally came when the department said these are the criteria required to show a case for asylum."

The ruling in L.R.'s favor will likely begin turning the tides for international victims of domestic violence, whose claims have largely been ignored and dismissed by the asylum process. During the initial application, L.R.'s legal team was presented with a list of narrowly defined guidelines that would have to be proved in order for asylum to be granted.

L.R.'s attorneys argued the cultural and political biases of Mexico guaranteed that she had no recourse within her home country. One attorney, Alicia Elena Perez Duarte y Norona, a former special prosecutor in Mexico City for crimes against women, insisted that L.R. could not secure assistance from the police in Mexico because of "the enormous social and cultural tolerance of this abuse, resulting in the virtual complicity of authorities who should prevent and punish these violent acts," according to The Times.

Bring Me Your Huddled Masses

Not everyone is celebrating the gradual expansion of guidelines in favor of abuse victims. Against the backdrop of identity politics, conservative pundits are already wringing their hands over the possibility of allowing more immigration into the country, particularly from Latin countries.

"If we're going to expand certain categories of asylum from their original definition, then some clarification from Congress is warranted," Jon Feere, legal analyst for the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports stricter enforcement of immigration laws, tells MSNBC on August 14.

But it's an idea that advocates against domestic violence find particularly absurd.

"There are so many obstacles to fleeing their home countries," Pamela Goldberg, who works on asylum jurisprudence for the UNHCR in Washington, D.C., tells MSNBC. "There is no such thing under asylum law as a blanket, 'say the magic words and you're in' situation."

Not to mention the process of applying for and receiving asylum is long, complicated and financially, cost-prohibitive. As with the Guatemala case, many applications languish for years and, for the cases that involve gender-based persecution or violence, the applicants are denied before they ever see the inside of a courtroom. Most will not have access to the resources afforded to L.R., who even had the Department of Homeland Security intervene on her behalf, because the system is stacked against them from the get-go.

"It is doubtful that many abused women will have the same resources and support that were available to L.R. and that were the keys to success in her case," Jason Dzubow, a Washington-based immigration attorney, writes at The Asylumist. "However, L.R.'s case has established a framework for asylum based on domestic violence. Now, at least, such women have a chance to gain protection in the United States."

While the culture of the United States isn't without it's skeletons regarding domestic violence, there are more resources in place to assist women fleeing abusive situations than the majority of countries which are undoubtedly to emerge in the forthcoming applications. And while our own rate of domestic violence is a problem that has failed to be adequately addresssed, we nevertheless remain in a unique position to offer remedy to women who have even fewer alternatives elsewhere.