Immigration Law

Woman is eligible for asylum because domestic abusers persecuted her for feminist opinions, 9th Circuit says

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A woman who was persecuted by domestic abusers because of a feminist political opinion is eligible for asylum in the United States, a federal appeals court ruled Monday.

Asylum applicant Maria Luisa Rodriguez Tornes didn’t have to show that her feminist opinions played the sole or predominant role in her domestic abuse, according to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at San Francisco. Rather, she only had to show that her political opinion was “one central reason” in the abuse.

Judge Susan Graber, an appointee of former President Bill Clinton, wrote the April 5 panel opinion.

The Department of Justice’s Board of Immigration Appeals had found that Rodriguez Tornes was protected under the Convention Against Torture. But the immigration appeals board ruled against her on the feminism claim, holding that there were no findings that Rodriguez Tornes was abused for reasons unrelated to the relationship.

The 9th Circuit disagreed on the feminism claim, finding that Rodriguez Tornes had presented evidence to show that she was persecuted because of her political opinion.

“The record contains episode after episode of men stating, quite plainly, that they were beating, burning, raping and strangling her because she sought an equal perch in the social hierarchy,” Graber wrote.

An immigration judge had found that the Mexican government would acquiesce in Rodriguez Tornes’ torture, which means that the government would also be unwilling to stop future persecution by domestic abusers, the appeals court said.

Rodriguez Tornes had alleged that she was first beaten by her mother, partly to prepare her for future beatings by her husband. Her husband also beat her, according to the appeals court. On one occasion, he stuck a lit cigarette into her arm at 1 a.m. and ordered her to cook. When she refused, he dragged her by her hair into the kitchen. On another occasion, he burned her face with a cigarette because she refused to leave her teaching job.

Rodriguez Tornes fled to the United States, where her new boyfriend beat, raped, burned and strangled her. The boyfriend said that, as a woman, Rodriguez Tornes was not allowed to have opinions, according to the 9th Circuit. She eventually left him. In 2017, the boyfriend was deported to Guatemala and Rodriguez Tornes to Mexico. Rodriguez Tornes came back to the United States; she thinks the boyfriend now lives in Mexico and fears returning there.

The appeals court said that, if U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland doesn’t grant asylum, Rodriguez Tornes is entitled to withholding of removal to Mexico.

In a concurrence, Judge Richard Paez, also a Clinton appointee, said the Board of Immigration Appeals had ignored expert evidence from Nancy Lemon, a professor and a leading authority on domestic violence. She rejects the premise that domestic violence stems from the private dynamics of a personal relationship.

“The BIA makes no mention of the record evidence of Prof. Lemon’s expert analysis, let alone the decades of publicly available social science research and public policy that all reject the BIA’s outdated view of domestic violence as a quirk within a ‘personal relationship,’” Paez wrote.

Reuters Legal and Law360 covered the opinion, Rodriguez Tornes v. Garland.

Munger, Tolles & Olson partner Elaine J. Goldenberg, a lawyer for Rodriguez Tornes, gave a statement to Law360 about the impact of the decision.

“The 9th Circuit’s decision affirms that immigration law protects those persecuted because they are feminists and not just those persecuted because they support a particular political party,” Goldenberg said. “It also confirms the long-standing principle that a person who is persecuted because she is a feminist, or because she is a woman, cannot be denied asylum or other protection simply because her persecutor was a partner or close family member.”

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