With the issue of migration in the news again, a glaring omission in U.S. asylum law should get more attention: The statute does not name gender as a possible ground for protection.
To be granted asylum in the United States, an applicant must be facing persecution by their government or someone that government cannot or will not control. The applicant must show that the persecution is on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in “a particular social group.” Persecution on account of gender is not included.
This makes sense when considering that the global treaty that obliges state parties to protect refugees was adopted 70 years ago, in 1951, when the legal rights of women were barely recognized. The treaty — called the Refugee Convention — says that countries have an obligation to protect those who have no choice but to flee or risk death in the face of injustice.
It is unsurprising that the needs of women facing persecution were not considered in 1951. It is also not surprising — though it is disappointing — that Congress wrote this outdated framework into the Refugee Act of 1980.
In the mid-1990s, some light was shined on this problem. Fauziya Kassindja, a 17-year-old from Togo, sought protection both from forced polygamous marriage to a much older man and from female genital mutilation. She was granted asylum after proving that she was a member of a “particular social group” — and thus covered by the Refugee Act. We were both involved in this case, which helped to crack open the door for women to argue that gender-based asylum claims should be granted under the “particular social group” category in the statute.
But progress for women has been slow and painful under a statute that does not explicitly recognize gender-based persecution. It took 14 years for the United States to grant asylum to a Guatemalan woman, Rodi Alvarado, who endured unspeakable brutalization by her husband, a former soldier. Regulations proffered by then-Attorney General Janet Reno in 2000 to protect women under the social-group category were never finalized, leaving women in the lurch. So much variance exists in the likelihood of success from court to court that filing a claim can feel like playing Russian roulette.
This is especially true if applicants do not have lawyers. Proving that one qualifies for asylum is already a heavy burden and one that most applicants do not meet; making nuanced arguments that applicants fit into the social-group category has become an art form. Most asylum seekers cannot afford immigration attorneys, and free lawyers who specialize in gender-based asylum are rare. The result is that women in life-or-death situations who might legally qualify for asylum are instead deported to face their fates.
This situation has been made much worse in recent years. Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, decades of progress were nearly wiped out by the stroke of a pen. Because the highest immigration court is part of the Justice Department, he was able to single-handedly reverse key legal precedents favorable to women’s claims and issue guidance to judges limiting gender-based asylum. As a result of these changes, the safety of many immigrant women hangs by a thread. The Refugee Act urgently needs to be changed to clearly protect women who would otherwise meet the stringent requirements for asylum.
Just as our collective understanding of violence against women has evolved, so must the laws that protect women. As other countries already have, the United States should amend its law to expressly recognize gender-based persecution as a basis for asylum. This is not merely the right thing to do. Eliminating confusion about who might qualify would also reduce inefficiencies in our immigration system.
There is much to celebrate about advances that women have made in our society in recent years. Updating the Refugee Act would be a long-overdue step toward removing our asylum laws’ blindness to gender-based persecution.