A Boston immigration judge has cast women from Guatemala as a specific social group, a legal term that will make it easier for them to seek asylum, according to immigration lawyers.
The decision by U.S. Immigration Judge Paul Gagnon — a Manchester, N.H., resident and former U.S. Attorney for New Hampshire — was issued June 18, and federal immigration authorities have not challenged it within the legal time frame to do so, immigration lawyers said.
“It’s an extraordinary, bold move,” said George Bruno, an immigration lawyer in Manchester. “It’s significant and it holds out hope for many Guatemalan women.”
Immigrants showing up at the southern border are increasingly from the central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, and many are making asylum claims.
Federal law allows judges to grant asylum to a person who can demonstrate persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Gagnon’s decisions designated Guatemalan women as a social group under the asylum law.
“A staggering number of women in Guatemala face gender related violence,” Gagnon wrote. He also noted “a culture of machismo” and “a patriarchal culture within Guatemala where men feel as though they can control women and oftentimes use violence as asserting that control.”
While the Guatemalan government has laws on the books that address rape, the killing and abuse of women, it has not sufficiently trained police about the laws and failed to investigate and prosecute the crimes, he wrote.
Some legal scholars have long urged that immigration courts move from absurdly narrow definitions of social groups — such as members of a particular clan who resist male domination — to larger groups, according to Jennifer M. Chacón, a professor at UCLA law school who answered questions emailed from the Union Leader. For example, Cuban homosexuals and Somali females are recognized social groups.
Chacon said Gagnon sensibly spells out how Guatemalan women meet the criteria for a social group. But some immigration appeals boards and the Justice Department have refused to allow such broadly defined social groups for fear of opening floodgates, she said.
“I would guess that if it starts to look like this decision is the beginning of a trend, the Department of Justice would likely bring resources to bear on it,” she wrote.
Chacon said not all Guatemalan women will automatically get asylum because of the opinion. But if a woman can demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution because she is a member of the group, she would be eligible.
The ruling only governs the four states whose immigration cases are heard in Boston — Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine and Rhode Island. But Chacon said it could prove instructive to other courts.
Bruno said his law office has a significant clientele of Guatemalan women, but he did not have an exact figure.
In the case decided by Gagnon, the woman had moved to Guatemala City as a teenager to find work. She was raped by the son of the family that she worked for, and her mother and employer forced her to marry him. Throughout her marriage, he repeatedly raped and abused her. When she got a job, he told her to quite and at one point hired people to rob her of her employer’s money.
She feared she would eventually be killed. She never reported the abuse to police because she did not think they could protect her.