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For the first time ever, domestic violence victims may be able to qualify for asylum in the United States. In a landmark decision, the Justice Department’s Board of Immigration Appeals ruled in favor of a woman fleeing domestic violence in a country where authorities failed to protect her. She was in a valid social group eligible for refuge.

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The ruling was made in the case of an unidentified Guatemalan woman who crossed into the U.S. illegally in 2005 after escaping from her husband who beat and raped her. According to the Huffington Post, the woman claimed she called local police in Guatemala multiple times to report the abuse but authorities told her that they wouldn’t interfere with her marriage. The woman ultimately fled to the U.S. where she argued that the abuse and lack of police response in her home country should make her eligible of asylum. In part, the Board of Immigration Appeals agreed.  The BIA ruled in a nine-page decision that the unidentified Guatemalan woman met at least one criterion for asylum: as a married Guatemalan woman who couldn’t leave her relationship, she was part of a particular social group of persecuted people.

The Homeland Security Department, which prosecutes deportation cases, did not appeal the decision but rather sent it to an immigration judge to make a final ruling.  While the woman isn’t completely in the clear, her lawyer is confident that she will ultimately be granted asylum.  “We are going to win, [but] it’s going to be a long time,” Roy Petty, an Arkansas immigration lawyer who represented her in the case, told the AP.  He added that a court backlog could delay the final decision for years. A backlog of some 375,000 asylum cases has been reported, though immigrants who can get their case to a judge are allowed to legally work in the US until a final decision has been made.

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In the U.S., asylum protection is often extremely difficult to receive. In order to receive it a person must prove that he or she has been persecuted on the basis of race, national origin, religion, political views or membership in a particular social group. They also have to prove that their own government is unable or unwilling to stop their persecution.

It’s unclear how this new ruling will impact thousands of pending asylum cases or if even more will flood in now that domestic violence victims are considered a potential class of persecuted people. Reports also point out that the ruling technically affects only Guatemalan women for now, but immigration advocates have said the decision could open the door for women from other countries to claim asylum too.

“The decision for this Guatemalan woman has clear implications for other Central American women, that’s for sure,” said Benjamin Casper, director of Center for New Americans at the University of Minnesota Law School. “This is the first binding decision … to recognize this social group of women.”


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