Court backs asylum, says woman’s feminism would endanger her in Mexico

A federal appeals court said an undocumented immigrant could seek asylum in the U.S. after showing that abuse an ex-husband and a former partner inflicted on her were the result of her feminist political beliefs and not just a bad relationship. If returned to Mexico, she said, she would be attacked for those beliefs. (Photo by Tim Evanson/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court Monday backed the asylum claim of an undocumented immigrant in Phoenix who said her feminist political beliefs would put her in danger if she was returned to Mexico.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the abuse that woman suffered at the hands of her mother, her ex-husband and her former partner was not solely the result of dysfunctional relationships. It also stemmed from her “feminist political opinion.”

“Indeed, some of the worst acts of violence came ‘immediately after’ Petitioner asserted her rights as a woman,” said the opinion by Circuit Judge Susan Graber.

“Petitioner does not claim that she was persecuted for being a feminist merely because she, a woman, was mistreated by men,” Graber wrote. “Rather, she claims that she was persecuted when those men mistreated her because she expressly asserted to them her political opinion that she was their equal.”

The ruling reverses a Board of Immigration Appeals decision that said “dysfunctional relationships” were not sufficient cause to grant asylum. The circuit court sent the case back to the board with directions to grant asylum to the woman or to defer her deportation.

Calls seeking comment from the woman’s attorneys were not immediately returned Monday. The Justice Department declined to comment on the case.

Graber said in her ruling that the abuse began when the woman was a 5-year-old in Mexico where her mother “beat her almost daily, in part to prepare her for future beatings from her husband,” telling her she would have to “obey everything that (her) husband would say.”

Within months of her marriage to Esteban Baron Mata, he “began a regime of grueling abuse,” court documents said. That included waking her at 1 a.m. by sticking a lit cigarette in her arm so she could cook him food, and burning her face with a cigarette another time when she refused to quit her teaching job.

When Baron left her in 1993 after the woman became pregnant, she fled to the U.S., where she met Jorge Hernandez Fernandez in Phoenix. They moved in together, but the abuse continued.

“He, too, beat, raped, burned and strangled her. Petitioner’s assertions of female independence and equality prompted his abuse,” Graber wrote. When the woman took a job he disapproved of, Hernandez left bite marks and “signs of strangulation” on her neck to “show other men that she ‘had an owner.'”

The woman eventually escaped her relationship with Hernandez, with whom she had three children, but in 2017 she was deported to Mexico and he was deported to Guatemala. Fearing he would come to Mexico and track her down, she returned to the U.S., where the government moved to deport her in December 2017. She filed for asylum.

An immigration judge granted her asylum request based on “reams of documentary evidence” that she was persecuted for her political beliefs. The judge also said that while the Mexican government did not condone violence against women, it “demonstrated a complete helplessness” when it came to protecting her.

The immigration appeals board agreed that the woman “suffered severe mental and physical abuse” and that there was a “‘pandemic’ of violence against women in the country.”

But in order to be granted asylum, a person must prove that she is unable to return to her country of origin “because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” The appeals board revoked her asylum because it said she had not shown that the abuse was for “reasons unrelated to their relationships.”

But the circuit panel said that just because some of the abuse “reflected a dysfunctional relationship is beside the point.” The record showed that the woman’s “political opinion is at least one central reason for her past prosecution and her presumptively well-founded fear of future prosecution,” Graber wrote.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Richard Paez cited the testimony of an expert on domestic violence and what he called decades of social science “that all reject BIA’s outdated view of domestic violence as a quirk with a ‘personal relationship.'”

Sarah Oven Se-ra Oh-ven (she/her/hers)
News Broadcast Producer, Phoenix

Sarah Oven expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’ degree in journalism. Oven, who has interned with The Arizona Republic and The Cronkite Journal, is working for the Phoenix news bureau.