Femicide May Be Grounds for Asylum

Do you remember the core principle that emerged from the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women? Women’s rights are human rights. Hillary Clinton gave her famous speech, we saw it on banners and we heard these words chanted in many languages. On July 12, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco put this principle into practice in the case of Lesly Yajayra Perdomo.

Perdomo, a Medicaid account executive in Reno, Nev., grew up in Guatemala and followed her mother to the U.S. in 1991 when she was 15 years old. In 2003, the INS tried to deport her and she applied for asylum, arguing that she feared persecution if she were forced to return to Guatemala. Her fear was based on the high murder rate of women in Guatemala and the government’s failure to do much about it. According to Hasting Law School’s Center for Gender and Refugee Studies’ 2010 femicide report, 4,000 Guatemalan women and girls have been killed in the last decade and the government has successfully prosecuted fewer than 2 percent of the killers. In a surprising decision, the 9th Circuit ruled that Perdomo is eligible to apply for asylum.

The Immigration and Nationality Act allows asylum for people persecuted because of religion, political belief, race, nationality or particular social group. Gender is not an explicit basis for asylum under U.S. law. However, advocates have argued that women who are subject to gender-based violence should be eligible for asylum as a “particular social group.” Courts have granted asylum to women fleeing domestic violence, female genital cutting, honor killing, forced marriage and widow abuse. At the end of last year, an immigration judge granted asylum to Rody Alvarado, a Guatemalan woman who had a history of extreme abuse by her husband and who feared he would kill her if she returned to Guatemala. The Perdomo decision follows and expands this line of reasoning.

Lesly Perdomo’s case builds on the idea that women’s rights are human rights by asking the government to take gender-based harm as seriously as it takes harms based on political belief, race, nationality or religion. The Perdomo decision is revolutionary in its implicit recognition of a state’s responsibility to remedy violence against women. Of course rather than requiring women applying for asylum to perform legal acrobatics to qualify as a “particular social group,” Congress could just amend the law to explicitly allow asylum for people persecuted based on gender. But that’s not likely to happen.

Perdomo still has an uphill legal battle to actually win asylum, but her victory last week creates an important legal precedent that will be used not only by Guatemalan women but by women from other Central American countries, such as El Salvador and Honduras, which also have high rates of violence against women.

By the way, don’t miss the irony behind the U.S. granting asylum to women fleeing violence in other countries while we often refuse to enforce our own laws protecting female victims of violence—remember the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in Castle Rock v. Gonzalez?

Above image of women in Guatemala from Flickr user Marlin Harms under Creative Commons 3.0


  1. I find Perdomo’s case fascinating. I have always assumed that women have to be wary, savvy, and strong to survive in the world. That is probably why I have enrolled my twelve year old daughter in a hapkido self-defense class. My reasoning? She’s beautiful, and she’s small. Already, I see grown men watching her when we cross a street, and I’m filled with fear for her. I was brought up to believe, “that’s just the way the world is.” It’s exciting to think that we might change that.

  2. Gil Halsted says:

    I am thinking this is an important aspect of the immigration debate that needs to get more exposure. Keep up the good work Carrie.


  3. This was refreshing to read. Thank you for emailing me the link, Dr. Baker. It’s good to hear something positive happening for women today, in the midst of a myriad negatives. Please continue to inform me of your blog posts! 🙂

  4. Harvey Hill says:

    It amazes me that the Circuit Court ruled in Perdomo’s favor. Hopefully this precedent will encourage all people to take violence against women more seriously, wherever it occurs.

  5. Great post! Appreciate the insight on an issue about which more people need to be aware. I’ll stay tuned to your blog …

  6. Facinating article. I hope this starts an ongoing discussion.

  7. Lindsey Glass says:

    This is a beautiful incident, and I am happy that our government is finally opening its eyes. However, I am also worried for the millions of illegal immigrants, many women, in the U.S. who cannot count on asylum from the country they have taken refuge in… No matter how many women and children are starving because of the corn crisis in Mexico, no matter how many young working women have gone missing in Juarez, no matter how many have been shot down in the streets by drug cartels.

  8. Michael DiPasquale says:

    This is a great precedent, and should serve to reinforce the concept that the U.S. government must take the rights of all women seriously. Women’s rights are definitely human rights.

  9. Although in Holland women often make up little lies (see INFIDEL by Hishi Ali) to gain the right to enter that very intelligent and liberal country, it is worth letting a few fibbers in rather than losing truly desperate souls. There should be a light at the end of the tunnel for everyone; however, we usually have that light within ourselves.

  10. Andrew Baker says:

    Nice going Carrie! Glad to see your blog is up and running. I liked the way you encapsulated the case in a brief and readable piece, and ended with a link to the underlying decision.

    Perdomo is a fascinating case and makes me wonder about the implications for those suffering from the drug-trade violence just across the border — lack of legal protections in a failed state or corrupted justice system (tho our death row system and the moratorium reasoning in Illinois provide a similar example.)

    The Castle Rock precedent is also fascinating – amazing contrast between the harrowing details of the case and the very abstract reasoning behind whether one does or doesn’t have a ‘property interest’ in a due process provision.

  11. Sarah Allred says:

    This article provides a succinct and informative framing of the Perdomo case as an exemplar of hope associated with two important social concerns: immigration and femicide. In addition, it is quite heartening to learn of instances where human rights are indeed recognized as women’s rights . Baker’s closing question about the irony of this case relative to current enforcement practices in the United States provides an intriguing topic for classroom dialogue.

  12. Jeffrey Lidke says:

    Thank you, Carrie, for this blog and all the other work you do to keep our community aware of and active in the fight against injustice, locally, domestic, and internationally.

  13. Ellen Johnson says:

    In the early 1980s, I worked as an immigration officer in Miami (really!). It was so disheartening to see that anyone "escaping" a communist country was automatically given asylum, while people who were in mortal danger in countries the US supported could not get asylum. This included of course the Central American countries with right-wing repressive governments that employed death squads and even massacres against their own citizens. Reagan was supporting these dictators and granting asylum would have been admitting we were funding regimes that were terrorizing their own people. What a miraculous turn-around in this case, actually ruling on whether she is in danger or not!

  14. Tim Knowlton says:

    Having lived and researched other topics in Guatemala for a couple years, I was surprised by some aspects of this development. Although any effective legal outlet for women suffering or at risk of being subject to violence is welcome, I am uneasy with the conflating of different causes and contexts of violence and victims that occurs under headings like "femicide". For example, even a cursory examination of the research available online reveals a common theme is that the victims are often impoverished women working at the margins of legality, and the perpetrators are often associated with the maras (gangs) responsible for much of the violence that occurs in Guatemala today. I would be curious whether there is a statistically significant difference in the rate of prosecution of crimes by mara members against women versus crimes by mara members in general. This would enable us to have a better sense of whether the government's failure to effectively combat the problem has to do with the cultural attitudes of the elite or the general impotence to effectively combat the maras in general. Knowing facts such as these would suggest different courses of action in addressing the problem. I think this underlines the necessity of doing basic social science on the social problem before promoting a particular policy. Promoting human rights elsewhere makes us Anglos up north feel good about ourselves, but the policy itself may do very little to effectively combat the problem and benefit the lives of the women we are in solidarity with. Also, by (unnecessarily?) making violence against women in Guatemala part of the heated immigration debate in this country, it might even diminish our ability to achieve broad-based support to provide Guatemala the resources needed to combat the maras, who available research play a large role in the current manifestations of violence against women cited here.

  15. Im so glad you went out on a good note!!


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