Friday, September 4, 2009

Seventh Circuit Rules "Threat of Forced Marriage" as Grounds for Changed Circumstances in Asylum Proceedings

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has ruled that a threat of forced marriage arising after an order of removal can constitute “changed circumstances” that may warrant reopening of an asylum case. The Seventh Circuit overturned a Board of Immigration Appeals decision that represented a significant set-back in the fight to establish that women fleeing gender-based violence can qualify for refugee status. By overturning the Board’s decision, the Seventh Circuit has reaffirmed that refugees fleeing types of harm that are most commonly faced by women can seek protection in the United States.

When Roome Joseph initially applied for asylum in the United States, along with her family, they were fleeing persecution of Christians in their native Pakistan. When the case was denied, Ms. Joseph’s family returned to Pakistan, but she remained in the U.S. After her family informed her of their intention to force her into an unwanted marriage when she returned to Pakistan, Ms. Joseph attempted to reopen her immigration proceedings to apply for asylum based on this new threat.

Normally, motions to reopen immigration proceedings must be filed shortly after a final order of removal, but a case may be reopened at any time if an individual can show that there are changed circumstances in her country of origin that materially affect her asylum eligibility. In Ms. Joseph’s case, the Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that the family’s plans to force her to marry were “personal circumstances,” and that the changed circumstances rule applied only to “a dramatic change in the political, religious, or social situation,” such as political upheaval. The Board denied Ms. Joseph’s motion to reopen.

Overturning the Board’s decision, the Seventh Circuit held that a change in personal circumstances occurring in the applicant’s country of origin, such as a threat of forced marriage, satisfies the standards for reopening proceedings to seek asylum. In so doing, the Seventh Circuit has strengthened the ability of refugees to seek asylum from the types of harm that commonly threaten women. Historically, gender-related asylum cases fared badly in immigration courts, where judges tended to distinguish between public and private harm, finding torture of political dissidents to be grounds for asylum, while female genital mutilation or domestic violence were merely unfortunate practices that lay entirely outside the bounds of refugee law. But since the case Matter of Kasinga in 1996, the Board has recognized that the threat of practices like female genital mutilation could be grounds for asylum, and women have begun to receive asylum based on types of violence previously considered to be private, or cultural, harm that had no bearing on asylum eligibility.

The Board’s decision in Ms. Joseph’s case, however, signaled a return to the earlier viewpoint that harm occurring in the public sphere is relevant to an asylum claim, while harm occurring in the “private” sphere of the family is not. In ruling that the threat of forced marriage fell outside of the “changed circumstances” rule, the Board limited the rule to events that occurred on the national stage. Since the changed circumstance that forms the basis of a motion to reopen must be materially related to the threat of persecution, the Board’s decision would have once again limited the availability of asylum largely to those refugees fleeing more public forms of persecution – persecution as punishment for political activity, for instance – rather than women like Ms. Joseph, who face persecution at least in part from their own families.

Fortunately for Ms. Joseph and other refugee women, the Seventh Circuit’s decision recognized that a threat of forced marriage was precisely the kind of changed circumstance that could materially affect a person’s eligibility for asylum. This decision preserves the advancements made over the last two decades in the fight to protect women refugees from gender-based violence.

Human Rights USA would like to congratulate Ms. Joseph’s attorneys at Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center and Mayer Brown LLP for their important victory in this case. For more information on this case see Heartland Alliance’s press release.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Human Rights USA Attorney Colleen Costello Discusses Attorney General’s Appointment of Special Prosecutor on Press TV

On August 28, 2009, Colleen Costello joined Press TV’s American Dream program to talk about the recently released documents CIA documents and Attorney General Eric Holder’s appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate abuses allegedly committed by CIA and private contractor interrogators.

Ms. Costello, an attorney for the Human Rights & Anti-Terrorism Project at Human Rights USA, discussed the violations of U.S. and international law that were documented in the recently-released 2004 CIA Inspector General’s report, which highlighted, among other things, the fact that interrogators had threatened detainees with death and personal injury, and had threatened the rape and murder of detainees’ family members.

“What has been described so far in this recently released version of the Inspector General’s report . . . is really shocking. First of all, threatening a detainee with a power drill, with a gun – it’s unlawful under international and U.S. law. . . . [I]t’s great that the Attorney General is looking to investigate exactly what happened and who is responsible. . . .”

Turning to the Attorney General’s decision to investigate these abuses, Ms. Costello emphasized the need for a full investigation of those responsible for authorizing detainee abuses – something that Human Rights USA has consistently called for over the past several years.

“Americans have a right to know what their government officials are doing in their name and on their behalf. . . . What we’re doing now, we’re looking at maybe a dozen or so interrogators from the CIA and private contractors, and we’re trying to determine whether the abuses they committed exceeded the already very broad limits set by the former administration’s Justice Department. Now, that’s ok, that’s a step, but . . . what we need to do is figure out who was responsible for authorizing even those very broad limits set by the former administration. . . . [I]f you have the former President admitting, and the former Vice President admitting that they authorized the use of waterboarding, . . . that certainly warrants an investigation.”

Watch the full program here:


American Dream is a production of Press TV, an Iranian international news network that broadcasts around the world.

ON THE RADAR SCREEN: Comments from Former AG Gonzales

"On the Radar Screen" posts alert our readers to important news items that may not have made the front page.

We just wanted to take a moment to share a Washington Times article with our readers regarding Former Attorney General Gonzales' remarks supporting Attorney General Holder's decision to investigate allegations of prisoner abuse. Issues of accountability and respect for human rights should not be political or partisan.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

JOIN US FOR: Due to High Demand, A Second Screening of Pray the Devil Back to Hell

Tuesday, September 8, 2009 at 7 p.m. at the Wooly Mammoth Theater

641 D Street, NW.

Following the film will be a panel discussion moderated by Piper Hendricks, International Justice Project Director, Human Rights USA, with additional panelists to be announced.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell is the gripping account of a group of brave and visionary women who demanded peace for Liberia, a nation torn to shreds by a decades-old civil war. A small band of Liberian women who came together in the midst of a bloody civil war, took on the violent warlords and corrupt Charles Taylor regime, and won a long-awaited peace for their shattered country in 2003. The women's historic yet unsung achievement finds voice in a narrative that intersperses contemporary interviews, archival images, and scenes of present-day Liberia together to recount the experiences and memories of the women who were instrumental in bringing lasting peace to their country. They are living proof that moral courage and non-violent resistance can succeed, even where the best efforts of traditional diplomacy have failed.

This special film screening is being put on in collaboration with the Woolly Mammoth Theater, who are set to launch their new critically acclaimed play, Eclipsed, later this month. The Woolly Mammoth's website offers a brief description of the play:

"The captive wives of a Liberian rebel officer form a hardscrabble sisterhood, their lives set on a nightmarish detour by civil war. With the arrival of a new girl who can read – and the return of an old one who can kill – their possibilities are quickly transformed. Drawing on reserves of wit and compassion, these defiant survivors ask: when the fog of battle lifts, could a different destiny emerge?"

The screening and panel are FREE, but reservations are encouraged at screening@woollymammoth.net as space is limited.

We hope you can join us!