Monday, October 25, 2010

Asylum Secured!

Thanks to all of your support Human Rights USA has helped another woman secure asylum from gender-related persecution! Recently, Rovena* was granted asylum based on violence and sexual assault she suffered because of her husband's democratic activism and her career as an English teacher in rural Albania. After fleeing to the US with their young son, Rovena and her husband applied for asylum, initially using her husband's political asylum claim to protect the entire family. When his case was denied, Rovena contacted Human Rights USA's attorneys about using her own experiences as an asylum case. Human Rights USA referred the case to attorney Miriam Marton of Skadden LLP in New York, and assisted with bringing on expert witnesses and developing innovative strategy. Thanks to this pro bono partnership, Rovena was able to secure asylum.

Human Rights USA Program Director Lynsay Gott provided pro bono mentoring to Ms. Marton as she represented Rovena in her petition. We sat down with Lynsay to ask her a few questions:

Q. What sets this case apart?

LG: Well, it was kind of two cases in one. Rovena had a valid asylum claim that was never presented, but in order to present it she had to get back before an Immigration Judge (IJ), despite being attached as a derivative to her husband's case. It's not always easy to convince the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) to send a case back to the IJ, but the fact is, Rovena was traumatized, unfamiliar with U.S. law, and understandably reliant on her family's immigration attorney during the first go-round. When Rovena testified at the original hearing, neither the attorney nor the judge questioned her about her own experiences. But now, with the remand followed by the grant of asylum, the immigration courts not only recognized that sexual violence can be persecution, they have recognized that asylum seekers have a due process right to present claims on their own behalf.

Q. What were the crucial moves towards securing Rovena's asylum?

LG: Finding a good pro bono attorney was certainly the first step! Miriam went above and beyond on this case. As I said, this was a two part case, and that meant convincing the BIA that Rovena had a right to a hearing of her own, and then convincing the IJ that she was eligible for asylum. Miriam put together excellent arguments on both counts. Well researched, cogent arguments are always crucial in tough asylum cases. Another crucial step in every case is to find a good expert witness. Winning this case required convincing the judge that Rovena's persecution truly could have occurred on account of her political opinion or social group membership, and that she was still likely to face harm if returned to Albania. Sexual assault and other violence against women occur all over the world and it can be difficult to convince a court that a specific woman's experience, or potential future experiences, would fit the requirements of asylum eligibility. We found expert witnesses who could testify extensively to the kind of harmful treatment a woman like Rovena could face in Albania, why that harm occurs, and how it fits the framework of asylum eligibility.

Q. What does this decision mean for Rovena and her family?

LG: Rovena now has asylum status, which will allow her to live and work lawfully in the United States without the constant fear of being returned to Albania, where her family's persecutors could find her again. Her husband and son, whose case was denied by the BIA, may be able to get their case reopened, and receive derivative asylum status as family members.

Q. What does this decision mean for future asylum seekers?

LG: While neither of the decisions (BIA or Immigration Judge) were precedent-setting, they do prove that asylum seekers can successfully fight for their due process rights. When Rovena's husband first filed his asylum claim and added her as a derivative, his original attorney should have tried to find out whether Rovena had been directly persecuted as well. But more importantly, the Immigration Judge in the first hearing also had a duty to establish whether the derivative applicants might have had claims of their own before denying the entire case. Rovena has a statutory right to present her own claims and evidence, and with the help of her pro bono attorney, she was able to get the immigration courts to respect that right.

*Rovena is a pseudonym