A United States federal court ruling this week could unleash a wave of political asylum claims from applicants who say being a woman from Central America is reason enough to fear for their lives.
The ruling concerns an application by a Guatemalan woman, but activists say hundreds of thousands of women from throughout the region could use it to argue that the United States should let them immigrate.
In the ruling on Monday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco ordered immigration judges to reconsider whether Guatemalan women constituted a “particular social group” that might be persecuted. Courts have granted such status to women who fear genital cutting and to victims of domestic abuse, but two lower courts have said that Guatemalan women constituted too broad a category.
Lawyers for the woman, Lesly Yajayra Perdomo, a health care company account executive in Reno, Nev., argued that a high murder rate for women in her native Guatemala meant that deporting her would constitute “a death sentence.”
Activists say the same holds true for women in other countries, as well as for Guatemalan men. A number of men have already received asylum based on the high levels of violence in the country, said Mario Polanco, director of the human rights organization Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo.
Last year, 709 women and 6,498 men were killed in Guatemala, a murder rate of about 49 per 100,000 inhabitants. That rate is much higher than that of Mexico, which has 14 murders per 100,000 residents. But it is still relatively low compared with Honduras, where the homicide rate was 67 per 100,000 people. El Salvador also had a higher murder rate than Guatemala's.
“The situation for women is hard on a regional level in Latin America, but it is even harder in Honduras,” said Bertha Oliva, a Honduran human rights activist. She said the ruling “should be extended to people from every country.”
Norma Cruz, director of the women's rights group Survivors Foundation, said that she expected a wave of applications after the ruling on Monday.
“I think there will be a lot more cases like this,” she said.
An estimated 1.5 million Guatemalans live in the United States, and hundreds of thousands of them have pending immigration cases. In 2009, the Department of Justice received 3,250 asylum applications from Guatemalans, and granted 155. It was unclear how many of the cases involved women.
Women in Guatemala constitute 15 percent of murder victims, compared with 9 percent for Latin America over all, according to Carmen Rosa de León of Guatemala's Institute for the Teaching of Sustainable Development.