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The National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) and pro bono partners at Ropes & Gray LLP represented Yesenia Maldonado Lopez in her petition for review before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Ms. Maldonado is a lesbian woman from El Salvador who, at the age of 14, was forced to marry a man 50 years her senior.  Her husband raped her on numerous occasions and at one point even drugged her in order to do so.  Despite this harm, the Agency refused to recognize her as eligible for protection.

In her opening brief, which was filed in May 2013, Ms. Maldonado raised two main issues.  First, she argued that she should be entitled to seek asylum despite her previous expedited removal order. This argument challenges a conflict between the regulations governing reinstated removal proceedings and the statute governing asylum eligibility. According to the regulations, individuals with a prior removal order are not eligible to seek asylum but may apply for withholding of removal.  The asylum statute, however, explicitly provides that “any” alien, regardless of his or her immigration status, is eligible to apply for asylum. INA § 208(a), 8 U.S.C. § 1158(a).

Ms. Maldonado also challenged the Agency’s decision denying her refugee protections in the form of withholding of removal. The Agency concluded that Ms. Maldonado did not suffer past persecution in her native El Salvador, and that she did not produce sufficient country-conditions evidence to show that she was likely to be persecuted in the future.  Ms. Maldonado challenged both conclusions.  First, she argued that her forced marriage to a man 50-years her senior as a means to “cure” her of her sexual orientation was a form of persecution and that the BIA’s characterization of the marriage as arranged was erroneous.  She also argued the several women in her home town persecuted her when they beat her for being gay and left her unconscious on the side of the road.

These arguments were successful. Following circuit-court mediation, the Department of Homeland Security agreed to rescind Ms. Maldonado’s previous removal order and give her a new hearing where she will be permitted to seek asylum on the basis of her forced marriage and other past harm.

Several non-profit organizations supported NIJC’s work on this case as amicus curiae. The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR) of the San Francisco Bay Area filed a brief addressing the ability to seek asylum despite a prior removal order, and the Center Gender & Refugee Studies (CGRS) filed an amicus brief on behalf of itself 11 other organizations addressing the significance of the forced marriage at issue in this case.

Ms. Maldonado was represented by Keren Zwick at NIJC, and by Matthew McGinnis, Leslie Wright, Samuel Brenner, Emily Derr, and Rocky Tsai of Ropes & Gray LLP.  Karen Musalo, Lisa Frydman, and Blaine Bookey represented CGRS and their fellow amici.  Robin Goldfaden and Stephen Manning represent LCCR and AILA.