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WASHINGTON, D.C. — The federal immigration appellate board has found that a Guatemalan woman is eligible for asylum protection based on life-threatening abuse she suffered at the hands of her spouse. The published Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) decision recognizes that women who are unable to escape violent domestic relationships in their own countries merit the same refugee protections as others who face persecution because of characteristics they cannot change.

The decision in Matter of A-R-C-G- et al. comes at a time when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is deporting hundreds of Central American mothers with similar claims from a detention center in Artesia, New Mexico, where they have been denied access to lawyers and fair asylum hearings.

“Women, including mothers with their children, are coming to the United States because they have nowhere else to go to escape horrific domestic abuse and gender violence,” said Lisa Koop, associate director of legal services at Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC). “It’s one of many ways in which Central American governments are failing to ensure the security of their citizens. It’s important that the BIA has recognized that these women can qualify for protection under U.S. asylum law.”

Guatemalan police refused to intervene when the mother of three children, identified only by her initials in court proceedings, tried to report her husband’s abuse. She survived frequent violent beatings, including incidents in which her husband broke her nose and doused her with paint thinner. When she fled to the capital city, he found her and threatened to kill her. She fled to the United States with her children in 2005.

The BIA decision underscores the importance of ensuring that women and families who are fleeing Central America have access to lawyers and are afforded their full due process rights when they arrive in the United States seeking protection. The BIA notes that the expert testimony, law enforcement statistics, and other information A-R-C-G- presented to the court were critical to its decision, suggesting that other asylum applicants will be required to provide similar evidence to succeed in their claims. This type of documentation can be impossible to obtain for many asylum seekers who are detained or unrepresented.

Lawyers at the remote Artesia detention center have reported significant obstacles to providing legal counsel to the mothers and children who are detained there. Hundreds of people already have been deported from the facility under a fast-track hearing system that denied them access to lawyers or time to prepare their asylum cases.

“With a clear precedent now set that victims of domestic violence may be eligible for asylum, it is more important than ever that the U.S. government ensures that women have meaningful opportunities to seek protection before they are deported to countries where they could face further abuse and persecution,” said NIJC Director Mary Meg McCarthy. “The Obama administration must stop detaining mothers and children in detention centers where they are cut off from lawyers and must end the expedited hearing procedures that are deporting women without fair hearings.”

NIJC submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in support of A-R-C-G-.