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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has ruled that a family’s threats to force their daughter into marriage if she returns to their native country of Pakistan qualify as “changed circumstances” under U.S. law and warrant a review of the woman’s asylum case.

“The Seventh Circuit’s decision recognizes that our client’s case should not be dismissed simply because the conditions of her persecution, as in many cases of gender-based violence, are not connected to a dramatic country-wide upheaval,” said Claudia Valenzuela, a managing attorney at Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center who represented asylum seeker Roome Joseph along with pro bono counsel from Mayer Brown LLP.

At the center of the court’s August 27, 2009, opinion in Joseph v. Holder is its recognition that the “changed circumstances” rule under which individuals can seek review of their asylum cases based on new threats of persecution “does not restrict the concept of ‘changed circumstances’ to some kind of broad social or political change in the country, such as a new governing party, as opposed to a more personal or local change.” The court found that any change in an asylum applicant’s home country that materially affects his or her eligibility for asylum is sufficient to qualify as a “changed circumstance” under the law.

Ms. Joseph, 28, came to the United States with her parents and two brothers in 1998 when the family fled religious persecution in Pakistan because of their Christian identity. While the family waited for their asylum application to be processed, Ms. Joseph adapted to U.S. culture and began to live independently. When her family’s asylum application was rejected, Ms. Joseph’s father informed her that he had arranged for her to marry a man in Pakistan, and would disown her if she refused the marriage. As the Seventh Circuit acknowledged, “The stakes are high for Joseph, as in Pakistan she faces either a forced marriage or the prospect of living as a single Christian woman without familial support, a dangerous path in that country.” Ms. Joseph refused to return with her family to Pakistan and she again applied for asylum in the United States.

When Ms. Joseph re-applied for asylum, she cited the threats of forced marriage and persecution she would face as a single woman in Pakistan as “changed circumstances.” The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) rejected this application, stating that the threat of forced marriage was a personal situation that did not qualify as “changed circumstances.” The Seventh Circuit’s ruling overturned that decision and returned the case to the BIA for a full review of the circumstances of Ms. Joseph’s asylum claim.


Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center is a Chicago-based nongovernmental organization dedicated to ensuring human rights protections and access to justice for all immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers through a unique combination of direct services, policy reform, impact litigation and public education. For more information visit