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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkAmericas & Beyond 

US Ruling Could Spark Wave of CentAm Asylum Claims
email this pageprint this pageemail usJuan Carlos Llorca - Associated Press
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July 16, 2010

Guatemala City A U.S. federal court ruling this week could unleash a wave of political asylum claims from applicants who say being female and from Central America is reason enough to fear for their lives.

The case itself concerns a technicality in an application by a Guatemalan woman, but activists say hundreds of thousands of women from throughout the region could use it to argue the United States should let them settle in El Norte.

In Monday's ruling, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ordered immigration judges to reconsider whether Guatemalan women constitute a "particular social group" that may be persecuted. Courts have granted such status to women who fear genital mutilation and victims of domestic abuse, but two lower courts had said Guatemalan women was too broad a category.

Lawyers for Lesly Yajayra Perdomo - a Medicaid account executive for a health care company in Reno, Nevada - argued that a high murder rate for women in her native Guatemala means that deporting her would constitute "a death sentence."

Activists say the same holds true for women in some other countries as well - and for men in Guatemala, for that matter. 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 group Grupo Apoyo Mutuo.

Guatemala saw 709 women murdered in 2009 - and 6,498 men.

The murder rate in Guatemala in 2009 was about 49 per 100,000 inhabitants - shockingly high compared to Mexico with 14 murders per 100,000 residents. But it is still relatively low compared to neighboring Honduras, where the 2009 homicide rate was 67 per 100,000. El Salvador also had a higher murder rate than Guatemala.

"The situation for women is hard on a regional level in Latin America, but it is even harder in Honduras," said Honduran human rights activist Bertha Oliva. She said Monday's ruling "should be extended to people from every country."

In Guatemala, where 200,000 people were killed in a brutal 1960-96 civil war, carnage remains common.

Two weeks ago, a woman who worked for Guatemala's prisons department was kidnapped and hacked to pieces by street gang members protesting prison conditions.

"They wanted to send a message to the government," said Norma Cruz, director of women's rights group Survivors Foundation. "They used a woman to do it, because they don't even see us as human beings anymore."

Cruz has testified in asylum claims by Guatemalan women - all of them unsuccessful. After Monday's ruling, she said she expects a wave of applications.

"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 of all kinds. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice received 3,250 asylum applications from Guatemalans, and granted 155. It was unclear how many of the asylum cases involved women.

Women in Guatemala constitute 15 percent of murder victims, compared with 9 percent for Latin America overall, according to Carmen Rosa de Leon, of Guatemala's Institute for the Teaching of Sustainable Development.

Nobody knows exactly why. In most Central American countries, authorities don't know if most slain women are victims of domestic violence, sexual predators, street gangs or drug cartels. That's because so few of the killings are ever investigated, much less punished, by the countries' understaffed, overwhelmed police forces.

Guatemala solves fewer than 2 percent of cases of murdered women, according to the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law.

That compares to 5 percent for all killings according to the Institute for Comparative Studies in Penal Science, an NGO that reviews legal cases.

"The problem is the Guatemalan government doesn't do anything to prosecute those who attack women," said Cruz.

She noted there are only eight shelters for battered women in the nation. Honduras has one, according to Eda Alicia Meza of the nonprofit Women Rights Center in Tegucigalpa.

Indeed, women from other Central American countries might have better claims than Guatemalans for asylum.

Honduras, with just over half of Guatemala's population of 13 million, saw 286 women murdered last year. The Women Rights Center has had varying degrees of success in getting asylum for Honduran women, using statistical reports and press clippings about the increasingly grisly killings in their home country.

"Women have turned up beheaded, raped," Meza said. "They have been really brutal (crimes), very bloody."

Such violence has led to a flood of women leaving Central America, most of them to the United States. Fleeing is often even more dangerous than staying. To get to the United States to file an asylum claim, women first have to cross Mexico, where migrants are frequently raped, kidnapped and robbed.

Sometimes, even fleeing doesn't bring safety.

Cruz told the story of a woman who fled to the United States to escape an abusive husband - who then followed her to America and tried to kill her.

"He thought it was going to be like Guatemala, where you can do what want to women," Cruz said.

Instead, he was captured by U.S. police and convicted in 2009 of attempted murder.

Associated Press writers Freddy Cuevas in Tegucigalpa and Mark Stevenson in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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