A Broken System

In mid-2001, Johana Cece, a woman in her early twenties, fled her hometown of Korçë, a small city near Albania’s Greek border, and soon found herself trapped in the sex trade. By 2002, by way of a falsely obtained Italian passport, Cece had arrived in the U.S. and claimed asylum—a move that would kick off an 11-year legal battle that was only resolved this month.

The central question of her decade-long fight was whether or not she belongs to one of the groups singled out for protection in the U.S. asylum statute: foreigners who have been persecuted on account of their race, religion, nationality, political opinions, or membership in a particular social group. It’s that last category that Cece had to argue her way into—her particular social group being young Albanian women targeted for sex trafficking—and over the the course of her legal fight, various judicial bodies ruled six separate times on whether or not that constitutes a valid category.

Finally, on August 9, she won a critical victory before the Seventh Circuit, which issued a sweeping defense of asylum for targets of sex-trafficking. The ruling sets a precedent that will protect thousands of other asylum-seekers, and Cece is expected to earn refugee status when her case goes back to the Board of Immigration Appeals. Because no presidential administration has ever clearly spelled out how the “particular social group” category applies to women, a woman’s fate usually relies on the whims of the judge hearing her case.

If the asylum statute were always applied correctly, women would have no trouble convincing judges that they are targeted based on their gender, and that that is grounds for an asylum claim. Essentially, each time a woman claims asylum for gender-related reasons, her attorney (if she has one) is building an asylum category from scratch or cobbling it together from other court cases. The result is a wildly inconsistent legal landscape where a female refugee’s chances of asylum are largely based on luck.

In 2012, Blaine Bookey, an attorney on staff with the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, tried to establish exactly how bad things were, analyzing 206 cases from 1994 to 2012 in which women claimed asylum from domestic violence. Time and again, she found that judges ruled arbitrarily in cases with nearly identical facts.

Facile arguments and inconsistencies would dry up, if the Obama administration would merely clarify the asylum statute. Their doing so is especially important now that attempts to resolve such issues in Congress have hit a wall.

Meanwhile, there are thousands of asylum cases pending before immigration judges that would benefit from some clarity.

Learn more at Molly Redden’s New Republic article: A Sex Trafficking Victory That Shows Just How Broken the System Is.

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