A woman suffering severe domestic violence at the hands of her husband fled Uganda and sought asylum in the U.S. With HIRC’s Albert M. Sacks Clinical Teaching and Advocacy Fellow Emily Leung and HIRC students Mevlude Akay (LLM ‘14) and Katie McCarthy (JD ‘15) arguing her case in the Boston Immigration Court, this client was granted asylum in October 2013.
In four and a half years of marriage in her native Uganda, Mary* was regularly abused by her spouse, who was a powerful intelligence officer in the Ugandan military. After suffering years of escalating abuse, Mary realized her life was in danger and escaped with only a few personal items. After reaching the U.S. and settling in Massachusetts, she filed her case in 2010 with the Asylum Office, represented by HIRC. Her case was later referred to the Boston Immigration Court and in October 2013, Emily, Mevlude, Katie, and Mary presented the case in Immigration Court.
The case was scheduled just two days after the government shutdown was lifted. The Immigration Judge expressed that he had not had enough time to read through the evidence and indicated that he might not hear the case. “It was very distressing…just a huge let down to hear him say that after all the work we had done,” says HIRC student Mevlude Akay. Ultimately, HIRC attorneys convinced him to allow the case to go forward, given that the client had waited two years for the hearing.
This case was argued on two grounds: particular social group (gender, nationality, status) and gender-based political opinion. The main evidence presented was testimonies and affidavits from the client, an expert on Uganda’s human rights conditions, a social worker who had treated and evaluated the client on the psychological effects of her abuse, and a medical professional who corroborated the physical violence the client had suffered. “In Mary’s case, we were worried that the law might not be on our side, because asylum law with respect to domestic violence cases is still not very favorable to applicants — particularly because gender alone is not considered a sufficient ground for persecution,” says Katie. “It is difficult to ‘prove’ that an abuser is abusing his partner because she is a woman or because she holds certain opinions, as opposed to because she happens to be his wife or girlfriend.”
The judge found that Mary suffered persecution and granted her asylum status. “I was thrilled with the ruling,” Emily ecstatically expresses. “We had a very strong case and we worked very hard, and are so happy for our client.” Both Mevlude and Katie note that they were dumbstruck at the time and that it took some time for the decision to sink it. This decision was one of the happiest moments of their legal careers thus far.
Although the Clinic has won similar cases for years, there has been no precedential Board of Immigration Appeals decision. Clinical Director Deborah Anker and Co-Managing Director Nancy Kelly have been vocal advocates and completed ground-breaking work on gender-based asylum.
The court victory has afforded Mary immense benefits. Not only does she have asylum status, she also has continued authorization to work in the U.S., a pathway to citizenship, opportunities to further her education, and access to federal benefits. She is also able to begin the process of family re-unification. Assisting her with this family reunification process are students who participate in Harvard’s Immigration Project.
Mary is excited to soon be reunited with the children she was forced to leave behind and looks forward to starting a fresh new life with them in the U.S. “Now I feel like the sky’s the limit,” exclaims Mary. “I have closure on my rough past and I know I can manage anything else to come.”
*Name changed to protect identity of client.