Asylum cases are never routine, and they always need the nuanced touch of an experienced attorney like Attorney Joyce Komanapalli Jones. When victims of a forced marriage seek asylum, these matters are particularly challenging.
Forced Marriages Still Occur Around the World
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.” Yet the State Department specifically recognizes that often family members are the ones forcing the marriage, through physical violence, threats of violence, or both. Approximately 15.4 million people were slaves to forced marriage in 2016 alone.
How Do Forced Marriages Happen?
Here is an example of what could happen in this country: A young woman is in the United States on a student visa. As she nears the end of her studies, her father informs her that when she returns to her home country, she will be married to a wealthy 50-year-old. She doesn’t know this man and doesn’t want to marry him. If she returns to her home, she will be forced into marriage. If she doesn’t comply, the consequences will be severe.
Despite forced marriages being a violation of human rights, getting asylum has proven difficult because:
- U.S. courts have not yet recognized it as a form of persecution
- Attorneys struggle to identify a protected ground to base the asylum claim
- Judges and attorneys fail to make the connection between a forced marriage and protected ground
It is an interesting dichotomy in this country. The Supreme Court has consistently upheld the right for people to marry whom they wish, including more recent marriage victories for same-sex couples. Yet, on the other hand, the courts have not fully acknowledged the harm caused when the opposite happens and a marriage is forced.
How Asylum Works
U.S. immigration law names five protected grounds for asylum. It does not cost anything to apply for asylum, and after one year, asylees may be able to adjust their status to become legal permanent residents (LPRs).
Foreign nationals in California can seek asylum to stay in the U.S. if they face persecution in their home country for their:
- Membership in a Particular Social Group
- Political Opinion
To seek asylum, a person must be present in the U.S. and must file their application within one year of entering the country, with certain exceptions. The person applying for asylum must be unable or unwilling to return to their home country due to “persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution” based on one of the previously mentioned protected grounds.
Proving the Case for Asylum
At the heart of U.S. asylum claims is showing the connection between the acts of persecution suffered, or to be suffered, in one’s home country and the protected ground the persecution is targeting. To prove this connection, an asylum seeker must determine a protected ground that the forced marriage infringes upon and that motivates the persecutor.
Basing a marriage-faced claim on future persecution is an uphill battle, though the victim should not have to suffer the consequences of the marriage to find safe harbor from the marriage itself. The persecutor is also different. Before the marriage occurs, the persecutor is usually a family member who is forcing the marriage. After the marriage, the spouse is the persecutor and often perpetuates other forms of persecution like domestic violence and spousal rape.
Families are behind many forced marriages. A parent may force offspring into marriage to gain more wealth for the family, to bolster the social status of the family, or to create an official alliance between two families. Despite any good intentions, these marriages are often against the young person’s will.
Because it is their position in the family that makes them susceptible to forced marriage, asylum claims can be attached to the protected ground of family membership, thus solving the nexus requirement of the claims due to the primarily family-based motivations behind many forced marriages.
Broad vs. Narrow Particular Social Groups (PSGs)
The courts have shown a willingness to grant asylum claims in narrowly defined PSGs. In one specific case, the court recognized the PSG of “young women of the Tchamba-Kunsuntu Tribe” for a woman who was seeking asylum to avoid a forced marriage that would require female circumcision. Conversely, the court did not recognize the PSG of “unmarried women in a lower social class or rural area” for a woman seeking asylum because she was forced into a marriage to repay her mother’s gambling debts.
It should be noted that forced marriage is not the sole domain of any single gender. In 2018, the U.S. State Department reported that 15% of forced marriages abroad involve male victims.
Forced Marriage Is a Persecution
The courts don’t currently recognize forced marriage as a standalone persecution. U.S. asylum law still treats forced marriage as persecution only when combined with other crimes. Yet forced marriage is a precursor to other crimes like sexual slavery, forced domestic labor, forced pregnancy, and more. Forced marriage should itself be considered a form of persecution as it is basically a form of slavery. This and other changes can improve our asylum system.
Compassionate Legal Assistance for Asylum Claim
No matter the reason you are seeking asylum – even complicated cases like forced marriage – Attorney Jones is ready to build your case, helping you to establish legal residence here in the U.S. and protecting your human rights. For 15 years she has advocated for those who most need help.