February 04, 2009

Ex-Court Janitor Granted Asylum Due to Domestic Abuse

By Karen Lee Ziner
Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Maira Farfán Maldonado, one of 31 janitors arrested during immigration raids on Rhode Island courthouses last July, has been granted asylum based on domestic abuse in her home country of Guatemala.

While not precedent-setting, such asylum is unusual and much-debated.

Andrea A. Saenz, a lawyer with the PAIR Project (Political Asylum/Immigration Representation) in Boston, represented Farfán at a Jan. 23 hearing. Saenz said medical records, a social worker's testimony, and letters stating Farfán's husband had ties to former members of paramilitary organizations, persuaded immigration Judge Francis L. Cramer that Farfán would be in peril if she was deported.

Saenz and co-counsel Heather J. Friedman also made the case that Guatemala has a demonstrated indifference to domestic violence. They presented reports by the State Department and international organizations documenting that there have been "very few convictions for violence against women in Guatemala," and that "there is a societal attitude that this is the victim's fault, or it's a family matter."

The beatings Farfán endured from her husband caused permanent injuries. He broke her ankle, sending her to the hospital for eight days; broke her skull; knocked out her teeth. He also set her possessions on fire. He rarely allowed her outside, and threatened to kill her if she left him, according to Farfán: those accounts were supported in letters from family and friends.

In 2000, Farfán ran away and crossed the border illegally, leaving her mother and three children behind.

Said Saenz, Farfán's claim "was based on years of extreme domestic violence that she was fleeing in Guatemala. It's an asylum that's a little bit unusual, and you never know how it's going to turn out."

While many people think of asylum as politically or religiously based, "the asylum law allows anyone to seek protection if their government cannot protect them from persecution. And that would include, in this case, a country that has turned a blind eye to victims of domestic violence. We were able to document how her country would not be able to protect her if she were not able to go to police, or if she tried to leave her husband, who had made a number of death threats against her."

Farfán is now officially an asylee, and has applied for a work permit that her new status entitles her. She will be able to apply for permanent residency in a year or two, and eventually, for citizenship.

She said she is eager to find work, learn English, and live without fear.

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