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Free Rodi Alvarado and all political prisoners!

Obligatory disclaimer: I am not Ms. Lauren, nor was meant to be; I am Charles Johnson, guest blogging on Ms. Lauren’s behalf while she takes a much-deserved break. You can normally find me at Rad Geek People’s Daily.

If you’re not too busy getting hammered with Roxanne and following the latest jots and tittles from the State of the Union, you might want to take some time to keep track of the decade-old case of Rodi Alvarado (thanks, Amnesty International), who has been held in legal limbo for a decade by the Justice Department’s and the Department of Homeland Security’s immigration bureaucracy.

The terrible facts of Rodi Alvarado’s case are undisputed. She fled Guatemala and applied for asylum in the United States in 1995, after suffering ten years of relentless domestic abuse. Her husband Francisco Osorio, a former soldier, attempted to abort their second child by kicking her in the spine, dislocated her jaw, tried to cut her hands off with a machete, kicked her in the genitals, and used her head to break windows and mirrors. Ms. Alvarado sought assistance from the Guatemalan police and the courts — in vain.

As feminists have urged over and over again, the fact that gender violence is acted out in “private” does not mean that it’s not political. Ms. Alvarado fled to the United States seeking asylum from terror that was nominally illegal but nevertheless systematic, motivated by the desire for control, culturally excused, legally ignored, and impossible to escape within the legal and social framework of her home country. To deport her back to Guatemala would be to send her to her death–just as surely as if she were targeted by death squads or a religious dissident with a fatwa on her head. But in spite of some hopeful developments, the immigration bureaucracy–directed by John Ashcroft’s Justice Department–is dithering over whether to stand by Rodi Alvarado’s human rights or to collaborate with her would-be murderer.

A U.S. Immigration Judge granted Ms. Alvarado asylum in 1996, finding that the abuse that she suffered, together with her government’s unwillingness or inability to protect her, constituted persecution. But a series of subsequent decisions have left her in legal limbo for years. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) appealed her grant of asylum, and in 1999, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) reversed the grant of asylum. In 2001, Attorney General Janet Reno vacated the decision, proposed regulations to recognize gender-related persecution claims, and directed the BIA to decide the case again after the proposed regulations became final. Those regulations never became final, however, since Reno left office soon afterward. Attorney General Ashcroft announced in March 2003 that he would make a final decision in Rodi Alvarado’s asylum case.

Although he had taken over the case nearly two years ago, Attorney General John Ashcroft has now declined to decide whether to grant asylum to Rodi Alvarado, a Guatemalan battered wife. It is still uncertain whether Ms. Alvarado will be allowed to remain in the United States or be deported to Guatemala. Attorney General Ashcroft was expected to issue a ruling that would have had wide ramifications in other cases where women seek asylum for gender-related persecution, like threats of honor killing. The Department of Homeland Security had issued a legal brief formally advising the Attorney General to uphold asylum for Ms. Alvarado.

Rodi Alvarado’s case prompted the U.S. government to issue proposed regulations that will instruct immigration judges on how to deal with such cases. Those regulations have not yet been issued in final form. Attorney General Ashcroft sent Ms. Alvarado’s case back to the same court from which he took it nearly two years ago, the Board of Immigration Appeals. He ordered the BIA to reconsider the case in light of the new regulations, after they are finally issued.

Rodi Alvarado remains in limbo, still unable to petition for her children to join her, although she has spent a decade in the United States without seeing them.

There is no excuse for the Justice Department’s foot-dragging in Rodi Alvarado’s case. The personal really is political; when women face systematic violence and terror, that they cannot escape within their home countries, they must be able to find safe haven across borders. While the United States government proudly talks up freedom and an end to terror to the rest of the world, it must begin by standing for women’s freedom, and an end to gender terror. The over 50,000 letters and messages sent by Amnesty International members and other concerned citizens have helped keep Rodi Alvarado’s case alive and kept her from being deported. While she is held captive by the immigration-control machine in the United States, what could she be called other than a political prisoner? John Ashcroft and the Board of Immigration Appeals is doing nothing less than holding her captive while they deliberate over whether or not to recognize the assaults against her and the threats against her life are politically real. What reason is there for still quibbling about it 10 years later, other than the fact that Rodi Alvarado is a woman, and she was terrorized and assaulted by her politically protected husband.

Rodi Alvarado is a political refugee and today she is a political prisoner while the immigration inquisitors try to determine whether her certain death should matter to them or not. Goodbye to all that.

Free Rodi Alvarado!

Free all political prisoners!

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