In a win for the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies (CGRS) and the Hastings Appellate Project, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court decision Aug. 7 denying asylum to an indigenous Guatemalan woman seeking refuge in the U.S. from domestic violence.

Sontos Diaz-Reynoso was represented by professors and students with the Hastings Appellate Project, in which student advocates brief and argue cases before the Ninth Circuit. The ruling in Diaz-Reynoso v. Barr marks the latest in a series of recent appellate court decisions rejecting former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ attempts to foreclose refugee protection for people fleeing domestic violence and other abuses.

CGRS commended the court’s decision, which affirmed that survivors like Diaz-Reynoso can qualify for asylum. The plaintiff sought asylum in the U.S. after enduring years of severe physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her common-law husband in Guatemala.

The Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) relied on Matter of A-B- to deny Diaz-Reynoso asylum without conducting a fair and meaningful analysis of her case. In its cursory review, the BIA failed to consider social and economic factors that had made it impossible for Diaz-Reynoso to escape her abuser, said CGRS Legal Director Blaine Bookey. The BIA also ignored evidence that Diaz-Reynoso had twice reported her husband’s abuse to local authorities, whose inaction left her with nowhere to turn in Guatemala and forced her to flee.

CGRS supported Diaz-Reynoso as amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” and also argued as amicus in a related case heard by the same panel, which remains pending.

Blaine Bookey, CGRS Legal Director

“We applaud the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in Ms. Diaz-Reynoso’s case,” Bookey said. “We are gratified that the court adopted our arguments, affirming unequivocally that the administration cannot categorically reject domestic violence-related claims or use Matter of A-B- as justification to single survivors out for discriminatory treatment. Instead basic principles of longstanding asylum law require it evaluate all cases fairly, on the facts presented.”

The students who won the case are Shandyn Pierce ’20 and Hilda Kajbaf ’20. Supervising attorneys were HAP Director Gary A. Watt ’97, a partner at Hanson Bridgett; HAP Supervising Attorney Tiffany J. Gates ’11; and Stephen Tollafield ’02, Director of the Legal Research & Writing and Moot Court Department.

Tiffany Gates

Tiffany J. Gates

“We are pleased that our Hastings Appellate Project team was able to obtain a remand for our client, and that the Ninth Circuit recognized and rejected the BIA’s attempt to avoid the heavy lifting involved in considering our client’s proposed social group,” Gates said. “The published opinion is an important step in negating another governmental attempt at creating a de facto bar to obtaining asylum or withholding of removal.”

The victory “is truly a testament to the hard work, dedication, skill, and teamwork of our student counsel, Hilda Kajbaf and Shandyn Pierce,” Gates said. “Their devotion to our client and tireless efforts on her behalf are emblematic of what the legal profession has come to expect of Hastings graduates. Our clinic could not be prouder of their tremendous accomplishment in this case.”

The Ninth Circuit joins several other courts that have rejected the Trump administration’s intent to impose a blanket ban on asylum claims based on domestic violence. Earlier this year, the First Circuit in De Pena-Paniagua v. Barr and the Sixth Circuit in Juan Antonio v. Barr overturned denials of asylum to two women fleeing abuse in El Salvador and Guatemala, and the D.C. Circuit also recently upheld key parts of the nationwide injunction in Grace v. Barr, blocking the application of A-B- in credible fear screenings at the border.

Read the full CGRS press release here. Read more about the case in the San Francisco Chronicle.