Center for Gender & Refugee Studies Prevails on National Asylum Policy

Recent work by the UC Law SF’ Center for Gender & Refugee Studies (CGRS) helped reverse U.S. immigration policies harmful to domestic violence victims and influence the outcome of a related Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case.

CGRS lawyers pushed the U.S. Justice Department to restore asylum for people escaping gender-based violence, gang brutality, and persecution against families. Earlier this month, Attorney General Merrick Garland formally vacated three rulings the department made under the Trump administration.

The first of the rulings, known as Matter of A-B-, has been at the core of the center’s work for the past three years, said CGRS Legal Director Blaine Bookey (’09). In Matter of A-B-, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared that claims pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence would generally not qualify for asylum, reversing decades of precedent.

The center criticized that ruling, which characterized domestic violence as an interpersonal conflict rather than one entrenched in gender oppression. Sessions’ ruling also created confusion and discouraged a case-by-case review of asylum decisions.

Matter of A-B- nearly derailed the asylum claim of Maria Luisa Rodriguez Tornes, a Mexican citizen who sought asylum after suffering severe abuse. Rodriguez Tornes’ mother, estranged husband, and partner had all beaten her for “being insufficiently subservient to men.

CGRS learned about Rodriguez Tornes’ case through the San Francisco Immigrant Legal Defense Collaborative and provided technical assistance to her immigration attorney, Kelly Engel Wells.

“The center played an important role,” Wells said, “not only in this case, but in the broader policy context.”

Wells persuaded a San Francisco immigration judge to grant asylum to Rodriguez Tornes, but the Department of Justice’s Board of Immigration Appeals reversed the judge’s decision, citing to Matter of A-B-. UC Law SF’ CGRS drafted an amicus brief to the Ninth Circuit in support of Rodriguez Tornes, represented on appeal by another local partner, the Tahirih Justice Center, and Munger, Tolles & Olson attorneys working pro bono.

In April, even before Garland rescinded Matter of A-B-, the Ninth Circuit ruled that Rodriguez Tornes was eligible for asylum, rejecting the argument that she needed to prove her political opinion played “the sole or predominant role” in her abuse.

“This case is a really good example of how zealous representation combined with our technical assistance—which helps attorneys develop legal theories and build a strong evidentiary record—makes a difference,” Bookey said. “In the end, the judges were swayed by the meticulous record. They couldn’t ignore that.”

Bookey said this case solidifies the school’s reputation as a fertile training ground for asylum lawyers. Students who have clerked at CGRS or received practical training at the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic have gone on to handle myriad pro bono asylum cases and bring impact litigation.

Karen Musalo, director of CGRS and co-counsel in Matter of A-B-, applauded the Biden administration’s progress in restoring the asylum system following the Trump administration’s broader assault on immigrant communities and women’s rights.

“Now it’s time to build on this progress,” Musalo said. “We’re ready to work with the administration to create an asylum system that provides every person a fair opportunity to apply for protection, in line with our human rights obligations.”