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The Case Of Rodi Alvarado

by Karen Musalo and Stephen Knight for Center for Gender And Refugee Studies


Rodi Alvarado Pena is a Guatemalan woman who suffered ten years of brutal violence at the hands of her husband, a former soldier.  Despite her repeated attempts to obtain government protection, the police and the courts refused to intervene. When she ran away, her husband found her and beat her unconscious. Desperate to save her life, Ms. Alvarado finally fled to the United States, leaving her two children with relatives.

She was fortunate to obtain the help of the San Francisco Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, which arranged for representation by a volunteer attorney. In 1996, a San Francisco immigration judge granted asylum to Rodi Alvarado. But the immigration service chose to appeal. Karen Musalo, now director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies and lead attorney in the landmark Kasinga case, coordinated and co-authored an amicus brief submitted to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA).

In June 1999, the BIA reversed the decision of the immigration judge, and ordered that Ms. Alvarado be deported to Guatemala.  The decision in Matter of R- A- led to denials of asylum protection to women fleeing a broad range of serious human rights violations, including trafficking for prostitution, gang rape and honor killing, as well as domestic violence. In the wake of the BIA's decision, Karen Musalo assumed sole responsibility for Rodi's legal appeal.

In January 2001, then-Attorney General Janet Reno responded to a nationwide campaign of outrage and concern by overturning the BIA's decision. She ordered the BIA to issue a new decision in Rodi's case after the issuance of proposed Department of Justice regulations on the subject of gender asylum (read the regulations). Those regulations have never been finalized by the Bush Administration.


Both parties and two amicus briefs are all in agreement: Rodi Alvarado should be granted asylum. Click here for: (1) DHS's brief; (2) Rodi Alvarado's brief; (3) UNHCR's advisory opinion; (4) Harvard/GBLS amicus brief from 187 NGOs and law professors).

January 2005: Attorney General Ashcroft remanded Matter of RA back to the BIA.

January 2005: Attorney General Gonzales avoided Senators' questions on the issue of protecting women refugees during his confirmation hearings.

June 2004: eighteen Senators urged the Attorney General to follow DHS's recommendation and grant asylum to Rodi Alvarado.

Letters to the Attorney General were sent by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Episcopal Migration Ministries, Lutheran World Relief, the Anti-Defamation League, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Hebrew Immigrant Advocacy Society, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and others.

About The Author

Karen Musalo, Director. Musalo has written extensively on refugee and immigration issues, with a focus on the intersection of international norms and domestic asylum jurisprudence, as well as on gender persecution.

Stephen Knight, Deputy Director. Stephen Knight has been with CGRS since its founding in 1999.

The story of Rodi Alvarado will be highlighted in a PBS documentary entitled "Destination America" on October 26, 2005. Destination America is a four-part series premiering on October 19, 2005 that examines an array of immigration and refugee issues, from factors that propel people to leave their countries of origin, to historical trends in the U.S., to profiles of individual immigrants (go to for details). The fourth segment, entitled "Breaking Free: A Woman's Journey," will spotlight Ms. Alvarado's claim for refugee protection, and has been produced by award-winning documentary film maker, Chana Gazit of Steward/Gazit Productions. (It will be shown in the Bay Area at 11:00 p.m.).

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.