GUATEMALA CITY - A U.S. federal court ruling this week could unleash a wave of political-asylum claims from applicants who say being female and from Central America is reason enough to fear for their lives.
The case itself concerns a technicality in an application by a Guatemalan woman, but activists say hundreds of thousands of women from throughout the region could use it to argue the United States should let them settle in El Norte.
In Monday's ruling, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ordered immigration judges to reconsider whether Guatemalan women constitute a "particular social group" that may be persecuted. Courts have granted such status to women who fear genital mutilation and victims of domestic abuse, but two lower courts had said Guatemalan women was too broad a category.
Lawyers for Lesly Yajayra Perdomo - a Medicaid account executive for a health-care company in Reno, Nev. - argued that a high murder rate for women in her native Guatemala means that deporting her would constitute "a death sentence."
Activists say the same holds true for women in some other countries as well - and for men in Guatemala, for that matter.
A number of men have already received asylum based on the high levels of violence in the country, said Mario Polanco, director of the human-rights group Grupo Apoyo Mutuo.
Guatemala reported 709 women murdered in 2009 - and 6,498 men.
The murder rate in Guatemala in 2009 was about 49 per 100,000 inhabitants - shockingly high compared to Mexico with 14 murders per 100,000 residents. But it is still relatively low compared to neighboring Honduras, where the 2009 homicide rate was 67 per 100,000. El Salvador also had a higher murder rate than Guatemala.
"The situation for women is hard on a regional level in Latin America, but it is even harder in Honduras," said Honduran human-rights activist Bertha Oliva. She said Monday's ruling "should be extended to people from every country."
In Guatemala, where 200,000 people were killed in a brutal 1960-96 civil war, carnage is still common.
Two weeks ago, a woman who worked for Guatemala's prisons department was kidnapped and hacked to pieces by street-gang members protesting prison conditions.
"They wanted to send a message to the government," said Norma Cruz, director of the women's rights group Survivors Foundation. "They used a woman to do it, because they don't even see us as human beings anymore."
Cruz has testified in asylum claims by Guatemalan women - all of them unsuccessful. After Monday's ruling, she said she expects a wave of applications.