Does the Prospect of Arranged Marriage and Abuse Warrant Asylum in the US?

Article excerpt

When Hong Ying Gao arrived in the US from China in 2001, she pleaded with authorities for asylum, expressing fear that if deported, she'd face abuse and even torture.

But what separates Ms. Gao's case from thousands of other asylum seekers is that her fear of abuse is not tied to iron-fisted tactics of the Chinese government. Rather, it stems from anticipated mistreatment at the hands of her future husband.

At age 19, Gao was sold by her mother for the equivalent of $2,200 to become the wife of a man in her home village who, Gao says, will physically abuse her. Instead of facing that prospect, she fled China.

Is Gao a legitimate refugee deserving US protection? Or should she be returned to China and a future husband who has already paid for her? An immigration judge said that Gao had no claim to asylum in the US. But an appeals court panel reversed that judgment, ruling that the woman had a valid fear of persecution and was entitled to remain in the US.

Now, the Bush administration is asking the US Supreme Court to examine Gao's case. In a brief filed last Friday, US Solicitor General Paul Clement urges the high court to reverse the appeals court decision and send Gao back to China.

Mr. Clement says the decision by the Second US Circuit Court of Appeals in New York threatens to transform American asylum law into a worldwide haven for women trapped in potentially abusive relationships after being sold into forced marriages. Lawyers supporting Gao retort: What's wrong with that?

"We went over to Iraq to try to bring democracy to people, and we can't even offer a woman being sold into slavery asylum?" asks Carole Neville, a New York lawyer preparing Gao's reply brief to the Supreme Court.

Clement says such policy decisions should be made by the executive branch, not unelected members of the judiciary.

"The court of appeals' error is especially significant because it reached out to identify a broad new category of aliens (women in arranged marriages) entitled to seek asylum," Clement writes in his brief. The appeals court decision "has far-reaching ramifications for immigration policy in light of the fact that approximately 60 percent of marriages worldwide are arranged," he says.

In the case at hand, Gao is from a part of China where it is common in arranged marriages for a would-be husband to offer a cash payment to the future bride's family. In exchange, Gao was to become the man's wife after her 21st birthday.

Gao's mother spent the money to pay family bills and debts. Gao has said that at first she had no objection to her future husband. But she later discovered that he had a bad temperament and gambled, and she says he beat her. …