Professor Karen Musalo directs the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies and the Refugee and Human Rights Clinic. She is lead co-author of Refugee Law and Policy: An International and Comparative Approach (4th edition), and has contributed to the evolving jurisprudence of asylum law through her scholarship, as well as her litigation of landmark cases.
Professor Musalo was lead attorney in Matter of Kasinga (fear of female genital cutting as a basis of asylum), which continues to be cited as authority in gender asylum cases by tribunals from Canada to the United Kingdom to New Zealand. She was co-counsel in the Ninth Circuit en banc decision, Abebe v. Gonzales, and attorney of record in Canas-Segovia v. INS and Ramirez-Rivas v. INS. She represented Rody Alvarado, whose case was a landmark in the struggle for the right to asylum for women fleeing domestic violence. She also represented Ms. L-R-, the asylum seeker from Mexico whose high profile victory broke additional ground on the issue of gender asylum.
Professor Musalo has been quoted extensively in the media, including The New York Times, Washington Post, The Nation, and El Pais, and has been interviewed on other media, such as Nightline, CNN International, The Diane Rehm Show, and Talk of the Nation. She was featured in the PBS documentary Breaking Free: A Woman's Story, which focuses on Rody Alvarado's case. Professor Musalo is recognized for her innovative work on refugee issues. She was the first attorney to partner with psychologists in her representation of traumatized asylum seekers – a practice that has since become standard – and she edited the first handbook for practitioners on cross-cultural issues and the impact of culture on credibility in the asylum context.
Professor Musalo has received numerous advocacy awards for her pioneering legal work, including the 2010 California Lawyer of the Year Award, the 2009 Daily Journal’s recognition as one of the “Top 100” lawyers in California, and the American Lawyer's 1997 recognition as one of the forty-five outstanding young public interest lawyers. In 2012, she received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Lehman College, the same year she received UC Hastings’ William Rutter Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Areas of Expertise (6)
Lawyer of the Year Award (professional)
Awarded by the Immigration Law Section of the Federal Bar Association.
Chair in International Law (professional)
Conferred by the Bank of America Foundation.
Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters (professional)
Awarded by Lehman College at the City University of New York.
Rutter Award (professional)
Awarded by for excellence in teaching.
California Lawyer of the Year (CLAY) Award (professional)
Awarded by the monthly legal magazine, California Lawyer.
Top 100 Attorneys in California Award (professional)
Awarded by Daily Journal.
Human Rights Award (professional)
Awarded by the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant.
Carol King Award (professional)
Awarded by the National Immigration Project.
Human Rights Award (professional)
Awarded by the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Annual Award (professional)
Awarded by the New York Central American Refugee Center.
Outstanding Achievement Award (professional)
Awarded by the Political Asylum Immigration Representation Project.
Eighth Annual Phillip Burton Immigration and Civil Rights Award (professional)
Awarded by The Immigrant Legal Resource Center.
Recognition: The American Lawyer (professional)
Conferred in recognition of the publication " The Public Sector: forty-five young lawyers outside the private sector whose vision and
commitment are changing lives."
Boalt Hall School of Law, University of California, Berkeley: J.D., Law 1981
Brooklyn College. City University of New York: B.A., Comparative Literature 1973
Media Appearances (27)
Inside the ‘pure hell’ of Violence against Women in Honduras
John Carlos Frey, PBS NewsHour
For some women fleeing violence, safety means changing US law ‘stuck in the past’
Monica Campbell, PRI.
Transgender Women Who Fear Death in Mexico Granted Relief by 9th Circuit
John Roemer, Daily Journal.
Ruling Changes Little: Guatemalan Women Still Victims
Giovanna Dell'Orto, AZ Central.
The Right to Asylum: Why Europe Has to Take in Migrants Fleeing Persecution
Dara Lind, Vox, April 22, 2015.
Credible fears: Central American Women Seek Asylum
Amy Frykholm, Christian Century.
United States Must Protect Migrant Children
Karen Musalo, Daily Californian.
The U.S. Wants to Help Central Americans – By Letting Fewer Refugees In
Dara Lind, Vox Media.
Victory of Domestic Violence Survivors Seeking Asylum
Brown Political Review
Ashleigh McEvoy, Brown Political Review.
Battered Women Deserve a Safe Haven in the U.S.
Los Angeles Times
Karen Musalo, Los Angeles Times.
Immigration Court Gives First Approval of Asylum for Domestic Abuse
Steve Straehley, AllGov.
US Court Sets Precedent by Ruling Guatemalan Domestic Violence Victim Can Seek Asylum
Cyril Mychalejko, teleSUR English (Reprinted in Truthout, September 3, 2014).
Board of Immigration Appeals Recognizes Domestic Violence as a Basis for Asylum
In First for Court, Woman Is Ruled Eligible for Asylum in U.S. on Basis of Domestic Abuse
New York Times
Julia Preston, New York Times.
Asylum Standards Weighed before Court
John Roemer, Daily Journal.
You Can’t Fix the Child Migrant Crisis without Understanding Asylum. Here are 6 Facts
Dara Lind, Vox Media.
No Easy Solutions for Child Migrant Crisis
Marketplace Morning Report, NPR
Dan Bobkoff, Marketplace Morning Report, NPR.
Meet Luis. He Fled Gangs in Honduras. But the U.S. Probably Won’t Help Him: Our Asylum Laws Are Failing Central American Migrants
The New Republic
Laura Tillman, The New Republic.
Hilary Clinton Wants Child Migrants Sent Back. Here’s What That Would Look Like,
Dara Lind, Vox Media.
Legless Cyclist Rides for Asylum Seekers
A Sex Trafficking Victory that Shows just how Broken the System is
Molly Redden, New Republic.
Snowden in Legal Limbo, his Flight Blocked by Legal, Political Obstacles
Hannah Allam, McClatchy DC.
Snowden’s Russia Problem: Why a Libertarian Activist Made Friends with Authoritarian States
Max Fisher, Washington Post.
Anger at U.S. Complicates Efforts to Capture Snowden
Hannah Allam and Tim Johnson, McClatchy DC.
Could Bradley Manning Help Edward Snowden Win Political Asylum?
Max Fisher, Washington Post.
Should Battered Women be Given Asylum in the U.S.?
Cynthia Boyd, MinnPost.
Violence Fuels Domestic Rise in Central American Asylum-Seekers
Jill Replogle, KPBS.
Event Appearances (16)
Refugees: How Nations can Meet their International Obligations to Protect the Persecuted
Roundtable at the U.S. Embassy Madrid, Spain
Fronteras y barreras: Retos para las refugiadas en España y Estado Unidos (Borders and Barriers: Challenges for Refugee Women in Spain and the United States)
Speaker at the XX Coloquio anual sobre la mujer (20th Annual Colloquium on Women) Sponsored by the International Institute, Madrid, Spain
Credibility, Documentary Evidence and Expert Witnesses in Asylum Claims
Federal Bar Association, Immigration Law Conference Memphis, TN
Domestic Violence and Fear of Gang Cases in the Aftermath of A-R-C-G-
Federal Bar Association, Immigration Law Conferece Memphis, TN
Fleeing Violence: Finding Prison: The Treatment of Migrant Women in Flight from Domestic Violence in the US Immigration System
Presentation James E. Rogers College of Law, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ
Child Migration: A Regional Challenge to Human Rights Commitment
Ninth Circuit of Appeals San Francisco, CA
The Battle for Equality in Refugee Law: The Resistance to Protection of Women and Children
Biever Guest Lecture Series Loyola University, New Orleans College of Law
Excluding Those Worthy of Protection: How US Interpretation of International Refugee Norms have Consistently Narrowed Protection
Loyola Law School Faculty Colloquia Loyola University, New Orleans College of Law
Conceptualizing Children's Asylum Claims
Immigration Theory and Practice Workshop Yale School of Law
Child Migrants: A Journey of Desperation and Hope
Center for Latin American Studies UC Berkeley
Addressing the Asylum Crisis: Religious Contributions to Rethinking Protection in Global Politics
Presentation Washington, DC
Forensic Psychiatry and Immigration: Cross Cultural Competency (Panelist)
Panel Discussion San Diego, CA
Immigration and Its Adversities: Mental Illness, Detention and Deportation (Panelist)
American Psychiatric Association San Francisco, CA
Hot Topics in Asylum - Particular Social Group Issues (Panelist)
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Washington, DC
Immigration Law Seminar (Panelist)
Memphis, TN 8th Annual Federal Bar Association
Gender Justice in the Americas (Panelist)
University of Miami School of Law Miami, FL
Selected Articles (28)
The central tenet of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is that the “best interests” of the child must be a primary consideration in all action and decisions affecting children. The best interests of the child is also a key principle in the U.S. child welfare system and in state child welfare laws. However, the United States has not formally extended this standard to children in the immigration system. The lack of a binding best interests of the child principle in U.S. immigration law is harmful to children across all areas of the law. This chapter focuses on two of those areas: (1) the forms of immigration relief available to children and (2) the procedures in place for children in the U.S. immigration system. Both fall short of international standards and moral obligations to treat every child as our own.
African Asylum at a Crossroads: Activism, Expert Testimony, and Refugee Rights examines the emerging trend of requests for expert opinions in asylum hearings or refugee status determinations. This is the first book to explore the role of court-based expertise in relation to African asylum cases and the first to establish a rigorous analytical framework for interpreting the effects of this new reliance on expert testimony. Over the past two decades, courts in Western countries and beyond have begun demanding expert reports tailored to the experience of the individual claimant. As courts increasingly draw upon such testimony in their deliberations, expertise in matters of asylum and refugee status is emerging as an academic area with its own standards, protocols, and guidelines. This deeply thoughtful book explores these developments and their effects on both asylum seekers and the experts whose influence may determine their fate.
n 1996, in a widely celebrated precedent decision, the Board of Immigration Appeals (Board or BIA), granted asylum to Fauziya Kassindja, a young woman from Togo who fled to the U.S. to escape the imminent prospect of female genital cutting (FGC). The decision, Matter of Kasinga, was notable for being the first published decision to recognize that an asylum claim could be based on gender-related persecution; it was also notable in applying and interpreting the controversial “social group” ground of the Refugee Convention. Later that same year, Rody Alvarado, a Guatemalan woman, sought asylum in the United States after suffering more than a decade of brutal and unrelenting violence at the hands of her husband. Applying the precedent in Kasinga, an immigration judge granted Rody Alvarado asylum, reasoning that although the form of persecution was different, the rationale was the same – namely that women harmed because of their gender could establish a claim on the basis of the “social group ground” and could meet the refugee definition. The U.S. government appealed the grant of asylum, arguing it was improper, and three years later – in 1999 – the Board of Immigration Appeals reversed the grant of asylum to Rody Alvarado. It would be another ten years until her case was finally resolved, and she was granted asylum. This paper examines the very different treatment of claims based on FGC, and those based on domestic violence in the United States. It describes the legal terrain and implications underlying both decisions, but also goes beyond the legal analysis to examine how these cases have been misunderstood, and frequently pulled into the orbit of the long-standing debate between universality of human rights and cultural relativism.
In August 2014, the US Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), the highest immigration tribunal in the country, conceded that women fleeing domestic violence could meet the refugee definition and qualify for protection. The case in question, Matter of A-R-C-G-et al., involved Aminta Cifuentes, a Guatemalan woman who had suffered egregious brutalization over a 10-year period at the hands of her spouse. Her husband beat and kicked her, including incidents where he broke her nose and punched her in the stomach when she was eight months pregnant with such force that the baby was born prematurely and with bruises. Ms. Cifuentes told her husband she would call the police, but he said it would be pointless since "even the police and the judges beat their wives." Unfortunately, her husband's claim bore true; she called the police on at least three occasions and they dismissed her complaints as marital problems and told her to go home to her husband.
Building on previous studies, this article provides a brief overview of the prevalence and patterns of violence against women in Guatemala, a country with one of the highest rates of femicide, or gender-motivated killings of women, in the world. It looks at some of the government’s nascent efforts to implement laws and policies aimed at preventing and punishing femicide and other gender-based violence, examines statistics that show these efforts have not effectively reduced levels of violence or impunity, and analyzes the principal barriers to effective implementation of the laws. In the end, the article recommends that - beyond the creation of additional specialized courts, continued trainings of justice system officials, and improved investigatory procedures, efforts the Guatemalan government has begun - the Guatemalan government should institute a monitoring program to evaluate the performance of public officials in carrying out their obligations to apply the laws on gender violence. Additionally, the government should create a system to impose disciplinary actions, including ultimate dismissal of those who fail to apply the laws effectively and without gender bias because, ultimately, without a way to evaluate and impose serious sanctions upon public officials tasked with applying the law, there will never be meaningful change.
This article provides an overview and analysis of protection for gender-related claims to refugee status, with a focus on the United States. It defines the term “gender-related” and explains the historical interpretive barriers to such claims. The article examines the earliest United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees pronouncements on the issue – beginning with Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme Conclusion No. 39 in 1985, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ first Guidelines on the Protection of Refugee Women in 1991, and continues through its Social Group and Gender Guidelines, issued in 2002. Within this context (and the context of other developments – such as the 1993 issuance of Canadian Guidelines), the article discusses developments in the United States, beginning with the release of “Gender Considerations” in 1995. It reviews the subsequent development of the United States jurisprudence, from Matter of Kasinga in 1996, to the recent resolution of Matter of R-A- (the case of Rody Alvarado) in 2009. It explains the current position of the Obama Administration, as set forth in a brief in the case of L.R. Through the discussion of this jurisprudence, the article highlights the ambivalence among United States adjudicators, and examines the advances and setbacks in the recognition of gender-related claims to protection. It concludes that the United States appears to be adopting a position more consistent with international guidance, but that until there is binding precedent, adjudicators remain free to retreat from the small advances that have been made.
Applying for asylum in the United States can be a strenuous process for both applicants and immigration attorneys. Mental health professionals with expertise in asylum law and refugee trauma can make important contributions to such cases. Not only can mental health professionals provide diagnostic information that may support applicants' claims, but they can evaluate how culture and mental health symptoms relate to perceived deficits in credibility or delays in asylum application. They can define mental health treatment needs and estimate the possible effects of repatriation on mental health. Mental health professionals can also provide supportive functions for clients as they prepare for testimony. Finally, in a consultative role, mental health experts can help immigration attorneys to improve their ability to elicit trauma narratives from asylum applicants safely and efficiently and to enhance their resilience in response to vicarious trauma and burnout symptoms arising from work with asylum seekers.
When Rody Alvarado's husband, a former soldier in the Guatemalan military, repeatedly battered and brutalized her, he rarely failed to mention that even if he killed her, no one would care. Unfortunately for Rody, and for the many thousands of Guatemalan women who are the victims of violence, her husband's words accurately describe the situation in that country. In Guatemala, impunity for the battering and killing of women is at such levels that perpetrators rightly feel confident that there is no price to pay for their unrestrained violence. Each year the number of women murdered rises precipitously, and there is general consensus that the impunity enjoyed by those responsible is a significant factor in the escalating numbers of killings in Guatemala.
In 1996, Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA). This provision of this law relating to the one-year bar was codified in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) § 208(a)(2)(B); 8 U.S.C. § 1158(a)(2)(B). IIRIRA contains a provision commonly known as "the one-year bar" to asylum. This provision requires any individual seeking asylum to apply within one year of her arrival in the United States...
It is beyond dispute that sovereign nations have the right to raise and maintain armies. This right may come in conflict with the right to conscientious objection, which has increasingly been recognized as a legitimate exercise of freedom of thought, conscience and religion. Individuals who face mandatory military service in contravention of their deep moral convictions, may flee their home countries, and seek refugee status abroad as a solution. Their recognition as refugees depends on a broad constellation of factors, including the particular basis for their refusal to serve, the nature of the military conflict itself, and the degree to which the state in which they seek asylum follows the guidance of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on the issue of draft evasion and desertion as a basis for protection. This article will examine the trends regarding the protection of the individual whose claim to refugee status is premised upon a conscientious objection to military service. It will begin by examining the internationally recognized right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and discuss its relationship to conscientious objection. It will then examine the position and underlying rationale of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on the issue. It will look at the trends in a number of common law countries, and evaluate the degree to which UNHCR guidance and other relevant human rights norms are respected. It will conclude by recommending a more robust protection of individuals of conscience who do not want to participate in the military.
One of the most controversial issues in the U.S., as in a number of other refugee-receiving countries, is whether women who suffer gendered forms of violence (e.g. domestic violence, female genital cutting, trafficking for sexual exploitation, honor killings) qualify for protection as refugees. This controversy was exemplified in the U.S. by the more than decade-long legal claim for asylum of Rodi Alvarado, a Guatemalan woman who fled ten years of brutal domestic violence, in a situation where neither the police nor the courts would take any action to protect her. Although her claim has been considered by the highest immigration tribunal, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), and two successive attorney generals - Janet Reno and John Ashcroft - it has yet to be resolved.
Este artículo es un análisis comparativo de la jurisprudencia y política sobre casos de asilo basado en persecución relacionada con el género. En los Estados Unidos todavía no se ha resuelto la cuestión de asilo por víctimas de persecución por razones de género. El artículo proporciona una historia de la experiencia en los Estados Unidos, y la discute en comparación a los desarrollos en la Unión Europea. Al fin, el artículo propone algunas recomendaciones dirigidas a España.
The meaning of the term "particular social group" and the determination of what is commonly referred to as "nexus" - the shorthand term used in the refugee adjudication context to describe the required causal connection between persecution and a Convention reason - may be among the most thorny interpretative issues in refugee law. As the law relevant to the protection of women asylum seekers evolves, it becomes increasingly apparent that the parameters of protection depend to no small degree upon State interpretation and the application of these two key concepts.
The recognition of freedom of religion or belief as a fundamental human right is well established in numerous international and regional instruments. Religion or belief has also been the basis upon which human beings have been singled out for persecution. The twentieth century bore witness to the Nazi genocide against Jews, in which millions perished and those seeking protection were often turned back. It was this great tragedy, and the failure of the international community to protect World War II refugees which gave rise to the contemporary refugee protection regime. The Jewish victims of the Holocaust were clearly contemplated by the drafters of the Refugee Convention when they included religion as one of the five grounds for protection in the Convention.
The past months have been seen significant developments in gender asylum law in the United States, including the issuance of proposed asylum regulations that specifically address gender claims and the vacating of matter of R-A-, the landmark negative decision. The US developments should be considered in the context of recent progressive development of asylum law relating to gender in a number of other countries - including guidelines from the United Kingdom and a decision from the Refugee Status Appeals Authority in New Zealand granting asylum to a women from Iran whose claim was based on domestic violence and State sanctioned discrimination. As will be explained below, events in the United States are positive, but when viewed in light of advances elsewhere, may be seen as continuing to reflect a high level of resistance to the progressive development of the law.
With Lauren Gibson, Stephen Night & J. Edward Taylor.
With Lauren Gibson, Stephen Knight, & J. Edward Taylor. Reprinted in Notre Dame J.L. Ethics and Pub. Pol'y 1 (Special Issue 2001).
In June 1996, the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) issued its landmark decision in Matter of Kasinga, Int. Dec. 3278 (BIA 1996), which was hailed as a positive milestone in the developing jurisprudence of gender-based asylum claims. Is Kasinga, the BIA ruled that the ritual practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) continues persecution, and that on the facts of the case, it was imposed on account of membership of a particular social group, was was defined, in part, by gender.
With Lauren Gibson & J. Edward Taylor.
Fauziya Kassindja's quest for refugee protection became one of the most highly publicized political asylum cases since the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act. The story of the young Togolese woman's flight from her home country to escape the dual fates of female genital mutilation (FGM) and life in a forced polygamous marriage ended up on the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post, and was covered by most of the major television networks. Ms. Kassindja herself was interviewed by Ted Koppel on Nightline, Barbara Bradley of National Public Radio, and Judy Woodruff on CNN International...
with J. Edward Taylor & Nipa Rahim.
Commentary on In Re Kasinga.
The issue of women's rights as human rights, long neglected by the international human rights community, has been brought into the foreground by a series of world events. The tragic and highly publicized use of rape and forcible impregnation by the Bosnian Serbs as a war strategy in former Yugoslavia dramatically focussed world attention on the violations of women's human rights...
On January 22, 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court decided INS v. Zacarias. The decision was one of only three cases in which the high court has directly interpreted and applied the substantive provisions of the 1980 Refugee Act...
The Women in the Law Project of the International Human Rights Law Group (Law Group) sponsored a delegation to the former Yugoslavia from February 14 to 22, 1993. The delegation, which was also endorsed by the Bar Association of San Francisco, had two principal objectives...
This year marks the thirteenth anniversary of the Refugee Act, passed by the United States Congress in 1980. During these thirteen years—twelve spanned the successive administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush—refugees and their advocates have struggled to hold the United States to the promise it made to asylum seekers in passing the act. The early to mid‐1980s were times of disappointment; but by the end of the 1980s there were encouraging signs that the United States could live up to its self‐image as a nation that welcomes and protects people fleeing persecution.
Unfortunately, recent developments have caused us to question this optimism; consistent with die spreading global antirefugee sentiment, a U.S. backlash against refugees is in the making. This backlash has produced cutbacks in protections for asylum seekers and threatens to severely undermine the U.S. protection system. To understand these developments, we must examine the evolution of U.S. refugee policy over the last thirteen years. We'll analyze some of the forces underlying the current attack on refugee rights and argue against a U.S. response that retreats from its oft‐stated commitment to human rights and humanitarian concerns.
Congress enacted the 1980 Refugee Act to bring the United States into compliance with the 1967 United Nations Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees and with the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which is incorporated by reference into the protocol. The Refugee Act adopted the definition...