Posted on September 29, 2015

Deaf Mexican Immigrants Are Declaring Asylum in the U.S. — and Winning

Casey Tolan, Fusion, September 28, 2015

When Rosa Aranda was 15 years old, a teacher wrote her name on a chalkboard: R-O-S-A. “These letters,” the teacher told her, “this is your name.”

At first, Aranda was confused. Growing up deaf in a small Mexican town where there was no education system for kids like her, she had never learned how to read, write, or do sign language. Unable to communicate, Aranda had been beaten and mistreated by her family while her siblings went to school.

“No one had ever told me what my name was,” Aranda said through a sign language interpreter. “I was 15, and it was my first time reading my name.”

Now, Aranda, 58, is an undocumented immigrant living in San Diego. She’s one of hundreds of deaf immigrants from Mexico and other countries who have applied for asylum in the U.S. in the past few years. They argue that the treatment they received in their home countries–which also include Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Colombia–amounts to persecution, and that deaf people living there today are still being discriminated against.

It’s a novel reasoning, legal experts say, but it appears to be working. Of the 250 deaf immigrants that California attorney Hadley Bajramovic has helped apply for asylum since 2010, four have won their case and none have been rejected. A fifth is pending final approval. (Cases generally stretch on for five years or even longer.) Since they’ve started winning, attorneys from around the country have been calling Bajramovic asking for help with their own deaf clients.

Applying for asylum isn’t the same as becoming a refugee — people who declare asylum are already in the U.S., either illegally or on a temporary visa. If they’re approved, they’re on the path to a green card and permanent residency. In order to be approved for asylum, they have to prove to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that they have a credible fear of persecution in their home country because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or a membership in a particular social group.

The deaf immigrants fall into that last category. Stephen Yale-Loehr, a Cornell law school professor who studies asylum and isn’t associated with these cases, said applying for asylum because of deafness was a unique and “creative interpretation” of the law.

But just being deaf isn’t enough to get asylum. Applicants have to show proof that they would be persecuted if the U.S. government deports them back to Mexico. {snip}