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This article was originally published on September 13, 2011.

For immigrants seeking safety in the United States, having an attorney serve as an advocate and guide through the immigration system often means the difference between success and failure.

Studies show that immigrants are 36 times as likely to win their asylum case if they are represented by an attorney. For women and girls like our clients, success means safe harbor, self-sufficiency, and an escape from the violence they flee —while failure often means a return to danger.

Despite the fact that immigration proceedings can put an individual’s entire life at risk and threaten to uproot her from her home, her community, and her family, these cases are considered in an administrative court. Women and girls have no right to court-appointed attorneys and must secure representation at their own expense. If they cannot, they must represent themselves, in a foreign court, under foreign laws, often in a foreign language.

An attorney provides fluency in both the language and the law of the United States, and serves as a tireless advocate to break through the bureaucracy and red tape of the legal system.

“If we weren’t good at pestering the court, we wouldn’t be able to do our jobs,” says one Tahirih attorney. “Sometimes paperwork gets lost in a black hole.”

For women and girls like Tahirih’s clients, however, it is not enough to have just any attorney. Their unique gender-based violence cases require attorneys who are well-versed in both sensitive cultural issues and the extremely complicated and often unexplored territory of gender-based immigration law.

Cultural Context Matters in the Courtroom

Many immigrant women and girls fleeing violence come from cultural contexts of total impunity and corruption, having spent their lives watching abuse and violence go unpunished, or having found that their troubles were not resolved, but increased when they contacted the authorities. Our attorneys must serve as a bridge between the client and the system, convincing them that the United States courts can and will help them.

There is also the considerable difficulty of helping clients become comfortable speaking about issues which are taboo in their native culture. Even women from more open cultures are hesitant to speak out about issues of genital mutilation or sexual and domestic violence; for many others, even broaching such a topic is shameful.

One of Tahirih’s clients had been abused and abandoned by her husband in her home country and, as a result, was shunned by her community. However, she attended her first asylum interview alone and insisted she had a happy marriage. When she came to Tahirih, we connected her to a psychologist, to whom she explained that in her culture, marriage is sacred and that a woman loses respect and honor if she does not have a happy marriage. Tahirih represented her at her next asylum hearing, and explained to the court that it would be very unusual and shameful for a woman to reveal her marital troubles to a stranger at an asylum interview. With the client’s testimony and Tahirih’s background evidence, the client won asylum and is settled safely in the United States.

Tahirih’s attorneys must also be able to converse with clients in a culturally-specific way. Asking an asylum-seeker if she has been raped seems to be a straight-forward question; however, many of Tahirih’s clients come from cultures where that word cannot apply to what a husband does to his wife. The wife must do what her husband says, and thus there is no such thing as marital rape. Instead, Tahirih’s attorneys rephrase the question: “Have you ever been forced to have sex?” or “Has anyone ever made you have sex even when you did not want to?” Without understanding of such cultural nuance, attorneys would not be able to identify what trauma a client has suffered, much less mount a defense for her.


Attorneys who represent clients fleeing gender-based violence must be able to understand the complicated area of gender-based immigration law. Tahirih has been on the cutting edge of this area of the law since our founding in 1997, representing some of the first women and girls to benefit from U visa protection and to obtain asylum based on gender violence claims. Our attorneys are willing to push boundaries and explore novel areas of the law in order to obtain protection for the women and girls we serve.

Tahirih’s dedication to cultural diversity and excellence in representation results in a 99% success rate for clients. Through educational programs, providing training and outreach to pro bono attorneys, local law enforcement, like-minded service providers, and others who work with immigrant women and girls fleeing violence, Tahirih works to leverage and multiply our expertise, sharing our knowledge with others. Tahirih hopes to increase the quality of representation for women and girls fleeing violence, so that someday all may be able to live safely and equally.