What happens to an American child when their immigrant parent, facing deportation, fears that their child might be harmed in the parent’s home country? Can a foreign parent seek amnesty in the United States based on fear for their child’s well-being? The answer, many asylum seekers have found, isn’t a straightforward one. An hour long documentary, Mrs. Goundo’s daughter, profiles a woman who is desperately seeking these answers. The film follows Mrs. Goundo, an asylum seeker living in Philadephia having fled her native Mali in 1999 as a political refugee, as she tries to make her case before an immigration judge; having faced female genital cutting (also female genital mutilation/FGM), Goundo fears that her two-year old daughter will be circumcised should the family return to Mali.
It wasn’t easy for Goundo to make this claim, for you see, she had already been circumcised and it could be argued that because she no longer faced this threat, she did not need protection from the United States. She was arguing, however, that because the practice was common in her country, her two-year old daughter would face a similar fate. It is not uncommon for a woman fearing FGM in her home country to seek and be granted asylum based on her own persecution. For an immigration judge to prove asylum, an applicant must prove that they are facing persecution (FGM) and that they members of a particular social group (woman).
I asked Emily Good, an attorney at the Advocates for Human Rights in Minneapolis, if cases like Goundo’s were common in Minnesota and what recourse these asylum applicants had. “It is fairly common to see women who have been circumcised or others who are fearful that their daughters will be circumcised when they return to their native countries.” They feared, she said, that this practice would be imposed on them against their will.
“Increasingly, countries around the world are passing laws that outlaw FGM, so the challenge is for women who haven’t been circumcised to show that this kind of persecution is real,” Good says. “[However] there is little enforcement, even where there are laws.” She adds that human rights and women’s organizations around the world show that FGM is still prevalent even in countries where it is outlawed, and these reports can be used to build an asylum applicant’s case. The women that the Advocates has worked with on FGM asylum cases are mostly immigrants from Somalia, Senegal, Mali, Guinea and Kenya.
A decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in 2008, she explains, made it easier for women and children in Minnesota to file for asylum if they fear that their daughter(s) face FGM in the mother’s native country. This ruling, Hassan vs Gonzalez, finds that even when a woman has already been circumcised (and thus would not face FGM again), she is still a victim of persecution: “[f]orced female genital mutilation involves the infliction of grave harm constituting persecution . . . that can form the basis of a successful claim for asylum.”