Corroborating sexual assault in an asylum case

Sibanda v. Holder, No. 14-2157 (7th Cir. Feb. 13, 2015).

 Zimbabwean activists against gender violence (courtesy British Embassy).

Zimbabwean activists against gender violence (courtesy British Embassy).

Certain ethnic groups in Zimbabwe still practice chattel marriage, a system under which women are treated as personal property. Lucy Sibanda is a native of Zimbabwe. When she married her husband, her father provided a large bride-price to her husband’s family. Under the terms of this sale, Sibanda was transferred to her husband and his family, and would become the property of her husband’s family when her husband died. When her husband died, Sibanda’s brother-in-law insisted that she marry him. Sibanda went to court to prevent this, but the brother-in-law ignored the court’s orders and tried to rape her on several occasions. The police did nothing, for according to Sibanda’s later testimony before an American immigration judge, her brother-in-law, as a war veteran, was above the law in Zimbabwe. Sibanda was able to travel to Cuba with her cousin, an ambassador. During her stay in Cuba, though, Sibanda’s brother-in-law sold her old house. Once her cousin’s ambassadorship ended, Sibanda was effectively homeless. She fled to the United States in 2008. 

After coming here, she sought asylum. The immigration judge (IJ) who heard her case demanded that she corroborate her story. Sibanda submitted a letter from her younger son, who said that if Sibanda returned to Zimbabwe, her brother-in-law intended to kill her. The IJ denied the application for asylum, saying that Sibanda had failed to demonstrate a well-founded fear of future persecution. The Board of Immigration Appeals dismissed Sibanda’s appeal, saying that the IJ’s request for corroboration was reasonable.

The relevant federal statute says that an IJ may require corroborating evidence “unless the applicant does not have the evidence and cannot reasonably obtain the evidence.” Here, says the Seventh Circuit, it is obviously unreasonable to expect letters from her husband’s family, since they’ve sided with the brother-in-law. It’s also unreasonable to demand a police report corroborating the brother-in-law’s attacks, since Sibanda has said the police’s indifference is precisely why she’s seeking asylum. Plus, almost all of the brother-in-law’s attacks were made outside the presence of eyewitnesses. The Seventh Circuit remands Sibanda’s case back to the IJ for him to make a finding about whether Sibanda’s account of the attacks is credible. If he finds her credible, no further corroboration is necessary.