For 15 years, Aruna Vallabhaneni lived under the threat that she may be forced to return home to an abusive marriage.
Vallabhaneni, 48, came to Chicago in March 1997 from her native Hyderabad, India, to escape her spouse, Koteswara Rao, who she said routinely beat her and threatened to kill her.
But partly due to unclear federal regulations recognizing domestic violence as a basis for political asylum, she was always in danger of being sent back.
In 1998, U.S. Immigration Judge Robert Vinikoor ordered Vallabhaneni deported. Instead, she applied for a work visa, which allowed her to remain. Since 2005, she has worked for Southwest Airlines as a ticket agent and flight attendant.
Vallabhaneni and her attorney, Royal Berg, appealed Vinikoor's deportation order. But only after hearing convincing testimony from Vallabhaneni did Vinikoor reverse it. On June 21, Vallabhaneni was granted political asylum on the basis of domestic violence.
Vallabhaneni testified about being forced into an arranged marriage by her wealthy parents at age 17. Soon after the marriage began, she said her husband began beating her. And after her daughter, Shree, and son, Dheeru, were born, the beatings got worse, she said. He broke her nose once, affecting her sense of smell, and kicked her in the stomach another time, which forced her to get a hysterectomy at age 28, she said.
Her attorney said her testimony was key in the judge's decision.
"It took a long time, but the result was worth the wait," Berg said.
"We're hoping that other women who have suffered similar abuse will see this and come forward to present their case for asylum."
On Sunday, Vallabhaneni will celebrate her victory at a party in a restaurant near Midway Airport with many friends she's made over the years, from police to custodians to colleagues at Southwest, who call the gregarious Vallabhaneni "Miss Sunshine."
Few of those friends know that Vallabhaneni has gone through counseling for depression during her time here, primarily because of concerns over the two children she left with her parents in Hyderabad.
"Nobody knows my sad story, because I always look happy," Vallabhaneni said. "But when you're alone, and when you miss your children, everything comes out. I don't tell many people about that."
Legal experts in domestic abuse cases say Vallabhaneni shouldn't have had to deal with that anguish.
"I'm very happy for Aruna that after all these years of uncertainty, that she can finally feel the relief of being granted asylum," said Karen Musalo, the director for the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies at the University of California, Hastings College of Law in San Francisco.
"But the decision shouldn't have been so difficult," Musalo added. "If one takes the refugee definition and applies it in an unbiased way, these cases clearly fit."
Current federal guidelines for deciding who should be offered refuge in the U.S. are based on the U.N.'s Refugee Convention of 1951, which says individuals should be offered asylum in a country if they are believed to be persecuted for one of five reasons — political opinion, race, religion, nationality or membership in a particular social group.
Domestic abuse victims in immigration court most often argue that they should be granted asylum because they have been persecuted due to membership in a social group.
"In Aruna's case, that group would be women who are at the risk from domestic violence," Berg said.
The U.S. Department of Justiceand the Department of Homeland Security, which share the responsibility for granting asylum to immigrants, don't make public the specific statistics on how many domestic abuse victims have been granted asylum.
But the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies collected data from immigration cases for which it provided counsel between 1994 and 2011. That data show that political asylum was granted to 427 domestic violence victims and denied to 192 victims.
Musalo said there would be more victories if the federal government provided clearer regulations. Instead, immigration judges are forced to make case-by-case subjective decisions, Musalo said.
"Some judges just don't see this as an appropriate reason to grant asylum," she said. "And women like Aruna are paying the price for this."
That could be changing soon. In 2009, Department of Homeland Security attorneys filed an amended brief in support of domestic violence qualifying as a reason for asylum in a case involving a Guatemalan woman who fled her country after accusing her husband of raping and assaulting her.
That woman was granted asylum in a Los Angeles immigration court on Thursday.
That brief, experts say, is a positive step, along with attempts in 2000 from President Bill Clinton's administration to create regulations recognizing domestic violence as a basis for political asylum.
Berg hopes his client's case will lead to better regulations for domestic-abuse asylum in the U.S., which he said is already available in other countries.
Vallabhaneni, meanwhile, can apply for U.S. citizenship in five years. She is getting reacquainted with her daughter, Shree, now living in New Jersey on a student visa. Her father died a few years ago, but she now hopes to travel back to India to see her mother and son.
"And I want to buy a house," adds Vallabhaneni, who is renting. "I just have to save my money now."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times