Resolving What is a “Forced” Abortion and Sterilization Procedure Under Section 601(a) of the IIRIRA: Expanding Asylum Eligibility Beyond China’s One-Child Policy to Protect Marginalized Women

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Karla Colley, J.D. Candidate 2024, Columbia Law School

The United States Congress enacted Section 601(a) of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) in 1996 to protect asylum seekers fleeing China’s One-Child Policy (OCP). Such Chinese asylum seekers have primarily utilized the statute to secure asylum grants on the grounds of being subjected to a forced sterilization or forced abortion. However, while the world is familiar with China’s now defunct OCP, researchers have shed light on a lesser-known practice—the global prevalence of involuntary sterilization by medical providers, both forced and coerced, targeting marginalized women. The published case law’s focus on involuntary sterilization within the context of the OCP raises questions of whether the statute provides equal protection to asylum seekers who were subjected to sterilization outside of China and without a similar government-stipulated policy. This Note explores three groups of marginalized women who are often targeted for involuntary sterilization, as well as the circumstances under which they are forcibly and coercively sterilized. It analyzes how the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) and some circuit courts have defined what constitutes a “forced” sterilization or abortion within the context of the OCP. It also presents an analytical framework for why Section 601(a) extends to asylum seekers outside of China. Based on this framework, this Note further argues that attorneys and physicians should widely screen their female asylum clients for involuntary sterilization as a means of potentially securing an additional path, with a lower evidentiary burden, towards an asylum grant.