Post Date: June 16, 2005

Last week the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a family is a protected and recognized social group for purposes of refugee protection and asylum eligibility—a ruling praised by a group of Harvard Law School students. The students, working with the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic and the Harvard Human Rights Program, had filed an amicus brief in the case of Thomas v. Gonzales urging the court to reach the conclusion reflected in the ruling.

“The case is of great importance because it clearly establishes that family is a fundamentally protected unit in society, including for asylum purposes,” said Deborah Anker, director of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic. “The analysis of the ‘particular social group’ category that has been fundamental to U.S. law for 20 years is that this category is defined by an immutable or unchangeable characteristic that is basic to social organization, and basic to identity.”

The Thomas v. Gonzales case concerned a white South African family seeking U.S. asylum to avoid persecution in their home country that was in response to the acts of a racist relative. In an en banc decision, the court overturned a ruling by the Board of Immigration Appeals that initially denied asylum to David and Michelle Thomas.

“The brief was the first project I ever worked on as a 1L,” said Alexandra Chirinos. “It is a clear example that, through the clinics, you can have groundbreaking impact on the law right away.”

According to Anker, the decision is of critical importance in cases based on gender, and also to children applying for asylum protection. It is also notable for establishing that the rule of law governs in the area of refugee protection.

“As a student concerned about protecting the rights of refugees and immigrants, I feel very encouraged to have played even a small role in the effort to ensure that asylum law is applied in accordance with established national precedent and international human rights standards,” added Spring Miller, a first-year law student who worked on the case.

Copies of the amicus brief can be found at For further information, contact Deborah Anker at or Nancy Kelly at