I’m an asylum lawyer. Every day I fight for victims of persecution and torture from all over the world. I listen to their stories and I give them a voice. Perhaps some of the most compelling and most amazing stories of survival have been those of women – women from the Middle East fleeing the threat of honor killings and the complete abdication of their rights, women from Africa and the Middle East fleeing tribal practices that mutilate their bodies, women from Eastern Europe and East Asia fleeing forced prostitution and sex trafficking, and women from Central America fleeing domestic violence and their positions as the property of their male family members – all harm meant to relegate and maintain women as second class citizens in their societies…all harm that is permitted and even encouraged by their governments.
Recently, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington questioned whether domestic violence is a valid form of persecution under our asylum laws, stating, “This has no relation to what asylum is supposed to be about.” Mr. Krikorian accused attorneys of “brainstorming for ways to keep women from being deported” and stated that asylum based on domestic violence is a “pretext for legal mischief and an excuse to prevent the enforcement of immigration laws.” These statements are entirely without merit. Any refusal to recognize gender-motivated violence such as rape and domestic violence as persecution worthy of protection under the Immigration and Nationality Act and the U.N. Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees reflects a complete lack of understanding of women’s relationship to the state and their own governments’ failure to provide adequate protection. As an asylum lawyer who has represented victims of domestic violence, many of whom are now being detained with their children upon entry to the United States, this ignorance is offensive to me, and I hope that I can help raise awareness with this post.
So, what is asylum law about? Asylum law is about protecting people who are targeted with systematic violence because they embody a specific trait that they cannot and should not be required to change, such as being part of a specific social group. When their own governments fail or refuse to protect them, our laws do not permit our government to send them back to face ongoing persecution. Instead, asylum is granted following a lengthy and strenuous application process during which credible testimony and volumes of evidence are required to meet the high burden of proof.
For example, I have a client who was regularly beaten, verbally and sexually abused, held at knifepoint, and raped by her husband, often while her six-year-old daughter was in the room. When she tried to leave him, he hunted her down and forcibly returned her to their home, where the abuse worsened. When she went to the police, the police told her they would not help, as the violence she was suffering was a “private, family matter.” She fled to the United States, where her brother lives as a U.S. citizen, to save her and her daughter’s lives and to seek protection. She was granted asylum after proving that the violence she suffered was motivated by her gender, specifically her status as a married woman who, because of the social context in her country, was unable to leave her relationship.
So many of the mothers detained with their children in Artesia, New Mexico, and then in Dilley and Karnes City, Texas, and Berks, Pennsylvania have suffered such horrific violence. Time after time, those brave mothers have been granted asylum by immigration judges based on meeting the extremely high bars of our asylum laws. For example, D.M.L. was incarcerated in Artesia after fleeing Honduras with her two children. She had been beaten, threatened, and raped at gunpoint by her husband before fleeing to the United States and seeking asylum before the Headquarters Immigration Court in Arlington, Virginia. An expert witness from Honduras detailed how the government of Honduras was not protecting women from the rampant abuse and violence there. Country conditions evidence demonstrated women’s position as second-class citizens subject to a machismo-plagued society that met violence against women with impunity.
An earlier decision in 2014 by the Board of Immigration Appeals called Matter of A-R-C-G- held that a Guatemalan woman was eligible for asylum based on both systematic abuse by her husband and the fact that the Guatemalan government would not protect her. She had tried repeatedly to get police help but they refused to get involved in a domestic dispute. The beatings went on and she eventually fled, first to another city in Guatemala where he followed her, and then to the U.S.
These grants of protection do not indicate that the floodgates have opened – Asylum grant rates in 2014 were 8,775 of 41,920 applications. They do not mean that asylum will be granted to “scores of millions of women in backward societies with different social expectations.” Such statements reflect a fundamental lack of understanding of U.S. asylum law and “what asylum is supposed to be about.” Asylum is not about “backward societies with different social expectations.” It is about systematic violence against protected groups whose governments’ fail – and often refuse – to provide meaningful protection.
These women are simultaneously the most vulnerable and the strongest clients I work with. They have been systematically abused, beaten, raped, and threatened with death, but have made the choice to live, to seek refuge, and to save their lives and the lives of their children. They are refugees who deserve the protection envisioned by the U.N. Refugee Convention and Protocol and enacted into our own laws. They meet every requirement of our asylum laws, and those who say otherwise don’t understand what asylum law is about.
Written by Dree Collopy, Co-Chair, AILA Asylum & Refugee Liaison Committee, and Vice-Chair, AILA Media Advocacy Committee