Domestic violence survivors seeking asylum in US deserve our protection

Domestic violence survivors seeking asylum in US deserve our protection
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As thousands have arrived at the southern U.S. border seeking asylum, the Trump administration is exploring even more aggressive steps to curb U.S. immigration. One of the most alarming recent developments is its efforts to close the legal avenues for abused women seeking asylum. Administration officials have blamed the tide of women seeking asylum in the U.S., particularly those from Central America, on overly lenient laws.

Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsStopping Robert Mueller to protect us all Chris Christie compares Mueller investigation to 'Bridgegate' probe Oakland mayor fires back at Trump: ‘It’s my duty to protect my residents’ MORE himself has said that immigration courts were “overloaded with fake claims.” Yet now more than ever, we must understand the truth about how these women gain asylum in the U.S., as well as scrutinize why so many of them seek our protection.

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In my decades as a researcher studying domestic violence and pushing for policy reforms throughout Central America and beyond, I have served as an expert witness in dozens of cases for domestic violence survivors seeking asylum.

 

Just two recent examples include a Nicaraguan woman who suffered significant abuse and sexual assaults from both her partner and her father, as well as threats from local criminal gangs and another woman who was beaten, raped and tortured by a local Honduran politician.

International law requires nations to help prevent and eliminate violence against women, yet it remains rampant in Central American countries. In fact, compared to the rest of the world, Central America has the highest rate of femicide. According to U.N. reports, femicides have dramatically increased in Honduras since 2010 with 96 percent of murders going unpunished. Guatemala has a similarly lethal environment for women, where 590 women were murdered in the first nine months of 2017 alone and only 7 percent of killers were convicted. This data corroborates my own research and experiences in the region, particularly in Nicaragua and Honduras, where cultural and social norms of women being treated as property remain entrenched.

While there are laws on the books to protect women in many Central American countries, they are not being followed — and in many cases, these protections are even being rolled back, forcing women to seek safety elsewhere.

Often, these women choose to leave everything behind because fleeing is the only way to stay alive. This exodus of domestic violence survivors from Central America is a clear indicator that these are not isolated incidents of private crime and, more importantly, that they constitute a protected group worthy of asylum according to a landmark 2014 decision. Rolling back their legal protections will deny them urgently needed relief and put them at risk of grave harm.

The key fact remains that the standards for successfully claiming asylum from domestic violence are already quite high and a mere allegation of domestic violence is not nearly enough. Far from lenient, the legal burden requires a survivor to demonstrate not only a credible story of abuse, but proof that local authorities have been unable to protect her, that she would not be safe relocating to another part of the country or the region and that it is highly likely that she will suffer significant harm — even death — if she is not granted asylum.

Winning these cases requires a raft of evidence: affidavits from witnesses, friends and family, as well as police and hospital records of injuries. As one can imagine, the expenses for acquiring legal representation to gather evidence and expert witnesses are considerable — often prohibitive. With luck, a small percentage may be able to receive pro bono legal assistance, but for many women this is out of reach. As a result, despite the validity of their claims, nearly half of those seeking asylum do not gain it.

If anything, the United States is granting too few women asylum rather than too many. While understanding that the standards must remain high, the U.S. should not be taking away this crucial route of safe haven. If we do, we’re not only eliminating the opportunity for these women to live a life free from terror and persecution, we’re sending many of them to almost certain death.

Mary Ellsberg is the director of the Global Women’s Institute at George Washington University.