There's room in America for domestic violence victims

There's room in America for domestic violence victims
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The decision by Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump Democrat stalls Biden's border nominee Garland strikes down Trump-era immigration court rule, empowering judges to pause cases MORE to end sanctuary for most victims of domestic violence largely ends any hope for those who need to escape violence implicitly or explicitly sanctioned by the state. Not only will new applicants be denied asylum status, but those living here legally while waiting for a final decision on asylum originally processed under existing policy may well be expelled.


That existing policy came about due to a case that was and is all too typical of women seeking to escape violence systematically ignored by their home country. On Christmas day 2005, a Guatemalan mother of three entered the U.S. and filed for asylum shortly thereafter. She had married at 17; her husband’s abuse began then and never stopped. She was beaten weekly. Her nose was broken. She was burned with paint thinner and raped. She reported the abuse, calling the police multiple times, but they would not act because she was married to her abuser.


Her husband threatened to kill her if she called them again. She escaped to her father’s home and was threatened with death if she did not come back. She then sought refuge in Guatemala City; her husband promised to change his behavior if she would come home. But once she returned, the abuse resumed. She finally fled.

Her case with its horrific details resulted in the eventual reversal in 2014 of longstanding official U.S. government policy toward asylum seekers in her situation. Since then, victims of violence inflicted by private actors whose countries were unwilling or unable to respond could find refuge in the U.S. So why was that policy abandoned?

Generally anyone seeking asylum must show persecution based on “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion” as a central reason for their persecution. The precedent established four years ago allowed women victims of violence to be regarded as members of a particular social group. Sessions erased that distinction. No longer will those suffering from systemic violence and abandoned by their law enforcement officials be allowed to appeal for entry. Instead, Sessions wrote:

“The mere fact that a country may have problems effectively policing certain crimes — such as domestic violence or gang violence — or that certain populations are more likely to be victims of crime, cannot itself establish an asylum claim.”

Long prior to Sessions’ edict, the federal government had already strengthened its commitment to victims of domestic abuse through congressional action — amendments to the Violence Against Women Act eased victims through the immigration process so that they would not have to rely on unwilling abusive spouses for help in obtaining legal status. But that precedent too was ignored.

The new policy has of course alarmed women’s groups. Many joined the Congressional Hispanic Caucus in denouncing a policy change they saw as targeting women who were the victims of abuse and who had escaped their home countries to protect their children.

It also drew strong opposition from groups concerned about asylum requests from those claiming religious persecution, which is also often perpetrated by private actors unchecked by governmental authorities. Eight such groups, including my organization, the National Council of Jewish Women, filed a brief with the Justice Department objecting to what the attorney general was poised to do, to no avail. The more restrictive policy is also seen as applicable to victims of gang violence, religious persecution, and those who are or presumed to be LGBTQ — some of whom have suffered most egregiously at the hands of private actors unrestrained by governmental authorities.

This line of attack on women seeking asylum comes against a backdrop of other acts by the Trump administration, including threats to prosecute those who enter the U.S. outside of official points of entry, including asylum seekers; denunciation of the migrant caravan (traveling together from Central American through Mexico for safety’s sake) as “a deliberate attempt to undermine our laws and overwhelm our system;” and Sessions' assertion that “if you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law.” In fact, people are not “smuggling” children and the law does not require separation, as previous administrations show.

So now we witness already-desperate mothers traumatized by government agents wrenching their children away to be sent to foster care or detention facilities. Terrible consequences for the children’s well-being are predicted by pediatricians, psychologists, and social workers. The U.S. government’s official position is apparently that we will deny you asylum from violence and we will take your children to dissuade you from trying to save your families from violence and, yes, a predictable death.

Ours is an immigrant country. Our efforts to welcome the stranger have surely been wanting at times. Our policies toward refugees have even been devastating, but surely in the 21st century we can do better than turn away abused women and their children, vulnerable by virtue of their legal status for persecution in their home country. Surely we are not so consumed by animus as to reach back years into case archives to overturn policies that gave so many such hope. 

Are we? Everyone who has a conscience, everyone who believes that domestic violence is a scourge, must answer no, loudly, in the streets, in front of the legislature, and at the ballot box. There is not a minute to waste.

Nancy K. Kaufman is the chief executive officer of the National Council of Jewish Women, a grassroots organization inspired by Jewish values that strives to improve the quality of life for women, children, and families and to safeguard individual rights and freedoms.