New US asylum rules leave abuse survivors ‘always afraid’

Yasmin Montes knew what the loud pounding on the door of her home in Potrerillos, Honduras meant.

Caught up in a relationship with a gang member, the young mother of one, suffered regular beatings by her boyfriend for more than three years. 

During one of his most violent visits in 2014, he threatened to take their child away. 

That is when Montes, who was 21 years old at the time, became fed up. 

She packed her bags and headed for the US-Mexico border with her one-year-old daughter in hand.

The two spent days in a cold detention centre, before being released, and eventually obtaining asylum on domestic violence grounds.

That was in 2017. Had her paperwork taken a year longer, Montes fears she may have been denied asylum and forced back to the violence she had escaped years earlier.

“It’s the best thing that could have happened to me because I feel safe in this country,” she told Al Jazeera by phone.

Now, though, after a decision by US Attorney General Jeff Session in May that makes it harder for domestic abuse survivors to apply for asylum, Montes worries about other women in Central America that come to the US to seek reprieve from violence.

“I know the decision is going to cost them,” Montes said. “I pray that other women win their cases, too, because if they return to their countries, something bad will happen. They will be beaten or killed.”

Domestic violence claims ‘generally’ won’t qualify 

Sessions’ decision effectively reversed precedent put in place during the administration of former US President Barack Obama that allowed more women to cite domestic violence and fears of gang violence as part of their asylum application. 

“Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum,” Sessions wrote in his ruling.

“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,” he said.

The ruling has been slammed by human rights advocates and attorneys, who call it an assault on women’s rights.

“It essentially says that if you are abused at home or by non-government actors, and Sessions calls this private crime, you do not deserve protection under the nation’s asylum laws,” said Dorchen Leidholdt, director of the Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services at the Sanctuary for Families.

“When women are abused, and suffer gender-based violence, it typically happens in private,” she told Al Jazeera, adding the decision will “harm thousands and thousands of women”.

Every 18 hours a woman is killed in El Salvador

Added to this, many advocates and survivors have a particular concern for women fleeing Central America, which has the highest violent death rates for women in the world, according to the Small Arms Survey. 

Ashley Huebner, a lawyer with the National Immigrant Justice Center’s Asylum Project, says the administration’s decision to undermine protected asylum grounds for survivors of domestic violence is a “purposeful misunderstanding” of the dire situation of gender violence in Central America.

On average, every 18 hours a woman was killed in El Salvador in 2017, according to data from the Institute of Legal Medicine. The National Women’s Development Institute (Isdemu) recorded 152 femicides between January and May 1 of this year in the country. 

In 2017, at least 389 women were killed in Honduras alone, according to the Observatory of Violence of the National Autonomous University of Honduras.

Women in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras reported being raped, assaulted, extorted and threatened by gangs and drug cartels to the UN Refugee Agency in 2015. More than half said they reported the violence to authorities only to receive no adequate protection as a result.

UN Women has said that these “gender-related killings are the last act – a culmination – in a series of violent acts” that includes domestic violence, which happens in the region with domestic violence rates as high as 50 percent

For Leidholdt, it’s not only that domestic violence is pervasive in these countries but the government response also falls short.

“Governments are not putting in the measures to protect victims and that means that the violence reaches life-threatening proportions and victims are denied protection,” she said.

‘One is always afraid’

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recently filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration, including Sessions, over the new policies. On Thursday, a federal judge blocked the government from deporting the ACLU’s clients in the case, including a female asylum seeker who had earlier that day been put on a plane back to her home country of El Salvador. 

According to the ACLU, US District Judge Emmet Sullivan ordered the government to “turn the plane around”. The woman fled El Salvador with her daughter to “escape two decades of horrific sexual abuse by her husband and death threats from a violent gang,” the lawsuit said. The woman’s husband “routinely raped, stalked and threatened her with death, treating her as his property, even after they were living apart,” it added.

Immigration lawyers are also worried about what the decision will mean for women with pending asylum cases.

“Those survivors have now lived in the US for a couple of years, preparing for their cases with the hope that they’ll be able to successfully fight their case. I worry whether judges will be willing to look at their claims as valid in light of this decision,” said Karla Altmayer, a lawyer working with immigrant survivors of domestic violence.

I’ve already gone through all of that but I know how afraid they must be. Afraid they will deny you asylum, afraid that they’ll send you back. One is always afraid.

Yasmin Montes, domestic violence survivor 

Other lawyers like Leidholdt have also already begun to see the effect of May’s decision.

“I had the unenviable task of telling three women who were terribly persecuted in their home country on the basis of gender, suffered life-threatening abuse for decades. I had the unenviable task of telling them that it was much more difficult for them now,” Leidholdt said. 

According to Leidholdt, the women responded, saying, “It’s good you let us know, so we can know how to pray, so we can ask God to help us.”

Montes, the domestic violence survivor, said she knows the fear these women feel.

“I’ve already gone through all of that but I know how afraid they must be,” she said.

“Afraid they will deny you asylum, afraid that they’ll send you back. One is always afraid.”

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