The Ongoing Erosion of Asylum Protections for Victims of Domestic Violence

The Ongoing Erosion of Asylum Protection for Victims of Domestic Violence.

By Pilar Ferguson

On July 11th, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) issued a policy memorandum providing new guidance to asylum and refugee officers conducting credible fear interviews at the border to immediately reject claims based on domestic violence and gang violence. The guidance is based on Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ Matter of A-B- decision, in which he opined that domestic violence and gang violence are not viable asylum claims. This policy is likely to affect a majority of Central Americans trying to seek asylum at ports of entry along the US-Mexico border. Policy decisions like this one fail to understand the dynamics and realities of domestic violence in cultures and countries where women are not seen or treated as equal.

A credible fear interview is the first step for someone who comes to our border and asks for asylum. Asylum and refugee officers conduct the interview and determine if there is a ‘significant possibility’ that the person can prove she was persecuted on account of a protected ground (race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group). If the officer finds there is a credible fear, the person is allowed to continue their asylum case in our immigration court system.

The majority of the women who have fled abusive situations and are asking for asylum at the border come from three Central American countries, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. However, there are women coming to the United States every day from all over the world who are fleeing extreme domestic violence.

Domestic violence in countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala is treated differently than it is here. In the United States, we have a number of legal protections for women in abusive situations. In 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which has been expanded over the years. States have enacted their own laws to protect against domestic violence. Even though it took until 1993 to accomplish, marital rape is now a crime in all 50 states. By no means is it completely safe for women in the United States, but at least there is a real chance for a domestic violence survivor to attain justice and protection here.

The same cannot be said for the countries from which these women are fleeing. Their governments do not extend the same kinds of protection to survivors and for that reason they should be eligible for asylum here in the United States.

The United States Department of State 2017 Human Rights Report for El Salvador found that while there are laws against domestic violence, they are poorly enforced and impunity for abusers is widespread.[1] The 2017 Human Rights Report for Guatemala also found that while laws against domestic violence exist in the country, the police force often failed to respond to calls for assistance.[2] The 2016 Human Rights Report for Honduras likewise found that the while there were laws against domestic violence, impunity for abusers is rampant.[3]

In ‘traditional’ asylum cases the government of the applicant’s native country is the persecutor. However, asylum law recognizes that the persecutor is not always the government or government officials, but can be a private actor or group. In those cases, the asylum applicant has to show that their government is ‘unable or unwilling’ to protect them from that private actor or group.

This administration is claiming that the persecutors in domestic violence cases are private actors’ committing private criminal activity and inability for does not amount to their government being ‘unable or unwilling’ to protect them.[4] That is simply not so. The United States’ own Human Rights Reports paint a very different picture. They do not describe an inability for ‘effective policing,’ they describe a widespread societal view that disputes and abuse between intimate partners is not a matter in which the police should meddle, and an inability to enforce their own laws due to those societal views and government corruption.

Domestic violence based asylum claims, and although not discussed here gang violence based asylum claims, fall into the purview of the types of cases Congress intended our asylum laws to cover. They are not always won. Not every single person fleeing domestic violence or gang violence who asks for asylum is granted asylum. Those types of cases were difficult to win before the Trump administration took office and now, after Wednesday’s memo, will be nearly impossible to win.

To bar claims based on domestic or gang violence at this first stage, the credible fear interview, will prevent a person from presenting their individual case to an immigration judge during a full asylum hearing. Allowing for a full hearing on an asylum case, gives the asylum seeker the opportunity to present evidence on how their community and country view a certain issue. In domestic violence cases, it allows an immigrant to present evidence on how their government does or does not protect against domestic violence, how society views women and why there is a culture of impunity for abusers.

There are many examples of other asylum cases where the persecutor is a private actor and the harm can be considered ‘private criminal activity’– female genital mutilation cases where the persecutor is often family members or tribal members who are forcing or attempting to force the practice on women; sexual orientation cases where the persecutor is often family or community members; forced marriage cases where the persecutor is often family members who are forcing a person into a marriage. In many of those cases, the native countries have enacted laws protecting women against FGM, protecting LGBTQ persons, or outlawing forced marriage. But, just as we see in many domestic violence claims, the laws are not enforced and the police will not get involved in matters they consider to be ‘familial’ or ‘personal’.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has specifically attacked domestic violence and gang violence based asylum cases because he does not believe they are covered by asylum law as the persecutor is a private actor. The types of cases mentioned above could very well be next.

[1] https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/277575.pdf

[2] https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/277579.pdf

[3] https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/265808.pdf

[4]Matter of A-B-, 27 I&N Dec. 316 (A.G. 2018), p. 320 https://www.justice.gov/eoir/page/file/1070866/download

 

Pilar Ferguson is the Asylum Program Attorney at Human Rights Initiative of North Texas.

America’s Changing Identity: Review of Trump v. Hawaii

America’s Changing Identity: Review of Trump v. Hawaii
by Pete Thompson

The Supreme Court’s Decision to uphold the Administration’s travel ban represents an alarming deference to presidential power in the face of a growing human rights crisis. Our country faces apprehension from disadvantaged groups across the world as our government’s wildly contentious immigration policies continue to sow discord from our borders to the Middle East. From the beginning of his campaign, the President’s statements on the travel ban occupied a special place in this chaos – a smoldering, blunt-force policy that specifically targeted Muslims. Whether advocating for an all-out ban against Muslims on his website or resorting to vile stereotyping, the President’s intent to disenfranchise has always been clear.

With these explosive facts in its possession, the Court in Trump v. Hawaii wavered at the critical moment. The Majority essentially declined any substantive review of the President’s extrinsic statements regarding Muslims and emphasized that a national security directive is clearly discernible. Regarding this reasoning, Justice Roberts stated that as long as the travel ban has “legitimate grounding in national security concerns . . . we must accept that justification” – regardless of religious hostility.

Some experts opined that the Supreme Court’s decision was a foregone conclusion given the extraordinary broad powers of the president to react to national threats under the Immigration and Nationality Act.

But many are moved by simpler inquiries: what is the national security threat? And even if one can be articulated, can it really sanction the discrimination against specific groups of people?

Justice Sotomayor states in her dissent that the Majority “blindly accept[s] the Government’s misguided invitation to sanction a discriminatory policy motivated by animosity toward a disfavored group, all in the name of a superficial claim of national security . . . ” Justice Sotomayor emphasized the similarities with Korematsu v. United States, the case that dealt with World War II internment of the Japanese as matter of national security. In the majority, Justice Roberts disavows the comparison, explicitly overturns Korematsu . . . then essentially reaffirms its ideology. It’s confusing. And highly problematic.

For many, what does constitute a matter of national security is the President’s chronic, alarming rhetoric. But rather than confront the President’s repeated affirmations of discriminatory intent – the source of apprehension for millions of Americans and foreign citizens – the majority only addresses them in a cursory way and essentially takes a pass. In doing so, the Court fails to check an Executive who authored a discriminatory policy that will prevent desperate refugees from seeking shelter in our country, prevent Syrians indefinitely from seeking a better life, and confirm what terrorist cells have long insisted—that Muslim lives don’t seem to matter.

The effect of this ruling will be widespread. For many people fleeing conflict zones, America will no longer be an option. Some effects are more sinister. In Middle Eastern countries, terrorist groups – much like gangs – thrive on self-replicating cycles of poverty. Local groups prey on the weak and vulnerable and make lavish promises to impoverished families who, in desperation, give up their children to the cause. Those children are frequently clothed, educated, and fed a steady diet of anti-American doctrine. Experts warn that the upholding of a Muslim ban – regardless of whether it is a “watered down” version – becomes a highly effective new recruiting tool. As one commentator suggested, those recruiters can now say to their targets:

“You see – the US really does hate you.”

Whether fair or unfair, our policies say so much about us. And it is critical to see the big picture. We have removed the phrase “nation of immigrants” from our USCIS statement. We have separated children from their families. We have enacted a Muslim ban. Our identity is changing. Which brings us to one question.

What does our country really stand for?

Pete Thompson is an associate at Clark Hill in Dallas. He is a passionate pro bono advocate for HRI, having represented several asylum-applicants in front of the Houston Asylum Office and the Dallas Immigration Court. He is the Chair of HRI’s Pro Bono Advocacy Committee.

Will The Family Reunification Deadline Be Met?

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Human Rights Initiative’s Executive Director, Bill Holston, recently spoke with CW33, in reference to the federal court order that asks the U.S. government to reunite the parents and children under 5 years old who were separated under the current administration’s Zero-Tolerance immigration policy.

“Holston says he believes many on the government side are making a good-faith effort to reunite families quickly but they’ve been hampered by orders that haven’t always been clear in regards to how to execute them.  And even if and when all of the nearly 3,000 separated children are returned, the “zero-tolerance” policy will still pose problems.”

Dallas-based immigrant advocacy group doubts family reunification deadline will be met

 

THE REALITY OF PRESIDENT TRUMP’S RECENT EXECUTIVE ORDER

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By

HRI Board Member, Natalie Nanasi and HRI Deputy Director, Kavita Khandekar Chopra

Please note: This Op-Ed appeared in Letters to the Editor, Dallas Morning News, 06/25/2018 – Re: “Trump ends separation policy — Children now will be detained with parents,” Thursday news storyhttps://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/letters-to-the-editor/2018/06/25/letters-detention-facilities-compassion-moderates-double-standards-homeless-students

If you were quick to celebrate President Trump’s June 20, 2018 Executive Order (“EO”) “Affording Congress an Opportunity to Address Family Separation,” we ask you to pause for just a moment. The EO states that in order to “maintain family unity,” parents the administration has decided to charge with unlawful entry into the United States will now be detained along with their children.  To be clear – the Trump Administration, hiding behind the banner of “Border Security,” will now imprison mothers and children who are fleeing mass violence and seeking refuge in the United States.

Make no mistake, these children will be in jail. In DHS family detention facilities, freedom of movement is restricted. Detainees are told when to eat, sleep and wake. Personal possessions are taken away from women and children and they are provided government-issued clothing to wear. Flashlights from middle of the night bed-checks wake children from their slumber. Even play is regulated. Basic toys such as crayons are forbidden. The “visitation room” at the Karnes Family Immigration Detention Center in southeast Texas, where Natalie led a group of volunteer SMU law students in the spring of 2017, has a roughly 9’x11’ rug on which all toys are required to remain. The students regularly witnessed guards discipline children if a toy car strayed from the boundaries of the carpet.

It is important to note that arresting and detaining parents and children is a policy choice. The Department of Homeland Security has the authority, which it has long exercised, to either prosecute and detain or release parents and families. No law requires the detention of those who have crossed the border without authorization and there are many occasions in which offenders who commit misdemeanor violations such us unlawful entry are not ultimately charged with a crime. There are also more humane – and cheaper – alternatives to detention. It is only the administration’s recent “zero tolerance” policy that mandates the criminal prosecution and detention of anyone who crosses the border without authorization, including those who present themselves at the border seeking asylum.

The President’s Executive Order also requires the Secretary of Homeland Security to maintain custody of families “during the pendency of any criminal improper entry or immigration proceedings involving their members.” These legal processes could take months or perhaps even years to resolve, and because mothers with children are detained separately from men, families will remain separated and subjected to the horrors of detention.

Just a week away from America’s Independence Day, we ask you is this what American stands for?  We don’t think so.

 

 

Anti-Immigration Bill up for Vote TODAY!

THIS IS A CALL TO ACTION

Are you UPSET about the recent separation of immigrant children and parents at our border?

The House has introduced a bill that outwardly promises to answer our concerns regarding family separation and this administration’s extensive mishandling of immigrants – however, it does no such thing.

THE HOUSE IS SET TO VOTE ON THIS ANTI-IMMIGRANT BILL TOMORROW!

Demand a NO vote on this bill!

CLICK Here TO USE THE ACLU’S EASY FORM TO REACH YOUR REPRESENTATIVE TODAY.

Be Heard Now.

Celebrating International Women’s Day

 

HRI Female Staff Members. Back Row Left to Right: Kavita Khandekar Chopra, Carolina Pina, Pilar Ferguson, Elisandra De La Cruz, Marisa Arancibia. Front Row Left to Right: Zeyla Gonzalez, Marcela Evans, Elean Martinez, Kristina Morales, Sara Wahl

Today we celebrate International Women’s Day! “International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women (source).” As Deputy Director of a 92% female staff, I cannot think of a better way to celebrate this day than with all of my amazing coworkers (pictured above).

Each and every member of our staff pours their hearts and minds into the great work we do here. As our Client Intake Manager, Elean is the first person all of our clients meet when they come to HRI for the first time. She knows how difficult it can be to ask for help, and does everything she can to make our clients feel comfortable, relaxed, and welcome in our office.

Our attorneys, Marcela, Pilar, and Sara, combine their sharp legal know-how with compassion and respect, ensuring our clients receive excellent and professional legal representation in their case for immigration relief. I am especially in awe of Carol Jablonski, our Volunteer Staff Attorney, who spends two days a week working at HRI on a pro bono basis. We could not ask for a better Legal Team.

Our legal assistants, Kristina, Zeyla and Carolina, work hard to stay ahead of work authorization deadlines to ensure our clients do not have a gap in their work pay. And when the time comes, they help clients with their application for their green card, ensuring their permanent residency in the United States. These three women keep our legal programs functioning at a high level because of their dedication to this work.

In Social Services, Zainab and Elisandra, work together to ensure HRI’s clients are able to access necessary and beneficial social services. Zainab’s and Elisandra’s tireless advocacy for our clients has resulted in a multitude of new partnerships across the North Texas area. And this Winter/Spring, the Program has hosted Madeleine, a wonderful intern from the University of Arkansas, Clinton School of Public Service.

Marisa, our Marketing & Special Events Coordinator, uses her passion for human rights and her writing skills to keep our community informed of our work. She shares our success stories and organizes our exceptional events, like our 5K coming up on April 28!! 

And I can’t forget Bill, our intrepid Executive Director. While he is not a woman, he is a man who displays nothing but respect for the females in his life, from his wife to his co-workers. I could not ask for a better boss.

International Women’s Day also makes me pause to reflect upon the incredibly women we serve at Human Rights Initiative of North Texas (HRI).

Every day at HRI I see strong, resilient, powerful immigrant women who risk everything for their safety and the safety of their children. Women like Leyla, a Sudanese immigrant who left her husband and life behind to protect her daughters from the brutality of female genital mutilation. FGM is a very real, very prevalent non-medical procedure that is forced upon more than 200 Million women today. The effects of FGM can last for a lifetime, making sex, childbirth and day-to-day life painful.  Simply by being able to keep her young daughters in the United States and away from their father, Leyla ensured their lives would not be harmed in this way and they would not have to endure this barbaric procedure. She in turn, sacrificed everything she had to make this happen.

Or I think of women like Mariah, a young undocumented Mexican immigrant who was stuck in an abusive marriage to a United States citizen. Mariah courageously made the decision to leave when she realized her young daughter would be affected by the abuse she endured. She left without knowing if her immigration status would protect her and allow her to stay with her daughter in the United States. But she knew it was the only option she had if she wanted to be in her daughter’s life for years to come. So she took the chance.

 

Leyla and Mariah not only display the incredible resilience that resides in all women, but their stories also remind us of the importance of intersectionality. In order to truly protect the rights and dignity of all women, we must also protect the rights and dignity of marginalized, disenfranchised and oppressed communities. This includes immigrant women, Black women, Latina women, incarcerated women, lgbt women, women with disabilities, women from low socio-economic status, and so many more.

Leyla and Mariah made the brave choice to leave everything they have ever known in order to protect themselves and their children. These women had the courage to make a leap of faith, not knowing what would be waiting for them on the other side, but knowing they could not remain where they were.

It is a point of pride for me to know that our HRI staff is here on the other side, waiting to help women like Leyla and Mariah. When they, and other clients like them, find our office, hear about our services, work with our incredible staff, and eventually receive legal status in the United States, they know that their leap of faith was not in vain.

When women work together, something magical happens. And this is the magic I celebrate with my co-workers today. Happy Women’s Day! 

Martha Gains Asylum in the U.S.

Martha was a political activist who was persecuted by the Zimbabwean government and the majority party, the ZANU-PF, for her activism and engagement in peaceful political activities. Her home was burned down, and she and various members of her family were physically assaulted and tortured. In 2014, she traveled to the U.S. for her education and when she returned she was questioned by the ZANU-PF about her reasons for visiting the U.S. and sexually assaulted by several ZANU-PF members. She was able to come to the U.S for a school graduation and did not leave the U.S. after learning that her husband had been threatened by the SANU-PF and told that if she returned, they would kill her.

Martha came to HRI in late 2015 for help with asylum case. Due to huge backlogs in the system, after an asylum case was filed, it then took around 2-3 years for the case to be scheduled for an interview. However, after arriving in the U.S., Martha found out that she had urgent medical issues which she needed to address, and her pro bono attorney advocated for her asylum case to be expedited in late 2016.

In addition, her children were being greatly affected by the draught in Zimbabwe and lost their main caretaker when she passed away after Martha left. Martha was distraught at being separated from her children and suffered from depression for much of the time we assisted her. We were grateful for the hard work of her pro bono attorney who crafted a compelling request for her case to be expedited, which the government approved.

Martha’s asylum interview was held in 2017, and she found out she had been granted asylum a few weeks later! Once Martha’s case was approved, HRI’s asylum program immediately filed relative petitions so that her husband and children could join her in the United States.

Matha’s pro bono attorney also assisted HRI’s asylum program with successfully requesting that these petitions be expedited as well.

We are thrilled to say that by the end of 2017, Martha was reunited with her family! There were many tears of joy in our office upon seeing Martha and her family finally together again living safely in the United States and we are tremendously excited to see what the future holds for all of them.

– Zainab Ellis, HRI’s Social Services Director

A Farewell to Camille Kulas

HRI will be saying farewell to our social services intern, Camille Kulas, after a summer-long internship.

A native of Lille, France, Camille received her undergraduate degree in Economics and Management and her master’s degree in Political Science: International Solidarity, Humanitarian Action, and Crisis which made her a unique and perfect fit for HRI.

Elisandra de la Cruz, Casework and Administrative Assistant at HRI worked closely with Camille throughout the summer and explained, “Camille did extensive work focusing and supporting our newly arrived immigrants seeking asylum in our social service department. Whether she was meeting with clients one on one and conducting intakes to assess needs or working with agencies around the DFW area to build a solid referral system for our clients, she always put her heart into her work.

During her time here, she also worked conducting research on the best practices to interview victims of crime and abuse. This prepared her to be able to successfully understand the difficulties immigrants face in Texas and the best way to support them in our social services department. Her diligence, compassion and dedication towards helping our most vulnerable made Camille a perfect fit not only for our social service department, but our agency as a whole.”

Camille said that the driving force in interning with our organization was because, “I wanted to get a taste of how human rights work, and reading about HRI really made me consider it, as it helps a lot of people from different backgrounds—and not only for asylum. I thought it would be really interesting and a good place to learn about the differences in law regarding immigration between the US and France, and it turned out that it was. This internship was a great way to really get an idea of how things are in reality and to really be able to help people get settled into their new lives in the US.”

One of the ‘aha-moments’ Camille said that she experienced during her time at HRI was regarding the asylum system and, “how the government does not help asylum seekers at all, not even to have housing, how long the process can be, and learning that withholding of removal did provide some relief to an asylum seeker, but that they would not be allowed to travel outside of the US.”

She also learned, “How tricky immigration laws can be, but mainly that even though people escaping violence and bad situations can be extremely resourceful, there is a total lack of awareness on how to navigate the American system and that they do need our help to get access to resources and get acclimated to this new country, which is one of the reasons that HRI is so effective in helping survivors of human rights abuses.”

Beyond the technical side of her internship, Camille really enjoyed the personal connections she made as a social services intern: “One of my favorite memories with HRI was seeing one of our clients get settled into her new transitional home with her two small boys and being overjoyed by what the agency is doing. The work that was done and the struggles during this search for housing were definitely worth it when we saw the smiles on their faces.”

Though we are sad to see Camille go, we are certain that she will do amazing things in her life and we hope that our paths will cross again in the future. Until then, we wish her all the best!

Carolina Wins Asylum! 

HRI recently won the cases of a 23-year-old Salvadoran woman and her 4-year-old daughter who sought asylum from severe domestic violence.  Carolina began living with her partner when she was only 15, and the abuse started shortly thereafter.  He abused her physically, emotionally, financially, and sexually, including when she was pregnant.  She attempted to leave him on many occasions.  She even moved in with her grandfather in another city, but eventually her partner used his gang connections to track her down and threaten her and her grandfather if she did not return to him.  She called the police once when her partner took their daughter from her, but the police told her that they don’t get involved in “marital problems.”

On July 5, 2017, two years after Carolina entered the U.S. and after extensive written advocacy by HRI’s pro bono team, the government attorney agreed that Carolina merited withholding of removal and agreed to asylum for her daughter, so the judge granted those legal remedies without a trial!

-Mary Durbin, Asylum Program Attorney

Josie Settles In

 

Josie* is currently seeking asylum in the US with her two children. Like most asylum seekers, she is unable ti legally work while waiting for her asylum application to be processed. The financial hardship our clients face are the norm amongst asylum seekers throughout the U.S. Josie can barely afford to buy groceries for her two young boys. After arriving to the U.S. alone with her children she was let to figure out how to navigate the public transportation system on her own.

After much advocacy and coordination from our staff, Josie she was finally accepted into a program for homeless mothers. Our team seamlessly facilitated her move to her new home.  Josie now lives in a safer place where she and her boys share their own room. Thanks to this program and others like DASH Network, Josie and her children were able to enroll in day camps for the summer. These summer camps have allowed Josie to begin to connect to the community and to rebuilding their lives. Our client has also benefited immensely by being paired with an HRI Ambassador/Mentor who has proved to be essential in helping Josie acclimate to her new surroundings. This month our Social Services intern volunteered to showed Josie how her how to use the public transportation system here in Dallas and how to access free food pantries.

Josie is now more confident. She’ll start counseling,enroll in ESL classes, and complete a financial and job readiness course hosted by our Angel of Freedom Award winners, InterNations of Dallas! Our Ambassadors and faithful volunteers are a crucial component to our client’s ability to thrive here in the U.S. We are so thankful to all who have played a role in helping Josie overcome the many obstacles set before her. Seeing our clients succeed and become independent is a small victory for us here at HRI!

-Elisandra De La Cruz, Children’s Program Assistant