After being thrown out of her home as a teenager by her stepmother, Maria* was raped by the son of her employer, who then claimed her as his property, coerced her into a relationship, and physically and sexually abused her for years. Maria’s daughter was kidnapped and gang raped. Her son was murdered despite Maria paying his ransom.
Maria is one of the 470,000 refugees and asylum seekers from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras who have left their homes in the last five years, fleeing endemic domestic and gang violence exacerbated by government corruption and poverty. Since 2018, there has been a 33 percent increase in refugees fleeing the Northern Triangle. Despite stories like Maria’s, the United States turns the vast majority of these people away.
Until the Biden administration improves legal protections for those fleeing domestic and gang violence, thousands will continue to be sent back to the dangerous conditions they’ve escaped.
Under the Trump administration, asylum policies were systematically gutted, eliminating legal protections for those fleeing unimaginable violence. In 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions stated that the majority of people fleeing domestic or gang violence no longer met criteria for asylum. This move disproportionately impacted asylum applicants from the Northern Triangle, who saw their asylum grant rates fall while the average grant rate for other countries remained largely unchanged.
As a public health specialist and a physician who works with asylum seekers, and through our work on a recent report published with Physicians for Human Rights, we’ve heard countless stories like Maria’s. While Maria was granted asylum before Trump took office, many people who have applied since have suffered a different fate. Until the Biden administration improves legal protections for those fleeing domestic and gang violence, thousands will continue to be sent back to the dangerous conditions they’ve escaped.
With lives hanging in the balance, it is critical that we seize this opportunity to highlight the true narratives of these migrants and use available evidence to defend their right to seek asylum.
In June 2021, a Justice Department ruling reasserted the right of domestic and gang violence survivors to seek asylum. However, these applicants still face fallout from the discriminatory stereotyping and exclusionary immigration agenda that undergirded the Trump-era ruling. Furthermore, these cases continue to face an uphill battle due to inconsistent and convoluted legal requirements under U.S. law. In February 2021, President Biden released an executive order calling for a review of whether the United States provides protection for those fleeing domestic and gang violence in accordance with international standards. With lives hanging in the balance, it is critical that we seize this opportunity to highlight the true narratives of these migrants and use available evidence to defend their right to seek asylum.
Survivors of domestic and gang violence, like Maria, often endure years of trauma before being forced to flee. They carry the mental and physical scars with them. Our recent report found that 78 percent of asylum seekers we interviewed had experienced three or more different types of trauma, such as direct physical and sexual violence and violence against loved ones, and one in five people reported experiencing violence by multiple perpetrators. These high rates of trauma have lasting consequences; 79 percent of the applicants met criteria for a mental health diagnosis and 68 percent met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Trump administration claimed domestic and gang violence constitute “private violence” and should be handled by an asylee’s home government. However, many migrants have no recourse, due to corruption and social norms that devalue women and allow police and community members to look the other way. In this sample, the majority (81 percent) of people who reported violence to the police noted no response or experienced increased threats or violence. Maria reported her gang rape to the police but officers didn’t ask for a description of her attackers because they didn’t intend to pursue her case. Furthermore, survivors are often told by community members and police that domestic violence should be resolved within the home or that they must have instigated the maltreatment, reflecting widespread community perceptions and stigma around domestic violence.
The Biden administration should continue to reverse the insidious Trump-era policies, along with other legal relics which deny those with legitimate asylum claims access to safety and healing.
Refugees who find safety in the United States can begin healing. In our sample, 74 percent of subjects who had access to two or more “resilience factors,” such as social support, religion, and health services, noted that their mental health improved after arriving in the United States. Prior to migration, Maria reported thoughts of self-harm; however, since finding refuge in the United States, where she finds solace in religion and regular communication with her children, she no longer contemplates suicide. Those in detention or who are denied access to the United States while awaiting their hearings – for example, under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols or the Biden administration’s extension of the Trump-era Title 42 expulsion order – are deprived of this opportunity for healing. The Title 42 border expulsion order has condemned people like Maria to family separations and severe psychological trauma, as a new PHR report found.
Maria successfully obtained asylum in the United States. However, thousands of others who are equally deserving of protection remain at risk. The Biden administration should continue to reverse the insidious Trump-era policies, along with other legal relics which deny those with legitimate asylum claims access to safety and healing. Doing so will bring U.S. asylum policies back into line with domestic law and international standards and will ensure that people, like Maria, fleeing severe violence without recourse in their home countries have a shot at the safety they deserve.
*Mehar Maju’s views are her own and may not reflect those of the University of Washington School of Medicine.
*Dr. Emery’s views are her own and may not reflect those of the Indian Health Service.
*Name changed to protect from reprisals.