Among the people desperately seeking asylum in the United States each year are many victims of domestic violence trying to escape a life of abuse.
But upon arrival, most are held at U.S. immigration jails, where they must prove a “credible fear of persecution” to avoid being deported back to the abuse which they were fleeing. To help provide that proof, medical experts with Physicians for Human Rights’ (PHR) Asylum Program conduct forensic evaluations of asylum seekers to show that their physical and psychological symptoms are consistent with the persecution that they report having endured in their countries of origin. Over the years, PHR has received more than 1,700 requests for forensic evaluations of asylum seekers fleeing domestic violence.
The asylum process is rigorous and requires that victims have exhausted domestic remedies before seeking international protection. A 2014 ruling by the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals determined that when domestic violence rises to the level of persecution in someone’s home country, it serves as a component of the asylum application which can ultimately trigger a state’s obligation to grant that person protection and asylum.
That 2014 ruling is now in jeopardy. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in March invoked a rarely used power to weigh in on an asylum petition of a victim of domestic violence from El Salvador. In legal documents, she is named as “A-B.” Sessions’ decision to wield power over the case’s outcome is triggering alarm about the fate of the 2014 ruling and the U.S. obligation to protect domestic violence victims.
In order to understand the critical importance of the 2014 ruling, let’s take a look at “JP,” whose case was assessed by two PHR experts, a forensic psychiatrist and a licensed clinical social worker. JP’s story is not all that different from A-B’s. She’s also from El Salvador and fled domestic violence inflicted upon her by her boyfriend, who regularly raped her, punching and kicking her if she tried to resist. He restricted her movement, locking their gate from the outside so that she couldn’t leave. She finally managed to run away to her father’s house, but her boyfriend followed her there and beat her. She went to live with her sister, but he continued to threaten her over the phone, and she feared that he would track her down.
JP felt that reporting her situation to the police would be futile. The authorities would not believe her, nor would her boyfriend be stopped, let alone punished, she said. “The police don’t help you. Maybe they’ll throw him in jail for one day, but the next day he will come out and he’ll be mad,” JP said.
She resigned herself to the situation, enduring ongoing abuse and accepting her fate. But when JP became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter, she finally found the courage to leave and seek asylum in the United States. Travelling alone with a “coyote” guide, she made her way from El Salvador, through Guatemala and Mexico, to the United States.
Immediately upon arrival on U.S. soil, JP was arrested by immigration officials and placed in detention.
But in her quest for asylum, she was deemed to have been persecuted in her home country. PHR’s forensic psychiatrist determined that JP displayed symptoms of major depressive disorder, in addition to post-traumatic symptoms. The onset, timeline, and pattern of her symptoms were all consistent with the domestic violence trauma that she reported. The clinician concluded that, from a medical perspective, if JP were sent back to El Salvador, it would pose a serious threat to her mental health.
That medical assessment, together with the 2014 ruling, meant that JP was eventually granted asylum in the United States.
But A-B’s case may go differently. Initially denied U.S. asylum, A-B won a subsequent appeal, which meant she would never have to return to the life of repeated rapes and beatings at the hand of her husband in El Salvador. A-B’s appeal was in the final stages of security checks when Sessions, in an unprecedented move, suddenly stepped in, giving himself the authority to determine the outcome of the case.
We have yet to see what Sessions will do, but his 11th-hour intervention does not send a positive signal. His decision will undoubtedly affect the way future domestic violence asylum cases are handled, and will determine whether abuse survivors will continue to be protected under the 2014 ruling. That decision came after nearly 20 years of court battles over whether domestic violence survivors are merely victims of criminal acts or whether they can be deemed victims of persecution. For the past four years, the message has been clear: if you fear for your life at home due to domestic violence, you are legally permitted to seek asylum in the United States – a message that PHR strongly supports.
Denying asylum to women like JP, A-B, and countless others would be turning a callous and blind eye to their suffering. It would also go against all the tenets of refugee law, which is designed to offer international protection, in the form of permanent legal status in another country, to those who have a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group and whose government is unable or unwilling to offer them protection from their persecutor.
“Given the numbers of people who are coming now because they found a way to escape the violence that they’re facing, were we to change our policy and not allow them in, or send them back, a lot of women would be facing either continued violence or potential death,” explained Frances Geteles, PhD., a PHR partner who has provided psychological evaluations for asylum seekers for over 25 years.
“It’s not just like someone attacked them once, or twice, but many times. We know, even from domestic violence cases here, that often it is very difficult for someone to run away, to escape, for all sorts of reasons … The stories very often are just so horrendous and so powerful that I don’t see how you can turn a person back and say ‘Oh well, there’s nothing we can do to help you’. That makes no sense to me. I think that people need a place to escape to safety,” Geteles added.
Sessions’ intervention into the “Matter of A-B” creates a dangerous atmosphere of uncertainty. It not only threatens the safety and security of A-B, but also puts into jeopardy countless other asylum cases that are still pending or that will be scrutinized in the future. PHR medical experts have clinically documented the level of trauma suffered by domestic violence survivors and our findings are clear: denial of asylum is very often a matter of life or death. As Sessions deliberates the eventual outcome of this case, PHR reiterates that protection should be at the forefront of any ruling.