The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Not even those seeking asylum are welcome

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A monument at the Tijuana-San Diego border for those who have died attempting to cross from Mexico into the US. Each coffin represents a year and the number of dead. (Photo: © Tomas Castelazo, www.tomascastelazo.com / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0)

In the latest of anti-immigrant actions, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said yesterday that Central Americans fleeing domestic abuse or gang violence may not be able to seek asylum in the United States.

On Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that Central American women, children and families fleeing domestic abuse or gang violence may not be able to apply for asylum, slamming the door shut on those fleeing for their lives.  This hostile ruling follows heart-wrenching news reports that US border agents are cruelly separating children of all ages from their parents, and are now contemplating moving them into detention camps.

I volunteer as an expert witness on country conditions for Central American women who are seeking safety in this country through the asylum process.  Let me describe to you just a few of the cases I have worked on recently:

  • Selena* fled El Salvador after being kidnapped and forced into a sexual relationship by a member of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang, one of the deadliest gangs in Central America. For a year, she was repeatedly and violently raped while in captivity, and forced into domestic servitude. When her family tried to rescue her, they received death threats and her uncle was later killed by the gang.
  • Nohemy* fled Honduras after years of rape by an older cousin that started when she was eight years old. The cousin later joined the Barrio 18 gang, a rival to the MS-13. He threatened to kill her and her family if she did not return to him.
  • Judith* fled Guatemala after her domestic partner repeatedly beat and raped her. She made the decision to take the perilous journey with her young child after he attempted to strangle her to death. Her abuser believed that he owned her and could do whatever he wanted with her. She did not go to the police because she knew of other cases where the police did not intervene in what they perceived as “domestic issues.”

Fortunately, most women have won the cases I have worked on although a few are still pending and, sadly, are now in jeopardy due to the decision of Attorney General Session.

I have written before on the violence that Central Americans face in their countries that force them to make the painful decision to leave their home and their families. It is well document that gangs use violence and especially sexual violence as a strategy to maintain fear and control over populations and territories. Or, that the gangs regularly employ rape to discipline women and girls for failure to comply with their demands and to demonstrate gang dominance over the communities.  Selena’s case is frighteningly the norm.

The hypocrisy, misogyny, and out-right racism of this administration cannot be ignored.  This administration has repeatedly highlighted the violence of gangs such as the MS-13 as justification for the harsh immigration policies yet it is perfectly comfortable deporting people back to where their safety or that of their children cannot be guaranteed.

I am learning the painful lesson that just when you think things can’t get any worse, they can.  This decision to restricting the option to apply for asylum is just the latest in a long list of hostile, anti-immigrant policies the Trump administration has passed since January 2017. What’s next?

What I do know is that unless we all speak out loudly and clearly, in the halls of Congress and in the streets, we could well creep toward a dystopian future à la The Handmaid’s Tale.  You can do your part today by calling your elected representatives to call for an end to the immigrant bashing and in support of pro-immigrant legislation that protects these vulnerable populations.

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.

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