In November, while many in the US media reported on the now countless stories of women harassed and assaulted in the workplace, the UN began its Sixteen Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, which seeks to highlight the dangers that women face worldwide. This campaign prioritizes the protection of women around the world who are at greatest risk for violence, especially those most vulnerable, including refugees, migrants and minority populations. Such an effort highlights the plight of those like Gabriela, a young Guatemalan woman who recently came to the Yale Center for Asylum Medicine to document her injuries and scars in order to support her appeal for asylum.
Gabriela’s scars came from Juan, a man she met when she was just 16. Raised in Guatemala by an abusive stepfather and having just a limited education, Gabriela fell in love with Juan, a charming and handsome 24-year-old. They soon moved in together. (Their names have been changed for the sake of privacy).
After a childhood with a man who had a violent temper, Gabriela was happy to be embraced by someone who showered her with affection. But that quickly ended when they started living together. Juan began to beat, rape, and verbally abuse her, especially when he was drunk, a frequent occurrence.
Gabriela tried to leave Juan for three years, but each time she did he would stalk her.
Juan promised to kill her if she left, and Gabriela believed him. She knew too many stories of women murdered by abusive partners and of women who had sought protection from law enforcement to no avail because those officials saw domestic violence as a “private issue.” After years of severe abuse, repeated injuries, rape, and nearly constant threats of death, Gabriela traveled to the U.S. seeking protection from what she believed would be eventual death. She’d heard about women killed by their husbands and felt sure that this would be her eventual fate too.
Gabriela’s worries were not unfounded. In a 2015 survey, over 28% of Guatemalan women reported experiencing domestic violence. The UN estimates two women are murdered every day in the country in cases of intimate partner violence.
Gabriela isn’t a high-profile entertainment star or white-collar executive, but her story of suffering at the hands of a man in a relationship with a remarkably unequal power differential sounds all too familiar. Instead of lawsuits, HR departments, and journalists, Gabriela pursued safety through another channel: by seeking asylum in the U.S.
U.S. law permits individuals to apply for asylum when they are persecuted in their home countries, in this case not at the hands of the government but when the governmental institutions are “unable or unwilling” to provide protection. Their persecution is based on the category of “membership in a particular social group,” an area of asylum law that covers individuals harmed due to gender-based violence. In the landmark 2014 case of Matter of A-R-C-G- et al., the Board of Immigration Appeals held that “married women in Guatemala unable to leave their relationship” qualified as a social group. But this decision isn’t applicable to all cases, and each woman has to make her case before the immigration board.
According to official statistics, 15,000 women in 2016 sought asylum in the U.S. from Guatemala based on fear of persecution, but far more women do not apply for asylum or know it is an option for them. This month U.S. Customs and Border Patrol released statistics showing that arrests at the border have decreased by 25% since Donald Trump was elected president, which may be in part a reflection of the Trump administration’s harsh rhetoric and attempts to discourage asylum seekers from Mexico and the Northern Triangle which is made up of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. There is no evidence that the incidence of domestic violence in these countries has decreased commensurately. In 2014, the Board of Immigration Appeals asserted that women who were victims of severe, pervasive domestic violence whose government was unable or unwilling to provide protection should be allowed to appeal for asylum as a persecuted group.
It isn’t easy to be granted asylum in the U.S. based on intimate partner violence. Women must demonstrate severe, persistent abuse, show that they have no protection from governmental institutions, and prove that they can find no true protection if they remain in their home countries. In addition, successful asylum appeals often include evidence from physicians to document scars of physical and psychological trauma.
To be sure, domestic violence victims in the U.S. need protection too.
But the idea behind offering asylum to foreign victims of domestic violence is that the U.S. should offer protection to those who cannot find it within their own countries.
While some victims have successfully achieved asylum in the U.S., the laws could go further to make sure domestic violence victims can seek refuge here when there is no safe haven for them elsewhere. The Trump administration plans to tighten immigration standards, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said that asylum based on prosecution is “subject to rampant abuse and fraud.”
While it seems unlikely that the Trump administration will take up these changes, Congress has the power to pass laws to protect those women. As 2018 is an election year, our representatives have the chance to show women that they support them with more than a hashtag, and we can use this moment to call on them to make these protections happen.
Doubting the claims of victims is not the right approach. Immigration courts are equipped to determine the credibility of the petitioners, and we should not presume them guilty of fraud without evidence. The administration can show that it cares about women’s rights by continuing to offer a fair path to asylum for women who have no other options, as well as working with their home countries to make sure they have recourse at home.
Women worldwide suffer recurrent, severe abuse at the hands of abusive men because #theytoo experience abuse for which they have no recourse.
But most of these women can’t tweet about it. When Americans see an immigrant woman from Central America, they often assume that woman came here solely for economic opportunities. Little do they know that many of these women have lived with abuse for years, powerless against violence and threats. We need to begin to see them and talk about them for what they are: refugees looking for safety in a country where they have some hope of security.
Katherine McKenzie is on the faculty of Yale School of Medicine and the Director of the Yale Center for Asylum Medicine. She is a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.
Thania Sanchez is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale University and a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.