Breastfeeding babies snatched out of their mothers’ arms. Women deported back to violent spouses after painstakingly planning their escape. Children thrown into detention facilities - more than 10,000 lie alone on cold floors, awaiting their fate. Their "crime"? Entering our borders to rebuild their lives where it’s safe.
It was late in the day Monday when our staff attorney Cristina came rushing into the office with heartbreaking news. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had just announced that immigrants fleeing domestic abuse and gang violence are not worthy of our protection and compassion. In an instant, the safety of dozens of women we were counselling was thrown into jeopardy.
I thought of Dalia,* who fled her home country because her partner of almost a decade continuously incited physical and verbal abuse. Despite the fact that she courageously made the decision to call the police in her home country, they did nothing to provide safety and security. She finally made it here, but now we don’t know if she’ll be able to stay. When she first reached out to us, she said, “for a long time, I was scared no one would believe me. I was barely myself.”
Asylum cases are gruelling, time consuming, and complex. People seeking safety must overcome numerous hurdles and assumptions about their stories and lives.
It is also a known fact that domestic violence does not discriminate by race, colour, creed, nationality, or status. It can happen anywhere and to anyone. And it can be extremely difficult for survivors to get beyond the reach of an abusive partner. That’s what makes Monday’s decision so gut-wrenching — it singles out immigrants, primarily women, fleeing domestic violence, and forces them into an even more deeply vulnerable position by denying them protections that we afford other survivors within our borders.
For years, U.S law and culture has recognised domestic violence as a human rights issue. In 2014, the Board of Immigration Appeals granted protection to a married woman who was fleeing domestic violence because she was unable to escape her abusive husband in her home country, Guatemala. In this case, the U.S. government decided to recognise that women fleeing domestic abuse constituted a social group, which has helped them receive legal protections.
Yet, with one swift move, Jeff Sessions recklessly decimated a paramount judicial decision that was developed over many years by judges, attorneys, and most importantly, survivors who courageously came forward to give their testimonies. What’s more, the U.S. will very likely be violating international law, which requires that it not return survivors of abuse and torture to their home countries, where it is more likely than not they will be tortured or become victims of other serious human rights violations.
Last year, Sessions came to Long Island, where our office is located, to make a speech about the administration’s crusade against new immigrants. His boss, President Donald Trump, has visited Long Island not once, but three times since taking office in January 2017. Together, they have exploited the genuine tragedy of gang violence in our communities to stoke widespread fear of Central American immigrants and support for the administration’s inhumane treatment of newcomers seeking safety. Their policies have targeted the young immigrants known as Dreamers, refugees, unaccompanied children, and now more recently, asylum seekers.
What is becoming of the America we thought we knew? It is deeply disappointing, but most of all disturbing, to see the disregard and lack of empathy this administration has for the life and safety of our fellow human beings.
We are joining hands with survivors, colleagues, and allies to ensure these setbacks are only temporary, and that our country lands on the right side of history.
Martha Maffei is the executive director of SEPA Mujer, the only organization on Long Island dedicated exclusively to defending the rights of Latina immigrants. If you are looking for assistance, guidance, or just a place to find comfort and solidarity, contact SEPA Mujer at (631) 980-2555.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.