Written by REACH Intern, Katharine Lammey, with support from REACH Intern, Senite Love
On the morning of my first day as an intern at REACH, my supervisor, Lauren Montanaro, asked if I had heard about the news that would impact REACH’s work. I had woken up late that morning and had not had the chance to turn on the news for a few minutes like I normally did. When Lauren told me about Jeff Sessions’ new asylum ruling, which overturns the protections that allowed survivors of domestic and gang violence to seek asylum in the United States, I was shocked that something so significant to the lives of many survivors happened on my first day of work. Along with another intern, Senite, I began researching the ruling so I could more fully understand it and how it would impact the work at REACH. Through our research, we learned a lot about the history of asylum protections, the laws surrounding them, and why politicians chose to end them. More importantly, however, we learned about the meaning of this news for survivors of domestic abuse. We learned about the many survivors who relied on the asylum system to find safety in the past. We learned that with asylum protections off the table, survivors will face many more barriers in the process of finding safety through immigrating to or remaining in the U.S. Lastly, we learned that despite this tragic loss of the asylum system, we can continue to support immigrant survivors of domestic abuse and work to ensure their safety.
Qualifying for asylum has always been difficult. According to an article from NOLO which discusses the previous qualifications for asylum, “You may qualify for asylum in the U.S. if you have been (or if you fear that you will be) persecuted in your home country either by your government or by persons or groups that your government is unwilling or unable to control because of your political opinion, religion, race, nationality, or membership in a particular social group… In particular, if you are a victim of domestic violence, you may under limited circumstances be eligible for asylum—that is, provided that the violence perpetrated against you is motivated by one of the five grounds mentioned above, and that your government is unwilling or unable to protect you from the perpetrator.” With Sessions’ new ruling, the latter half of this guidance has been overturned.
The dropping of asylum protections will make it more difficult for the many survivors trying to escape the abuse they face in countries outside of the U.S. It will also make it more difficult for the many survivors that benefitted from the asylum system in the past to remain in the U.S. Sessions stated that the reasoning behind the ruling is that people could take advantage of the asylum system by falsely claiming to be survivors of domestic or gang violence. This statement, however, ignores the stories of the survivors who escaped abuse and found safety in the U.S because of the asylum system. Gladys, a community advocate at REACH, spoke about the impact of this ruling. “[Asylum] is a huge relief for survivors of domestic violence when they are trying to escape from their abusers,” Gladys explained.
Gladys expressed that survivors coming to the U.S. faced layers of barriers even when asylum was an option. These barriers often include continued domestic violence, trauma, language, culture, economic and legal. Gladys detailed how these challenges play out for many of the survivors she works with. When immigrant survivors come to this country they often do not speak the language or understand the culture. This language and culture gap often leads them to struggle financially and legally and puts them at risk for being taken advantage of in a number of ways. These barriers could seem insurmountable even with asylum protections in place. NPR interviewed Sinthia, who fled her abusive husband in Honduras and is now seeking asylum in the U.S. Sinthia said that while she used to believe that asylum protections could help her to live safely in the U.S., she is no longer as hopeful after Sessions’ announcement. Gladys revealed that there is a similar feeling amongst survivors working with REACH. She stated that the new ruling “is creating a lot of panic in the community.” Without asylum as an option, families now face an additional barrier to finding safety in the U.S.
This ruling left many of us at REACH feeling devastated and wondering how we can best support survivors in light of this new barrier. It is important to understand and acknowledge the implications of this ruling on the lives of survivors. Asylum protections provided safety to thousands of survivors of domestic abuse in the past. Without these protections, it will be more difficult for survivors to become and remain safe. REACH, along with many other people and organizations, is preparing for how best to support survivors who will be impacted by the ruling. This additional barrier makes it necessary for staff members at REACH, lawyers, and other allies of survivors to employ creativity. Thinking outside of the box is necessary for proving the need for asylum both for survivors seeking to immigrate to the U.S. and those who used the asylum system in the past. We can fight for the rights and safety of survivors by arguing for their need for asylum and discussing the stories that survivors have chosen to share publicly. While it is easy to feel powerless and overwhelmed in times like this, we can choose to focus on the power we do have and use this power to support survivors and work to ensure their safety.
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