Domestic violence a new factor for asylum

The Associated PressFebruary 19, 2013 

Clara Flores-Aguilar says the beatings began days after she gave birth to her first son.

The pain wouldn’t stop for more than two decades. Eyes swollen with tears, Flores-Aguilar said she endured death threats, injuries to her children, a hot oil scalding, a stab wound on her leg and continuous public humiliation at the hand of her alcoholic and drug-abusing husband.

She recites a litany of abuse that stops only when she flees from Honduras, first in the mid-2000s and again two months ago. The 50-year-old is thousands of miles from Honduras, but whether she can start anew in the United States was not known on a recent January afternoon.

JUDGE MUST BELIEVE STORY

Flores-Aguilar was being held at the Tacoma Detention Center as she awaited a decision by an immigration judge to allow her asylum case to proceed. For that to happen, the judge must believe her story of abuse.

“I just wanted to escape again,” Flores-Aguilar told The Associated Press in Spanish, adding that in August she left a successful small deli behind after her husband said he’d kill her and himself at the end of the year. “I trust in God that he takes all of this into consideration. I don’t want to go back.”

It’s an uphill legal battle. Seeking asylum because of past domestic violence abuse has not been a successful road to take, because immigration judges have traditionally declined such requests, attorneys said. But recent court cases have given these women hope.

SOME SUCCESS

“We’ve been having a little more luck with these cases,” said Ashley Huebner, an attorney at the National Immigrant Justice Center. “Historically, there’s been significant fear and hesitation by a lot of adjudicators.”

Flores-Aguilar is not alone in Tacoma.

Around 100 women from Central America applying for asylum have been processed through the Tacoma Detention Center over the past two years, said Betsy Tao, an attorney for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project who works at the detention center.

ICE officials couldn’t immediately say why there’s a small surge of these women in Tacoma, though it may have to do with the way the agency transfers immigrants in custody around the nation. Two years ago, after an influx of Somali asylum seekers came to the U.S. at different ports of entry, large groups of them were transferred to Tacoma.

MORE SEEKING ASYLUM

Asylum requests from Central American women at the nation’s ports increased from 95 in fiscal year 2010 to nearly 200 this past year, according to data from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services processes far more asylum requests, but their available data does not include requests from Central American women based on domestic violence.

Considering all the types of migration to the United States, these women represent a tiny blip, and the numbers are too small to make broad conclusions. But in a place like the Tacoma Detention Center, the women stand out among the hundreds being detained.

Tao said it’s not her organization’s call to judge whether the stories the women tell are true. They provide the same legal information on what happens now that the women are in custody.

Under law, filing a frivolous asylum claim can lead to a lifetime bar on entering the United States.

IMPORTANT CASE

One of the last key court cases for domestic violence victims seeking asylum came from a Guatemalan woman named Lesly Yajayra Perdomo in 2010.

She argued in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that violence against women was so rampant in Guatemala that she would face the risk of murder if she were sent back. At least 4,400 women were killed in Guatemala between 2000 and 2010, and fewer than 3 percent of the cases are solved, according to the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law.

At issue in the Perdomo case was defining a “particular social group” that is persecuted and qualifies for political asylum in the United States. Women who fear genital mutilation or victims of domestic abuse have been deemed “social groups” and granted asylum.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered immigration judges to seriously consider granting asylum to Guatemalan women who fear they will be killed.

Recently, advocates launched a campaign to include changes to asylum law in the immigration reform President Barack Obama and Congress are formulating. They want to ensure gender-based asylum claims constitute part of a “particular social group.”

WAITING FOR FINAL DECISION

That’s far away from Flores-Aguilar.

For her, life had one more tragic event. She says her father died of an infection after his small intestines were perforated during a routine hernia surgery. He had decided to undergo surgery because he had taken Flores-Aguilar’s oldest daughter into his house. She didn’t find out until she had been taken into custody.

“If I had never come here, he wouldn’t have gotten the surgery,” she said, crying. “He wouldn’t be dead. Why?”

On Feb. 1, an immigration judge deemed Flores-Aguilar’s story credible and she was released from the detention center.

She now awaits the final asylum decision.

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