ARTESIA, N.M. — The nation’s top immigration court ruled last week that women who suffer severe domestic violence in their country may be eligible for asylum in the United States — and that decision is already affecting hearings here.
Attorneys at the makeshift detention center for Central American women and their children were successful twice this week in securing asylum for their clients.
On Thursday and Friday, judges heard two domestic violence asylum cases — one a 23-year-old mother of two from Honduras and the other a 36-year-old mother of four from El Salvador. They were the first hearings held at the facility since it opened in late June.
Last week, the Board of Immigration Appeals found that a Guatemalan woman eligible for asylum as part of the “particular social group” category, in this case abused women from particular countries that are unwilling or unable to protect them. The historic decision resolved a nearly 20-year legal battle and offered guidance to courts across the nation.
The decision discussed only Guatemala, but lawyers and advocates say it can impact hundreds of pending cases — and slow the deportation of many of the Central American women who crossed the border with their children this year.
The decision could create a new stream of people seeking asylum, said Muzaffar Chishti with the D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute.
“I doubt it will be an exodus, but in the short-term it may increase the numbers of people who were hesitant until now,” Chishti said.
But attorneys and policy experts say there’s no reason to expect a flood.
“Canada has been granting asylum on domestic violence cases for years and has not seen a big uptick,” said Blaine Bookey, associate director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, who assisted in the Artesia cases.
The number of women trying to cross the desert with their children jumped from about 12,000 last year to more than 66,000 this year. Many of them are fleeing entrenched poverty, gang and drug violence — some driven by rumors that the United States was giving families an opportunity to stay.
Of 300 cases volunteer lawyers reviewed, about half are domestic violence asylum claims, said Laura Lichter, former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and one of the volunteers.
No women they spoke with have said they came because of the so-called permisos to stay, she said.
Abuse started at age 16
The first asylum case won in Artesia — one of the first on the basis of a domestic violence claim — was that of Heidy, the 23-year-old from Honduras, and her two young children. The Star was allowed to watch the hearing provided the women’s last names not be used because they are victims of abuse.
Heidy was 16 when a man started following her to and from school. One day he forced her into his car at gunpoint, drove her to the outskirts of the city and raped her.
“He was going to take me far away from my family,” Heidy told the court in Spanish, though an interpreter who sat next to the judge nearly 2,000 miles away in Alexandria, Virgina. The proceedings were done via teleconference.
At the moment she didn’t know what to do, she said, so she suggested they get married. He made her promise it wasn’t a lie, “otherwise something worse would happen to me,” she said.
The then-17-year-old married her aggressor, a widely feared drug-trafficker, in 2008. The beatings, rapes and insults started almost immediately.
Even when he landed in jail for a murder-related charge, she still couldn’t free herself from him, she said. At times during the hearing, the soft rumblings and giggles of her 5- and 1-year-olds playing in the adjacent room could be heard inside the former classroom turned courtroom.
In prison, he had paid off the guards and would arrange a separate room when she visited, where he raped her.
“If I didn’t go, he was going to think I had another person and he was going to send someone to kill me,” she said.
She finally left him before he was out of jail. She went to her parent’s home with her two children, but once he was out, he continued to harass her until, one day, he came in and fired shots.
“I realized he was capable of killing us all,” she said. “I feared for my children’s lives.”
She went to the police three hours away, but they told her to leave the country because they couldn’t protect her. She left that day.
Neither the judge nor the government’s attorney had many questions for her.
At the end, judge Roxanne C. Hladylowycz called it a “textbook case of asylum.”
“In one year you can apply to become a legal permanent resident if you want to,” she told Heidy. “Good luck to you.”
“I thank God,” Heidy said after the decision. “There won’t be more aggressions. I will be able to raise my children where they can have a good role model.”
Many questions Asked
The case of Mirna, the 36-year-old woman from El Salvador, was more contentious from the side of the government’s attorney.
Mirna left her country this summer, fleeing her partner of 20 years. He beat her, insulted her and raped her, she said.
She called police once when he punched her in the face and left her with a bloody nose. But officers said they couldn’t do anything because they didn’t catch him in the act.
Mirna said her 17-year-old daughter, who came to the United States with her, also suffered physical abuse. One time, her husband grabbed the girl by the hair and pushed her face into a pot of beans.
Unlike Heidy, Mirna was cross-examined extensively by the government’s attorney, who asked her about whether she had support from her parents to leave her husband, and about the well-being of her other three children, who are still with her partner in El Salvador.
The attorney was hesitant to grant her asylum on the basis that she belonged to a social group, but after several hours of testimony, she agreed to a different type of asylum granted for humanitarian reasons.
Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at 520-573-4213 or email@example.com. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo.