National News

For Women, Decision by Sessions Puts Asylum Dreams Out of Reach

Posted June 12, 2018 11:44 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — The threats from her boyfriend came daily, fear having no respite, Blanca said. If she were to leave him, he told her from his jail cell, he would torture her, cut her into pieces and leave her to die. He was a member of the 18th Street gang in Honduras, and they did these sorts of things. She tried to resist.

Then he threw her against a wall when she visited him in jail, the police nowhere to be found. When his fellow gang member later raped and impregnated her, and then another threatened to kill her, she finally fled to the United States in 2013.

On Thursday, Blanca, 30, who now lives in the Bronx, will go before an immigration judge in New York to plead her case for asylum. On Monday, her chances of success changed instantly from challenging to nearly impossible.

On that day, in a speech to immigration judges gathered for annual training, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that he was reversing recent immigration practice and declaring that domestic and gang violence were generally not grounds for asylum. Sessions’s action overturned a 2014 decision that had established domestic violence victims as a social group, based on the abuse a Guatemalan woman, Aminta Cifuentes, had faced for 10 years.

Sessions said claiming a fear of return was an excuse to enter the country illegally. “The vast majority of the current asylum claims are not valid,” he said in the speech.

“Honestly, that man is made of stone,” Blanca, who asked to be identified only by her first name because of her uncertain immigration status, said in Spanish at the Immigrant Community Law Center of the African Services Committee in Harlem, a nonprofit organization. “Only living it himself could he understand the terror I felt.”

She added: “What he has to do is go visit Honduras and then, if he does make it back, he’ll understand what living in terror is like.”

Across New York, and the nation, on Tuesday, immigrants and their attorneys were grappling with the precedent-setting decision — and the stern warning to heed it — that Sessions issued to immigration judges on Monday. “It will be your duty to carry out this ruling,” he said. Thursday, the day of Blanca’s hearing, will be the judges’ first day back on the bench.

Claims for asylum already faced a high bar. In 2016, only about 11 percent of asylum applicants had their petitions granted nationally. Historically, New York has the largest number of applicants.

Sessions effectively narrowed the definition of persecution when he reversed a decision by an appellate board in a 2016 asylum case. Because immigration courts are housed under the Justice Department, not the judicial branch of government, he has the authority to overturn their decisions.

“The mere fact that a country may have problems effectively policing certain crimes or that certain populations are more likely to be victims of crime, cannot itself establish an asylum claim,” he wrote in the introduction to his decision.

“It’s very sad news because there is tremendous societal violence in the Central American countries and the ravages of the civil wars have left society without any structures to protect people,” said Anne Pilsbury, the director of Central American Legal Assistance, a nonprofit in Brooklyn she founded in 1986 in response to the civil war in El Salvador. “Women are especially vulnerable. We’ve basically told them, ‘Too bad.'” Domestic violence claims are as much as 40 percent of the group’s caseload, she said, including one client from Honduras who was supposed to have been approved for asylum five days ago. The government had agreed to grant asylum, she said. The immigration judge, however, had to reschedule the court date. “We didn’t make it,” Pilsbury said.

The client had been raped and the attacker broke her child’s arm, Pilsbury said; the client’s sister was also raped, her breast cut off and she was eventually slain. The police, Pilsbury said, would not press charges.

Blanca’s lawyer, Jessica Greenberg, said that “problems” in policing did not describe the level of collusion between gangs and the police in Honduras. “It’s that the police do not, will not and cannot effectively police, because the police are so involved in the gangs,” Greenberg said.

In his ruling, Sessions specifically mentioned asylum claims from Central America. According to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a data research organization at Syracuse University, those claims already faced steep odds. Based on decisions from fiscal years 2012 to 2017, almost 80 percent of asylum applicants from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala were denied.

TRAC also said the denial rates differed greatly by location. From October 2016 to November 2017, Newark, New Jersey, and San Francisco had the highest rates of denials, at 88 percent. New York’s judges averaged a 55.5 percent denial rate.

Blanca said she abandoned her nursing studies in Honduras. Now she works as a home health aide, and married a man from Puerto Rico in 2015. Her daughter is now 5. She tells these stories matter-of-factly, with only a slight quiver of her lips. She was six months pregnant, she said, when she traveled atop a train to the United States through Mexico, known as “La Bestia.” She fell off the train, she said, went two days without eating, was robbed by a Mexican gang and ran from a MS-13 leader who wanted to rape her.

She applied for asylum on her own in 2014, after she came to New York because of a relative. Her first chance to tell a judge her story was scheduled for June 14.

“I’ve been through a lot,” she said. “This is one more test that I’m going to triumph.”

She cannot return to Honduras, she said. “I will have one nice week, and then the next week,” she said, “I won’t be there.”