Editor’s Note: Katherine McKenzie is the director of the Yale Center for Asylum Medicine and a Public Voices fellow with The OpEd Project. Ranit Mishori is on the faculty of Georgetown School of Medicine and consults for Physicians for Human Rights. Deborah Ottenheimer is a forensic gynecologic examiner and an adjunct assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.
At a time when a group of migrants remain in limbo seeking asylum at the US-Mexico border, the Trump administration is waging war on some of the most vulnerable people in the world: women who are victims of severe violence at the hands of their intimate partners.
These women – from near and far – come to the United States seeking safety through our asylum program. But in April, Attorney General Jeff Sessions employed a rarely used privilege to reopen a case in which a judge had already granted asylum to a victim of domestic violence.
In doing so, he explicitly seeks to challenge the notion that women may seek asylum in the US on the basis having proved that they had experienced severe domestic violence or are at risk of femicide, or death from intimate partner violence.
In the United States, asylum is granted to applicants who can prove persecution (either by the government, or by individuals the government cannot or declines to control) on the basis of: their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a “particular social group.” To be a member of a “particular social group” is to be a person possessing some immutable characteristic, like being a woman. The asylum applicant must prove that this characteristic is responsible for her persecution.
In 2014, the Board of Immigration Appeals, in a landmark decision, ruled that women who are abused, married and unable to leave their relationship constitute a “particular social group,” and, as such, are entitled to asylum. (The ruling was later amended to include domestic partnerships.)
The Trump administration is trying to curtail asylum for many groups, arguing that “bad people” could make false claims and enter the US only to commit crimes and use our medical, economic and educational resources. However, the legal process for granting asylum is rigorous and effectively screens for such cases. In addition, evidence shows that immigrants don’t increase the crime rates in their communities and are major contributors to the economy and labor force.
International and domestic law has established firmly that these women have suffered human rights violations. As such, they have the right to appeal for asylum based on ongoing fear of violence (and even death) should they be returned to their home country. Many of these women live in societies where men can beat and even kill their female partners with little or no repercussion.
Asylum is a necessary protection for these women because this kind of abuse is an insidious and pervasive form of gender-based violence, but is still considered in many nations to be a “private matter” in which the government is “unable or unwilling” to provide basic protection. In fact, one recent report from the UN found that 1 in 5 women and girls have experienced violence by an intimate partner within the last 12 months, but 49 countries have no laws to protect them from domestic violence.
As a result, severely abused women often flee to the US as a last resort, in an effort to find shelter in a nearby country from violence that may result in death. According to UN Women, “among the 25 countries with the highest rates of femicide in the world, 14 are in Latin America and the Caribbean, with 12 women being killed every day.”
Often, in order to save their own skin, women are forced to leave their children behind with the abusive partner, which only compounds their trauma and suffering.
As physicians who see these women regularly in our asylum clinics, we understand that these numbers are not dry statistics.
To us, they are women like Maria (her name has been changed to respect her privacy), a woman from Guatemala, who lived a life of poverty and who was deprived of an education because she was a girl. At age 18, she met a charming man, fell in love and married. But soon after they were married, her husband began to savagely beat her and threaten her with death. She didn’t want to leave her home and family but saw only the possibility of death if she remained.
Her fears were not unfounded: She had seen acquaintances killed by their partners, with no protection from law enforcement. After a harrowing journey to the US, she sought legal channels to stay in this country. After hearing that she had been granted asylum, she was overjoyed, and deeply relieved that she would finally be free of the constant fear she experienced living with her husband.
Her life in the US remains challenging, as she works entry-level jobs and remains in poverty. But she knows she is now in a society that values women’s rights and where individuals have legal recourse when they are victims of domestic violence.
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As physicians in three different states, all of us have treated women like Maria, and because we have we know that the US must continue to provide shelter to victims of severe domestic violence. Asylum exists for people who have a credible fear of ongoing persecution in their home country.
Violence against women is no different. We must continue to recognize that physical and psychological torture at the hands of a husband or boyfriend is as heinous as torture at the hands of political actors. As such, female victims of such abuse must be accorded the same protections as political refugees under the law.
Women’s rights are human rights. As part of our ongoing commitment to safeguarding human rights, the US must continue to offer these vulnerable women shelter and safety.