Aug. 13, 2018

Laurie Cook Heffron, Josie V. Serrata and Rebecca De León | Aug. 11, 2018

The zero-tolerance policies and restrictions on asylum that Attorney General Jeff Sessions enacted in the past few months have closed doors on families fleeing violence in their home countries, placing them in increasingly precarious and dangerous conditions, and stripping them of legal and social protections they desperately need here.

We must lift our voices to join the outcry against incarcerating families and fight Sessions’ decisions that overturn asylum protections for families fleeing violence. We know these families are taking desperate measures to escape extreme violence and possibly even death.

During the past decade, despite the fact that overall border crossings are at historic lows, the United States began to see a dramatic increase in immigrant families seeking asylum. Many of these asylum-seekers are Central American women, their children and unaccompanied minors making dangerous journeys in search of safety from gang violence, domestic violence and sexual violence in their home countries.

Research confirms that Central American women are fleeing violence in their home countries. For many, the violence feels inescapable, and protection and support remain elusive. Despite positive policy and program initiatives in Central America, domestic violence continues to be severely underreported by victims due to a climate of impunity that subjects women to a continuum of multiple violent acts, including femicide — the killing of women (usually, but not always, by a current or former partner).

Femicide rates in Central America are high and consistently raise concern among international human rights entities. El Salvador has the highest rate of femicide in the world, followed by Honduras with the second highest rate. Guatemala is rated fourth highest. It is important to note that legacies of colonization, globalization, and U.S. economic and political actions contributed directly to the crisis and conditions in Central America from which asylum-seekers are now fleeing.

For families living in areas under gang control, escaping domestic violence is even more complicated. Abusive partners may use the existence and proximity of gang violence, along with reports of femicide, to bolster threats to their partners. These threats are not empty — women are more vulnerable to gang violence if they leave an abusive relationship.

Consequently, women often make migration decisions out of desperation, with little or no planning or preparation. One woman explained, “Nunca lo planifiqué. Nunca pensé en llegar aquí. Fue simplemente la desesperación.” ( “I never planned it. I never thought about coming here. It was simply out of desperation.”)

Those who support the recent gouges to asylum suggest that closing doors to protection in the U.S. will serve as a deterrent to immigration, but that is ill-conceived and shortsighted.

Women who are desperate to find safety for themselves and their children are forced to flee to the United States without regard to the consequences. They are avoiding certain harm at home. One woman described weighing the known risk of staying in her home country of El Salvador against the risk of migrating: “Me dije yo, si me van a matar aquí (en El Salvador), mejor me muero en el camino, haciendo la lucha por el futuro de mis hijas.” (I told myself, if they are going to kill me here, better to die on the road, fighting for the future for my girls.”)

These are direct quotes from participants in a research study we conducted, investigating the well-being and post-detention experiences of immigrant Latinas for a yet-unpublished academic report.

Central American women must flee potentially lethal abuse at home and make the harrowing journey to the U.S. in search of safety because there is no legal way to apply for asylum or refugee status from within Central America; asylum is only available upon arrival in the United States.

Hence, we must fight to keep asylum protections, and we must explore and open new pathways toward strong legal representation, comprehensive psycho-social support, and freedom and protection from continued violence.

Ultimately, as a community and a country, we are faced with a choice. We can choose to continue to respond to those seeking asylum with fear and hatred, treating individuals and families like animals rather than fellow humans. We can respond to the multiple episodes of violence and trauma experienced by those seeking safety with further confusion, incomplete information, shallow support, separation, isolation, detention, deportation and more trauma. Or we can instead respond using skills and values we already possess and hold dear by stepping boldly into the fray.

We can support rights established under international and U.S. law. We can draw on community support systems, service providers, faith communities and mental health practitioners. We can centralize immigrants’ voices, needs and rights, and respond with our full humanity to neighbors seeking safety.

Laurie Cook Heffron is an assistant professor at St. Edward’s University. Josie V. Serrata is a licensed psychologist and independent research consultant. Rebecca De León manages communications for Casa de Esperanza’s National Latin@ Network.

A version of this article appeared in the San Antonio Express News.