“Give Me Your Battered Asylum Seekers…”

Female victims of domestic violence may soon be added to the “tired, the poor,
the huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” that may be granted asylum in the U.S.

According to this article by NPR’s Jennifer Ludden, in a brief filed by the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of a Mexican woman, identified only by her initials L. R., the Obama administration is moving to clarify the issues still surrounding the application process.

“She actually tried to get away from him a number of times by coming to the U.S., and then he came to the U.S. and told her that if she didn’t come back he would kill her family.”

L.R. did go back to Mexico, but came to the U.S. again seeking asylum.

The woman’s lawyer, Karen Musalo, says once when her client was pregnant with one of the couple’s three children, her husband set fire to the bed she was in.

Most people — and this includes me — have very little knowledge of the difficulties and delays most endure to live in this country. I was granted political asylum as a 14 year old boy. I didn’t have to do much except be born in Cuba to parents who had chosen exile over dictatorship. My parents’ shielded me, to the best of their ability, from their own struggles to obtain a visa and the humiliation, isolation and harassment they endure as a result. It took me many years to understand — and countless conversations with immigrants from other countries, particularly those coming from Central and South America — that the road to freedom, safety and opportunity in the United State of America was a perilous and uncertain one. Dangers that Haitians and Cuban “balseros” faced as well, when they risked their lives to cross the Gulf of Mexico.

I still shudder when I recall the story of one young man’s treck from Guatemala. He told me that at the time of his illegal crossing into the States from Mexico, he was forced to lay down with 3 or 4 other hopefuls in a false compartment in the bed of a pick-up truck.  A space so shallow that he could not move his arms to even scratch himself. Just before they screwed down a large piece of plywood to hide the human cargo, a young woman — it could have been L.R. of the NPR story — panicked. She had a fear of closed places.

The alternative would have been worse. Certain death in the Mexican desert. So she chose the coffin-like quarters for the few hours trip over the border. The young man from Guatemala spoke to her the whole trip, distracting and consoling her as they traveled in darkness to America.

Back to the article:

“What she would have to show is that violence against women is pervasive, and that it’s so widely accepted that nobody — neighbors, family members — nobody would intervene or try to stop it, and the government certainly wouldn’t intervene,” Musalo says.

The woman would also have to prove she couldn’t find refuge anywhere else in her home country.

Some people are concerned that this decision by the Administration would place additional burdens on an already overwhelmed Immigration Department . Some worry that it will drastically increase the amount of cases INS must consider. This may be a valid point.

Musalo’s Mexican client doesn’t go back to court until next spring. But no matter how her case is eventually decided, Musalo says the government’s shift is already having an impact. She’s been flooded with calls about other battered women, hoping they now have a better chance for gaining asylum.

But we have to find a solution to these issues and to the immigration problem as a whole. Women like L.R. are looking to us for assistance and protection. The words of the poem at the Statue of Liberty should guide this debate:

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.

What would a mother do but protect her children?

—JM

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