The word “alien” typically conjures up images of glowing, green creatures in otherworldly spaceships. Maybe even Steven Spielberg’s E.T. What seldom comes to mind are images of women fleeing violence, rape, and gang threats, in hopes of a safer life across the border.
However, this was who former United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions was referring to when he issued the Matter of A-B-, writing “aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum.”
This new immigration policy created in June of 2018 made it much harder for women who faced domestic danger in their home country to seek asylum. This policy is one of many formed under the Trump administration that has negatively affected immigrant women, especially domestic violence victims.
Implications of the U.S. Immigration Policy
One of the key components of winning asylum in the United States is for applicants to show grounds for their persecutions and why they have a justified fear in returning to their home country. Generally, their fear of persecution must be due to one of five reasons: race, nationality, religion, political opinion, or membership in a social group.
However, the new policy questions whether women fleeing domestic violence can be considered members of a social group, casting doubt on a practice that had hitherto been the norm.
Moreover, the policy also refers to domestic violence as a private matter, rooted in personal conflicts between two people in a relationship. This terminology is reflective of the United States’ own abysmal methods of addressing domestic violence.
The term is misleading as the violence is not “private” and rather leads to female disempowerment from a medical, legal, and economic standpoint. It’s incredibly irresponsible to treat domestic violence as a private matter without being conscious of the cultural, political, and legal contexts that allow domestic violence to thrive. It also undermines the global epidemic that is gender-based violence.
Around the World
According to the World Health Organization, it is estimated that about one in every three women will experience physical or sexual abuse in her life. In fact, recent COVID-19 lockdowns have led to an increase in domestic violence calls around the world.
In Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, where over 30% of U.S. asylum grantees came from in 2016, gender-based violence is an incredibly potent threat. In these countries, also known as the Northern Triangle, women’s homicide rate is well over the global average.
In El Salvador alone, over nine women were killed per week in 2017. Victims of gender-based violence and particularly domestic violence, are deprived of freedom and security by their partners. The abuse is both physical and psychological and infringes on women’s rights to education, healthcare, and employment.
The key factor in why women choose to flee the country in situations like these is because of the existing culture of misogyny and impunity for perpetrators in these areas. The culture of “machismo” places women in an inferior position to men within society and more vulnerable to abuse since violence against women is accepted as a norm.
These patriarchal structures enable gangs to use sexual violence as a weapon against women and girls, trapping them in relationships with threats. Denying these women a chance to escape an environment deadly to them is akin to being complicit in the crime itself.
What We Need Instead
It’s crucial that the upcoming administration clearly reinstates asylum eligibility for domestic abuse survivors as soon as possible. Cases in the past have successfully been made to show that violence faced by women allows them to qualify as a social group in fear of persecution. Since gender-based violence is rooted in the inequality of power and social standing between men and women, being a woman does uniquely serve as an identification that can endanger individuals.
Additionally, persecution against political opinions such as feminism and female empowerment have also been grounds for women to apply for asylum. To go a step further and include gender as a pillar for persecution could expand asylum eligibilities, potentially saving many lives. This would have a larger effect in addressing the epidemic of gender-based violence by offering women an avenue to gain freedom from violence.
Aside from legal changes, there must also be a reduction in the propaganda that dehumanizes those coming into this country. Families need to see their immigrant neighbors, not as “aliens”, but as those who are here to build a better future.
Building a stronger community offers more protection for the many women who face the reality of domestic violence every day. The longstanding societal structures that enable gender-based violence will take years to dissolve. The least the United States could do, for now, is to open the door.