Staff Columnist

For U.S. asylum seekers, #MeToo is now moot

A mural in Casa Padre, an immigrant shelter for male children in Brownsville, Texas, is seen in this photo provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, June 14, 2018. (ACF/HHS via REUTERS)
A mural in Casa Padre, an immigrant shelter for male children in Brownsville, Texas, is seen in this photo provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, June 14, 2018. (ACF/HHS via REUTERS)
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Attorney General Jeff Sessions is thwarting decades of immigration law to set new standards for detention and asylum. And, most often, these policy decisions specifically punish women.

Sessions made a ruling last Monday that makes it all but impossible for asylum-seekers hoping to escape domestic violence to gain entry to the United States. According to Sessions, and despite court rulings to the contrary, domestic violence now always is considered a “private crime.”

For the past few months, the Trump administration has ordered the separation of children from parents at border crossings, regardless of valid asylum claims. Journalists entering one shelter for such child detainees last week reported 1,497 boys, ages 10 to 17, were being housed inside a former Texas Wal-Mart. (The government maintains separate facilities for girls and boys, which sometimes results in siblings being separated.) The shelter has been decorated with murals, presumably based on American history. One seen immediately upon entering depicts President Donald Trump and reads in English and Spanish, “Sometimes by losing a battle you find a new way to win the war.”

While a group of journalists was allowed to visit the facility, they were not allowed to interact directly with the boys being detained. They also were not allowed to bring cameras. The Trump administration provided video clips and photographs to the press pool.

Sessions’ ruling on domestic violence reversed an immigration appeals court case that granted asylum to a Salvadoran woman who said she’d been emotionally, physically and sexually abused. It also overturned precedent set during the Obama administration — which had been working its way forward for more than two decades — that allowed more women to claim credible fears of domestic abuse, especially in cases where law enforcement in the woman’s home country did not intercede — or, worse yet, condoned the abuse.

As journalist Julia Preston explained in a piece for The Marshall Project, after a 13-year legal battle, attorneys from the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California Hastings College of Law won asylum for a brutalized Guatemalan woman in 2009. The Board of Immigration Appeals, in 2014, ruled in favor of another Guatemalan woman whose husband assaulted, raped and tried to burn her alive while local law enforcement did nothing.

In granting asylum the board said its decision was setting a precedent that this suffering combined with state indifference rose to the level of persecution necessary for asylum. Women, predominantly from Central America, have been granted asylum because of those guidelines — until last Monday.

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Not only was Sessions’ decision an abrupt change of course that reversed policy certifications by one Democrat and two Republican attorneys general, but it defied recommendations from Trump’s Department of Homeland Security, which urged Sessions to not completely eliminate the domestic violence precedent.

To date, 15 former immigration judges have labeled the decision “an affront to the rule of law,” because women seeking refuge “from terrible forms of domestic violence from which their home countries are unable or unwilling to protect them” will be left unprotected.

As Karen Musalo, a Hastings law professor who represented women in two previously influential cases and is among the lawyers in the case that prompted Sessions’ decision, notes, “These aren’t just private criminal acts when you have a society that marginalized women and allows femicide and severe violations of women’s rights with impunity.”

Sessions, she told Public Radio International, “was reaching for a result, so he was willing to distort legal principles and ignored the facts.”

A nation coming to terms with an energized #MeToo movement that is dedicated to ferreting out violence against women and developing new strategies for healing the past and preventing future discrimination must question what result Sessions wanted.

Pundits on either side of the aisle have pointed to the increased pressure from the White House to reduce the number of immigrants crossing the border. Those figures, significantly down during Trump’s first year in office, now are on an upswing. This belief is bolstered by statements from the Trump administration that many of these new immigration policies have been set in place as a deterrent to those who would enter the country without documentation.

But put into the larger backdrop of Congress’ inability to reach consensus on the fate of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, much less more comprehensive immigration reform, these policies specifically target the thorniest issues facing the national Republican majority. How does a political party that has taken such a hard-line stance against immigrants write and pass laws consistent with its campaign rhetoric when those laws are broadly unpopular? It does so by literally cutting the most sympathetic characters out of the fabric of American life.

Let’s not forget that in addition to domestic violence, Sessions also targeted those seeking asylum for gang violence. In recent years that has primarily been unaccompanied children from Central America. They, just like the immigrant children newly separated from their parents, are kept in detention centers.

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Trump administration policies effectively prohibit immigrant families from attending church services or otherwise participating in a community. Perpetual and isolated detention, cloak of darkness deportations, and an immigrant court system tied to political whim means many Americans are unaware that breastfeeding infants have been separated from their mothers.

Publicly, the White House says it’s targeting “bad hombres.” But the reality is that women and children seeking U.S. protection have become seemingly expendable political pawns. This is not an anti-trafficking campaign, nor does breaking apart families make us safer. Making sure that mothers receive criminal convictions before they are deported, and leaving their children to flounder in the U.S. foster care system, is expensive and ineffective policy.

Past administrations, Democrat and Republican, have understood the need for smart immigration enforcement and dignity for the fabric of life. If the Trump administration is incapable of taking these hard-earned lessons to heart, voters must elect a Congress with the political will to fight back.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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