Protecting the Golden Door: A Response to Jeff Sessions's Attack on Women - by Greer Clem

Yesterday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that victims of domestic abuse and gang violence would no longer qualify for asylum under the parameters of federal law. Sessions's ruling has generated outcry from immigration advocates and women's rights groups across the country. In his announcement, Sessions said, "An alien may suffer threats and violence in a foreign country for any number of reasons relating to her social, economic, family or other personal circumstances. Yet the asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune." Aside from blatantly targeting women, this comment implies that domestic violence is not an abuse that must be addressed by a federal government but rather is a private matter. What he deems "misfortune" is in fact systemic violence that goes largely unpunished by government agencies, especially in Central American countries.

Sessions characterizes domestic violence as a private issue in order to prevent battered women from qualifying as their own "social group," one of the categories designated protection under asylum law: "To qualify for asylum, foreign nationals must establish that they have a fear of persecution in their homeland based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or 'membership in a particular social group.'" More significant to an asylum case than the trauma experienced is evidence that a foreign national cannot seek or obtain protection by their own government. What Sessions will not acknowledge is that, in countries like Honduras and El Salvador, women in general are not protected by their government. They are valued less than men and therefore receive unfair treatment and sometimes physical punishment from federal and state authorities. They thereby become a social group with a well-founded fear of persecution despite Sessions's best efforts to prove otherwise. 

Countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have some of the highest rates of gender-based violence in the world. In 2016, it was reported that asylum requests by women nationals of these countries had increased by almost 1,200% since 2008. The same report, conducted by the University of Oxford Faculty of Law, stated that female victims only went to the state for protection when they had exhausted all private options: "Women file complaints at the police and/or the Public Prosecutor's Office expecting state authorities to look into their cases and bring the perpetrators to justice. Yet, during this process they encounter various obstacles, mainly due to gender bias. Firstly, police officers openly disregard these reports by claiming that it is normal for a man to beat and abuse his partner or girlfriend Secondly, even when they file the reports, state authorities are remarkably slow to investigate their complaints... even when perpetrators are arrested, the relevant legislation allows for their early release because arrests made on the accusation of domestic violence cannot exceed 24 hours." If this pattern of behavior does not establish a well-founded fear of persecution then surely nothing does. Closing our doors to these women purely because the influx of applications is inconvenient for us would be condemning them to death out of racism and laziness.     

I speak on this issue not only because it is incredibly important for the American public to understand what is at stake in these cases but because I have learned this lesson firsthand. For the past year, I have been assisting with an application for asylum for a young girl from Central America. A mother before she was fifteen, she has given birth to two more children since arriving in the U.S. I've cradled one in my arms and balanced one on my hip while she went over her statements and prepared for her interview. I've summoned my weak Spanish in an effort to tell her that someone cared about her, that we were fighting for her in those moments when she felt ready to give up. Sometimes she laughs and is still a child, hiding behind eyes that have seen more than any person ever should. 

Seeking help in her own country was not a viable option, though she tried. I cannot go in to specific details of her case as it is still pending, but I can say that, for her to survive, asylum was her only choice. At the end of our last meeting, she said she wanted to be a lawyer. She wanted to help other people like her and work in a country where the law meant safety and security, not bias and brutality. It fills me with anger and shame to think that this perception may not be true because of a man like Jeff Sessions.

To Jeff Sessions, this asylum decision is an easy way to stem the flow of immigrants into our country. It's a way for us to shirk international responsibility and turn the other cheek. But to do so is to ignore basic American principles and to dilute the strength of our constituency. In 2015, the Obama White House celebrated "Welcome Weekend," a national tradition of welcoming those fleeing persecution and seeking refuge from around the world. The White House statement read, "Underlined by a fundamental spirit of generosity, Americans have long understood that each of us were often yesterday’s refugees – that the search for safety, opportunity, and freedom from fear is a common aspiration that has bound us from generation to generation. Our country is made stronger, and more vibrant because of the richness that immigrants and refugees bring, with each wave of newcomers deepening what it means to be American."

America is the star marked on the map, the end of a trail where origin is irrelevant. Years from now, when we look back down the halls of history, there will be no trace of people like Jeff Sessions, people who tried to halt the tradition of tolerance and hope. Instead, there will be faces that resemble a young girl, a mother of three who now wants to become a lawyer. It is our duty to protect these hopefuls and to show women across the world that there are places where freedom and equality reign. After all, the entrance to our great nation is marked not by a man but by a woman, "A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.And with silent lips she cries, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Greer Clem