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‘I Don’t Live in Fear Anymore.’ 2 Women Granted Asylum in the U.S. for Domestic Abuse on Why They Risked Coming Here

11 minute read

In an opinion issued on June 11, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that victims of domestic and gang violence will no longer qualify for asylum in the United States. Since 2014, women from throughout Central America have escaped increasingly dangerous situations through asylum in the U.S.

A.*, a mother of two, is one of those women. She fled Guatemala after years of sexual and physical abuse from her husband. She was granted asylum in 2016 and is now living and working in New York City as a home attendant.

J.* also gained asylum in the U.S. on the grounds of domestic violence. She suffered from abuse at home throughout her childhood at the hands of her grandmother and alcoholic uncle.

A.’s lawyer Robyn Barnard said countries in Central America, including Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, are becoming increasingly unstable and have some of the highest homicide rates in the world. “It’s no coincidence that more people are applying for asylum,” she said. “It’s a result of the increase in gang violence and when you combine that with viewing women as property [there] and being able to treat them as you please, domestic violence increases as well. Very few women are able make it out of these situations without help.”

Here’s how U.S. asylum policy helped A. and J.. escape their dangerous situations, and how they think Sessions’ new policy will hurt other women in similar situations.

A., 32

When I decided to leave Guatemala and come to the United States, I didn’t know much about the asylum process. All I knew was that I had to get out of my current abusive relationship. My mother was living in the U.S. for 20 years before I left Guatemala, but I barely spoke to her because I was ashamed of my situation and I didn’t want her to know what was happening in my personal life. My mother was also was a victim of domestic violence, and when I was growing up with her and my father, violence was a normal thing. She left our town when I was 5 years old, and I stayed behind with my brothers and grandmother.

The abuse became routine for me too, until one day I had enough when my husband grabbed me by the throat and started choking me in front of my children. I saw that my 8- and 12-year-old daughters were also suffering from the abuse, and so I finally told my mother what was happening. She told me to leave Guatemala and come to her immediately.

When I first came to this country in 2014 I came illegally. I had to escape, but I had no plan. My daughters and I traveled on a bus for 15 days until we reached Mexico. There, someone met us and smuggled us into the States. When we crossed the border into Texas, however, immigration caught us and we were sent to a detention center where we stayed for two difficult days. The conditions of the detention center were horrible; it was freezing cold and my two daughters were very uncomfortable. The center was crowded, but because I had kids I was able to leave and come to New York to stay with my mother. Once we arrived in New York, we began the process of starting our new lives. We had nothing and knew nothing, so I had to get my daughters shots and set them up with documents so that they could be enrolled in school.

In the meantime, I attended all of my court appointments. I told the judge that I didn’t have money for a lawyer so he provided me with one. Once I got to know my lawyers and told them my story, they took on my case and began investigating on my behalf. I told them how much I had suffered, how my husband mistreated me and how he used to trap me and the children in our house — even if they were sick.

During their interviews with me, they listened. They listened to me as I cried and told them my story. And once they knew my story, the lawyers did everything they could to help me.

In my case, I had very little evidence of abuse, but my lawyers did their due diligence. In Guatemala, there are barely any resources for women. If you get hit and go to the police, the burden is on the woman to present evidence. Women are not believed. Sometimes I felt like they would have to see me lying dead in the street to believe me — and even then they wouldn’t care.

The reality is that in Guatemala, a lot of women suffer from domestic violence. Men think that because they run the household, the wives have to submit to them. Getting your case in front of a judge is incredibly expensive. What ends up happening is that women just tolerate the abuse because they can’t afford help.

After 18 months, I was granted asylum. When it happened, I couldn’t believe it. By the end of the process, I felt so relieved and full of joy because I knew I would not be forced to go back to that situation. I always lived with this fear that I would have to go back to Guatemala and return to a life of abuse. I knew if I did, I would be returning to a difficult life.

Being granted asylum has been a huge blessing for me and my family. I don’t live in fear anymore, and it’s almost like my life from before never happened. I’ve decided to leave behind all the fear and trepidation. I used to always be worried, and now I’ve lost that fear and I’m calmer. I’m at peace.

To think that there are other women in my situation who will be sent home is so unjust. Many women just like me are coming to the United States with their children because they know that if they stay in their home country there is a chance that they and their kids will be killed. The U.S. government should continue to help women like me. Women in domestic violence situations come to this country because there are laws here to protect us.

Now that I’m in the U.S., I finally feel like I’m my own person. I see my daughters so happy and thriving in school, and it makes me feel better about my choice to leave. It makes everything I went through worth it.

I have peace of mind because I know that if I had just stayed and suffered, my daughters would have eventually ended up in the same situation, and the cycle of abuse would have continued. Here, they have more opportunities to learn and to grow and to live without fear. If I had not escaped, I honestly don’t know what my life would be like right now.

J., 20

When I was 17, I left my small hometown in El Salvador and headed to the capital of our country, San Salvador, to attend university. I had always dreamed of studying psychology in college, and furthering my education meant that I would be able to see and do new things that weren’t possible in my small town. My mother left when I was a child to come to the United States so I was raised by my grandmother. Throughout my childhood I was abused by my grandmother and uncle. Life at home was not easy, and I was constantly punished and hit for everything I did; the abuse was completely normalized, and even though people knew about it, no one helped. But despite all of the struggles of my upbringing, I was determined to pursue a better future. Unfortunately, things didn’t get any better away at school.

One day I left work late, and was raped by a group of men. I have no idea who my assailants were, it just happened. In El Salvador, violence of all kind is normalized, people grow up in that environment and think it’s acceptable. The police don’t do anything if you tell them that you’re being abused — especially if you’re a young woman. We’re blamed instead of believed. The police will interrogate you, and ask, “What were you doing there?” It’s very clear that if you’re assaulted, the authorities will think that it’s your fault. So after my rape, I was scared and decided not to go to the police. I knew it would be a waste of time.

I also became pregnant from my rape, and a few weeks after I discovered that I was expecting, I felt sharp pains in my belly and went to the hospital. I was so overwhelmed, I remember thinking, “I can’t believe this is happening to me, I don’t deserve this.” When I told the doctors that I was pregnant, I immediately felt judged and uncomfortable because I was underage; the nurse who was supposed to help me was incredibly rude. I was just sitting there bleeding, confused and afraid. I begged for help, but was ignored by the hospital staff. They assumed that I was somehow responsible for my pregnancy and after hours of screaming from the pain they finally removed the fetus without anesthesia. Needless to say, I was beyond traumatized by the experience.

When I returned back home, I was devastated about losing my child, but I had to trust that it was all in God’s hands. I was also met by rumors that I had had an abortion; again, I was blamed for everything. It was my fault that I lost the baby, and everyone made me feel terrible — like some sort of delinquent. People accused me of killing a baby, and I lived in constant fear of retaliation to the point that I didn’t feel safe leaving my house. I couldn’t handle the pressure anymore, I decided that I needed a fresh start and wanted to reunite with my mother and try to mend our relationship. It was around this time that I decided to leave El Salvador and come to the United States.

Soon after I entered the U.S., I was detained by immigration and sent to a detention center for minors in Texas. The first night was the worst, the center was freezing cold, crowded and you had to use the bathroom in front of other people. I was confused and afraid because I wasn’t told anything and didn’t know if I would be able to see my mom. After one night there I was sent to a second location for another day, and then to a third location where I would spend three months. The third center was much more comfortable, and there were workers there who told me that soon I would be reunited with my mother in California.

It took three years to be granted asylum. In that time I lived with my mother and brothers and got to work on our relationships. I also was able to focus on my education, which was one of the main reasons I wanted to come to the U.S in the first place. My attorneys worked hard on my case and it all worked out.

Being granted asylum has changed my life and outlook on life. I’ve always wanted a brighter future and a chance to focus on my education, and now I have that opportunity. In the U.S., I feel calm and happy, and I’m no longer afraid of what will happen when I leave my house. I no longer ask myself, “Will today be my last day?”

Before I was granted asylum, I was afraid that I’d be sent back to El Salvador and have to relive all the pain I went through again.

It’s wrong that other women in situations similar to mine will no longer be able to seek asylum in the U.S. on the grounds of domestic violence. If someone wants to start anew and escape violence, they should be given that chance.

*Both of the women featured in this piece wished to remain anonymous. These interviews have been translated from Spanish and edited for clarity.

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Write to Gina Martinez at gina.martinez@time.com