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US turning away Domestic Violence victims seeking protection

Yesterday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a legal decision that would make receiving asylum almost impossible for victims of domestic violence. As an immigration attorney, I know first-hand how devastating this decision is for many of my clients and women throughout the United States.

Let me tell you about my client Maria (not her real name) and what led her to Latino Memphis.

Maria met her abuser when she was only 12 years old. After her abuser forced her to move in with him, he began raping her regularly. At first, she fought back, but she quickly learned that it would hurt her more to fight it, so she just let the rape happen. When she was only 13 years old, Maria’s abuser – who is 10 years her senior – forced her to marry him. At their wedding reception, after seeing her dancing with her cousin, Maria’s abuser pulled her hair and hit her in the back of her head. He locked her in a room for the rest of the evening. The physical abuse and rape continued for years. He called her awful names. He had rules about what she could wear and when she was allowed to leave their home. He prevented her from seeing her family.

When Maria was pregnant with her second child, her abuser got mad while they were at a family gathering in a different town. He took her outside, strangled her and hit her head repeatedly against a wall. The next morning, he left her there and took their daughter home with him. When Maria got home – she insisted on seeing her daughter to make sure she was okay. But her abuser refused. Instead, he attacked her. He hit her with his fists and he choked her with a rope. She was able to escape and go to the health center and was told that the abuse was so bad, that she was at risk of miscarrying her pregnancy. When Maria went to the police to report this abuse – she was told by the police officer -- the very person responsible for assuring her safety -- that she had 6 days to return to her abuser’s home, otherwise she would be arrested and jailed for “abandoning the home” and she would have her daughter taken away from her. Maria was required to attend marital counseling with her abuser. To avoid being jailed and having her daughter taken away from her, Maria returned to her abuser’s home. The physical and verbal abuse continued for years after she returned to the home.

Ultimately, Maria’s abuser decided the entire family would come to the United States to live. When they arrived at the border – Maria and her children were separated from her abuser, because he had previously been deported from the United States, whereas she and the children had not. This separation saved their lives.

Maria came to Latino Memphis in March 2016 and I agreed to represent her and her children for free, as she did not have the money to afford an attorney. It was a hard-fought case and in November 2016, Maria and her three children were granted Asylum and they currently have applications for permanent residency pending. Maria was one of the lucky ones. Under this new decision, Maria would have been denied asylum and would have been sent back to her abusive husband, and likely, her death.

Women who come to the United States fleeing domestic violence do not do so lightly. It involves leaving their families and friends, the lives they have built, and everything they own, in search of safety. Often these women have suffered both physical and emotional abuse for years and see no other option other than to flee their countries and seek the protection of the United States government. Like Maria, many of these women have learned that the government of their countries are unwilling or unable to protect them. I’ve heard stories of women going to the police in their country to report the abuse they have suffered only to be told that her abuser has the “right” to hit her because he is her husband. Or to be told that she should come back again if he does it again or once she has a broken bone.

No person should be subjected to daily physical and emotional abuse. The United States should provide protection to women and children who have suffered the horrors that Maria and women like her have suffered. At Latino Memphis, we refuse to take Jeff Sessions’ decision laying down. The attorneys at Latino Memphis are committed to keep fighting for women like Maria. But these fights take time and, most of all, they take money. Money that many of our clients don’t have. Maria could never have afforded to hire a private attorney -- which is why I am so proud to work for a non-profit like Latino Memphis, that provides low-cost or free legal services to immigrants, including to women and children who will be directly affected by yesterday’s decision.

Please donate to Latino Memphis’ Immigrant RIghts Defense Center today. Help us continue our important work fighting for the rights of women like Maria. These women and children need to know that SOMEONE supports them. Latino Memphis supports them. Will you?