Hon­duran woman flee­ing vi­o­lence is de­nied asy­lum

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY CRISTINA BOLLING [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

The abuse was al­ways worse when he drank, Paula says, and it didn’t stop – not when she moved with her five kids, not when she begged her hus­band to end the death threats. She filled out po­lice re­ports and filed a court pe­ti­tion in the small town in Hon­duras where she had fled to get away from him. It didn’t help.

When he threat­ened her old­est son with a ma­chete in 2015, she de­cided she had to leave, she says. Ter­ri­fied, Paula sold her small home in the coun­try’s coastal re­gion and packed up her three old­est chil­dren, whose fa­ther, she says, had been mur­dered years ear­lier by a rob­ber. They headed for the bor­der.

She trusted that her story would be enough to earn her safe haven in the United States, where other Hon­durans she knew had been able to set­tle and live peace­fully. She ended up in Char­lotte, one of the most dif­fi­cult cities in the United States for asy­lum seek­ers.

And she landed here at ex­actly the wrong time.

A CHANGE IN THE LAW

In 2015, when she ar­rived, Char­lotte al­ready had one of the coun­try’s tough­est im­mi­gra­tion courts to pe­ti­tion for asy­lum: The year be­fore, the city’s im­mi­gra­tion judges had granted just 16 per­cent of asy­lum re­quests — less than a third of the na­tional rate of 49 per­cent.

In June of this year, Paula’s prospects sank lower.

A Depart­ment of Jus­tice de­ci­sion had al­lowed a vic­tim of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence – a woman from El Sal­vador who said her hus­band had raped and bru­tally beaten her for years – to seek asy­lum as a mem­ber of a “par­tic­u­lar so­cial group.”

But this June, then-At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions over­ruled that de­ci­sion, us­ing a Char­lotte im­mi­gra­tion court case. His rul­ing de­clared that “pri­vate vi­o­lence” such as do­mes­tic abuse would no longer be grounds for asy­lum.

Why?

Christo­pher Ha­jec of the Im­mi­gra­tion Re­form Law In­sti­tute, which sup­ports re­duced im­mi­gra­tion, ex­plained the think­ing: “Sadly, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence oc­curs in all re­li­gious and ra­cial groups, in all na­tions, and in all so­cial classes. Its vic­tims are not a so-

cially dis­tinc­tive group any more than vic­tims of other crimes are.” And if all crime vic­tims got asy­lum, there wouldn’t be room for peo­ple per­se­cuted for their race, reli­gion, etc., he said.

Ses­sions and de­fend­ers of his de­ci­sion also pointed to the sky­rock­et­ing num­ber of asy­lum seek­ers. In 2008, fewer than 5,100 screen­ings of asy­lum ap­pli­cants were done, ac­cord­ing to U.S. Cit­i­zen­ship and Im­mi­gra­tion Ser­vices. In 2016, there were nearly 92,000.

Al­low­ing do­mes­tic vi­o­lence to be grounds for asy­lum “opens the door to grant­ing asy­lum for all vic­tims of crim­i­nal vi­o­lence in for­eign coun­tries,” said Dan Cad­man, a re­tired fed­eral im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cial. “Should some­one who has been the vic­tim of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence be granted asy­lum, but some­one who has sur­vived an at­tempted mur­der be de­nied?” he wrote in an es­say for the Cen­ter for Im­mi­gra­tion Stud­ies, a think tank that seeks to limit im­mi­gra­tion.

“Where does such a spec­trum end?”

Paula’s chances had dimmed.

A WORK PER­MIT, A JOB, A LI­CENSE

Be­fore Paula left Hon­duras in July 2015, she says, she promised her two younger chil­dren she would send for them as soon as she could. They would stay, in the mean­time, with their fa­ther’s par­ents. Although he was the man who had punched and threat­ened her, she says, he had never raised a hand to them, and she felt they would be safe, at least for awhile.

She is telling her story on con­di­tion that her full name not be used, be­cause of the threat of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence.

With money from the sale of her house, Paula and her three teens set out for the North­east, where rel­a­tives awaited them. She paid smug­glers to take them across the U.S. bor­der, she says. Just be­fore cross­ing from Mex­ico into Texas, and with a hefty debt still owed to her smug­glers, she was robbed, she says.

U.S. Bor­der Pa­trol agents ap­pre­hended the four at the bor­der but after she told her story, she says, she was al­lowed into the coun­try. Her money gone, the smug­glers, or coy­otes, took her to Char­lotte, where one of the smug­glers was headed any­way, and where Paula had a rel­a­tive with a truck that could be used for col­lat­eral.

To pay her debt, Paula de­cided to stay. She and her old­est son ap­plied for and re­ceived work per­mits, then im­me­di­ately found jobs: Paula clean­ing build­ings, her son work­ing con­struc­tion. She en­rolled the two other teens in high school.

Paula got a valid N.C. driver’s li­cense and be­gan sav­ing the thou­sands of dol­lars she would need to fund an asy­lum ap­pli­ca­tion — while at­tend­ing her im­mi­gra­tion court dates and check-ins at the lo­cal Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment of­fice, she says. She rep­re­sented her­self in her first court ap­pear­ance in Novem­ber 2015, court records show.

She says she felt in­tim­i­dated in court, and left shaken. She met lawyer Zoila Ve­lasquez in an el­e­va­tor in Char­lotte’s im­mi­gra­tion court that day, and hired her.

Ve­lasquez says Paula’s case has strong ev­i­dence: Po­lice and court doc­u­ments at­tested to the abuse she had suf­fered, bol­stered by neigh­bors and fam­ily mem­bers back in Hon­duras, who later gave sworn state­ments about the abuse.

But Ve­lasquez cau­tioned Paula the way she does all her new asy­lum clients. She pulled up na­tional im­mi­gra­tion data to show that the chances of win­ning asy­lum in Char­lotte are re­mote com­pared with other U.S. im­mi­gra­tion courts. Many Char­lotte im­mi­gra­tion lawyers say they just as­sume an ini­tial re­quest to cer­tain judges will be de­nied. So they pre­pare ap­peals at the same time as first pe­ti­tions.

“I’ve won enough ap­peals with the board (of im­mi­gra­tion ap­peals) to know that I stood a good chance to win,” be­fore Ses­sions’ rul­ing, Ve­lasquez says. “Your al­ter­na­tive is to just give up.”

A DE­NIAL

Her first pe­ti­tion for asy­lum for Paula and her three older chil­dren landed on Judge Barry Pet­ti­nato’s docket in Fe­bru­ary 2017, and was de­nied, court records show. Pet­ti­nato ruled that Paula didn’t have enough ev­i­dence, and that she wasn’t be­ing tar­geted as a mem­ber of a pro­tected so­cial group, records show. Ve­lasquez ap­pealed. Giv­ing up the fight to stay in the U.S. wasn’t an op­tion, Paula says.

She con­tin­ued to fear her hus­band. Through­out their years to­gether, ac­cord­ing to her tes­ti­mony in court doc­u­ments, he had ver­bally and phys­i­cally abused her and threat­ened her life and her chil­dren. Though he had moved out of the house sev­eral times, she had al­lowed him to re­turn, she tes­ti­fied – but the threats and abuse con­tin­ued. When she left the coun­try and told him she would not re­turn, she tes­ti­fied, he told her “if she re­turned to Hon­duras, he would cut her to pieces so no one would find her.”

And by this time, her girls were here, in school and flour­ish­ing. They had been al­lowed into the coun­try in 2016, Ve­lasquez says, spend­ing a few weeks in a fos­ter home, as is typ­i­cal, be­fore be­ing re­united with Paula and their sib­lings in Char­lotte.

The girls had learned English within months, and the fam­ily had set­tled into a peace­ful rou­tine — work, school and all-day ser­vices ev­ery Sun­day at a Pen­te­costal church. Paula, with a govern­ment-is­sued work per­mit, had a job in house­keep­ing at a large of­fice build­ing. She filed in­come taxes and owned an old but ser­vice­able van to take to work and drive the kids to school.

The girls’ case was as­signed to Char­lotte im­mi­gra­tion judge Theresa Holmes-Sim­mons, and Ve­lasquez was work­ing on it.

Then came Ses­sions’ de­ci­sion. A month later, Paula’s ap­peal was de­nied.

In Oc­to­ber, a let­ter showed up in her mail­box.

A CHOICE

Her young girls had to trans­late it for her: Paula and her three old­est chil­dren were or­dered to re­port to the Char­lotte ICE of­fice with their pass­ports and plane tick­ets out of the coun­try. They must leave no later than Nov. 30, the let­ter said. Each could bring along no more than 40 pounds of be­long­ings, what will typ­i­cally fit in a small suit­case.

“A re­view of your file in­di­cates there is no ad­min­is­tra­tive re­lief which may be ex­tended to you, and it is now in­cum­bent upon this agency to en­force your de­par­ture from the United States,” the let­ter read.

The girls asked: “Mami, are they re­ally go­ing to make us go back there?”

The girls don’t have to go back — at least not now. In Au­gust, Judge Holmes-Sim­mons had given them un­til June 2019 to ap­pear in court. But Paula has sworn she will not leave them again.

They love their neigh­bor­hood ele­men­tary school, where one is de­vour­ing “A Wrinkle In Time” and the other has be­come a math whiz. When newly ar­rived nonEnglish speak­ers join their class­rooms, teach­ers ask the girls to buddy up with the new­com­ers. They coun­sel their new friends: “Don’t worry, you’ll learn fast like we did. Don’t be afraid to speak English and make mis­takes. That’s how you’ll learn.”

Paula says she can’t bear to pic­ture them back in their school in Hon­duras, where she says they learned noth­ing and even pen­cils were hard to come by. She has paid Ve­lasquez to make a last-minute re­quest for an­other ap­peal. Nei­ther knows if a de­ci­sion will come be­fore her dead­line to leave.

So Paula, like any­one be­ing de­ported, faces choices. She can leave the coun­try, with or with­out her youngest chil­dren. Most de­ported peo­ple who leave, lawyers say, re­turn to the land they had fled.

Or she can stay, and try to re­main un­de­tected, likely los­ing her job as she be­comes what she is not now: un­doc­u­mented.

Ear­lier this month, Paula spread the pieces of her asy­lum pe­ti­tion out on her kitchen table — the sworn state­ments from fam­ily mem­bers in Hon­duras, the po­lice re­ports, the court fil­ings, the mar­riage cer­tifi­cate and the death cer­tifi­cate of her slain ex-part­ner.

“What more proof could they want, of ev­ery­thing I’ve been through?” Paula asked, wip­ing away tears. “What else could I have done?”

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