Migrants Fleeing Domestic and Gang Violence Deserve Asylum

Migrants Fleeing Domestic and Gang Violence Deserve Asylum

An asylee who goes by “A” for fear of retaliation from her abusive husband recounts her experiences with police while living in her home country of Guatemala [1]:

“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 number of asylum requests from Central American countries has increased from 18,000 in 2011 to 294,000 in 2017 due to rising levels of violence in the region [2]. In Honduras in 2015, one woman was killed every 16 hours [3]. El Salvador’s homicide rate is over 22 times that of the United States [4]. Every 46 minutes a woman becomes a victim of sexual violence in Guatemala [5]. Reports show that, despite complying with the law by entering through official ports of entry, many asylum seekers are being physically blocked from setting foot on U.S. soil [6]. By turning away those seeking asylum, the United States is violating international human rights law and condemning migrants to return to the violence they are desperately trying to escape.

The right to seek asylum was established by the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees [7]. It was initially created to protect Europeans displaced as a result of World War II but was later expanded to include refugees “without geographic limitation” [7]. Asylum is a protection granted to individuals who have made it to the United States and meet the definition of a refugee under the UN Convention. Asylum seekers are able to claim they suffered persecution on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or their particular social group, which is generally interpreted in a way that includes those who share a common characteristic that endangers them and whose governments will not or cannot protect them [8]. The United Nations’ refugee criteria were incorporated into U.S. law by the Refugee Act in 1980.

A discussion about migration is incomplete without a critical analysis of the ways in which the United States has contributed to the destabilization of the Central American region.  In 1954, the CIA overthrew the democratically elected government of Guatemala in an effort to preserve American economic interests [9]. The coup was followed by decades of civil war, claiming the lives of more than over 200,000 people. Mass incarceration in California and deportation of El Salvadorans transformed a Los Angeles-based “stoner” gang into a ruthless, widespread criminal gang now known as MS-13 [10]. American demand for narcotics sustains the drug trade in Honduras, while the “war on drugs” perpetuates violence through ensuring the most powerful cartels maintain control [11]. Unstable, weak governments are unable to protect their people, who are then forced leave their homes to seek safety. The influx of migrants, though not directly connected to decades of American interventionism, can be seen as an unintended consequence of it. Beyond a moral obligation to those who have endured unfathomable hardship, the U.S. has a responsibility to help as both a culpable actor and wealthy world power.

In May 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions intervened in the case of “Ms. A.B.,” a woman who fled to the United States after enduring over a decade of domestic abuse [12]. Two years earlier, the Board of Immigration Appeals had ruled in her favor by arguing that the government of El Salvador failed to protect her [12]. In addition to the Board’s ruling in the case of Ms. A.B., the highest immigration court in the U.S. found in 2014 that victims of domestic abuse who reside in countries that are unwilling or unable to provide adequate protections qualify as members of a social group [13]. This definition can also serve to protect victims of gang violence. Immigration courts around the country have in the past defined those who have refused to join gangs as members of a social group, and a number of cases have been successfully won by defining anti-gang sentiment as a political opinion as well [14]. Moreover, gender-based violence and gang violence are inextricably linked in that gang members often use sexual violence as a means of instilling fear in local populations [15]. Now, however, Sessions argues that asylum claims like Ms. A.B’s cannot be based upon fear of gang or domestic violence. Through a defense that hinges on the idea that asylum should not be a remedy to “private” violence, Sessions ignores decades of case law precedent showing that many domestic and gang violence claims can be classified as persecution based on social group [16]. The notion that domestic violence is nothing more than a private issue is absurd. A crime that globally affects more than a third of women is not an isolated, random, private issue.

An administration demonstrably hostile to the interests of women and immigrants alike (“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists”) cannot be expected to handle asylum claims without bias [17]. Those seeking asylum deserve a fair hearing and a legitimate chance to lead their lives without fear in the United States.


  1. Martinez, Gina. “‘I Don’t Live in Fear Anymore.’” Time, June 20 2018. 

  2. Phillips, Tom. “Central Americans Flee Homes in Record Numbers.” The Guardian, May 22 2018. 

  3. Beltran, Adriana. “Children and Families Fleeing Violence in Central America.” Washington Office on Latin America, February 21 2017.   

  4. “El Salvador Homicide Rate”, Index Mundi. 

  5. Folkerts, Lily et al. “A Look at the Northern Triangle of Central America.” Latin America Working Group, August 15, 2016. 

  6. Lind, Dara. “Trump Keeps Making it Harder for People to Seek Asylum Legally.” Vox, June 5 2018. 

  7. “Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.” UNHCR. 

  8. Benner, Katie and Dickerson, Caitlin. Sessions says Domestic and Gang Violence Not Grounds for Asylum.” New York Times, June 11 2018. 

  9. Weiner, Tim. “Role of CIA in Guatemala Told in Files of Publisher.” New York Times, June 7 1997. 

  10. Lind, Dara. “MS-13, Explained.” Vox, May 21 2018.  

  11. Lopez, German. “How Has the Drug War Contributed to Violence Around the World?” Vox, May 8 2016.  

  12. Rose, Joel. “This Salvadoran Woman is at the Center of the Attorney General’s Asylum Crackdown.” NPR, May 22 2018.  

  13. Kuznia, Rob. “Fleeing Domestic Violence in El Salvador, Mother’s Asylum Quest in US is Complex.” The Washington Post, July 1 2018. 

  14. Amar, Sebastian et al. “Seeking Asylum from Gang-Based Violence in Central America: A Resource Manual.” Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, August 2007.  

  15. Zedginzide, Tina. “Domestic Abuse and Gang Violence against Women: Expanding the Particular Social Group Finding in Matter of A-R-C-G- to Grant Asylum to Women Persecuted by Gangs.” Law and Inequality: A Journal of Theory and Practice, Vol 34, 2016. 

  16. Williams, Pete. “Domestic or Gang Violence Not Grounds for Asylum.” NBC News, June 11 2018.

  17. Reilly, Katie. “Here are all the Times Donald Trump Insulted Mexico.” Time, August 31 2016. 

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