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Trump’s new rules would have rewritten my story.

By Nene Bah and Lindsay M. Harris
July 13, 2020

Asylum is not a perfect solution for families like mine, who are fleeing human rights abuses. Starting all over again in another country is not easy.

We have, at times, struggled to survive. I have worked night shifts in a factory, as a janitor for a public school system, and in retail. I have worked hard to provide for my family.

Today, I am a U.S. citizen and my children are in college. My daughter can’t make up her mind about which major to choose. Above all, we are safe from physical harm and threats to my daughter’s safety and my own that we fled in our home country.

But, if the new asylum rules proposed by the Trump administration are put into practice, others like me will not have the same protection. They will be returned to danger.

This is my story.

I fled my home country in West Africa in 2010. My husband and I had a happy life and after university I worked as a high school biology teacher.

Things became too dangerous for us to stay, however, when family and community members came after us, insisting that my young daughter be subjected to female genital cutting and early forced marriage to a much older man.

Wanting to protect my child from what I myself had endured when I was young, I decided to take a stand. My husband and I were united in our opposition to female genital cutting, which is very common in our country, especially for girls between 5 and 9 years old. Given my traumatic and painful experience and how it has affected me throughout my life, we did everything we could to protect our daughter.

This antagonized our community and families, and we both endured numerous threats, physical attacks, and beatings, in an attempt by our family to convince us to let her be cut. We lived in constant fear of my daughter being kidnapped and cut.

At one point, an extended family member who insisted that we agree to let our daughter be cut ran over my husband, causing him to suffer brain damage and severe injuries. The authorities refused to intervene in what they saw as “family matters,” and the law against female genital cutting is not enforced in my country. To protect our child, I knew we had to leave.

I had visited the United States before and knew it would be a safe place to raise our family. There was no way to apply for asylum outside the U.S., so I obtained tourist visas for us. There are no direct flights from my home country to the United States, so we stopped in North Africa for a brief layover, before arriving in the U.S.

Soon after arrival, I found a lawyer, to help me with my case: Lindsay Harris, with the Tahirih Justice Center. I was lucky to find a lawyer, but the process of applying for asylum was extremely challenging—although Lindsay spoke French, one of the languages I speak comfortably, we had to complete all of the paperwork in English. I had to re-tell my story time and time again and eventually before an asylum officer.

I realize now that I was actually lucky because I had my asylum interview in 2011, and my case was granted only six months later that same year. Now, asylum seekers often wait several years before an interview, and the U.S. government just made the waiting period longer. During those six months, I lived with the constant anxiety of being sent back to my country where my daughter would be cut and our lives were in danger.

When we were granted asylum, we were finally able to live in safety and peace. My daughter was able to focus on school and have a happy childhood.

My heart sank earlier this month when I learned that other women and girls may not have the same access to safety that we did. The Trump administration wants to make major changes to the rules for asylum law. If these rules were in effect when I sought asylum in 2011, I would not have been granted.

The more I learn about these policy changes, the more stunned and saddened I am. It’s staggering to think that under these new rules, gender-based violence would not count—as if it’s not important enough to matter.

In my country, and many countries around the world, women are subjected to specific forms of harm based on their gender: gender-specific violence. Men simply are not at risk of female genital cutting and generally not child or forced marriage.

Under the new rules, what happened between my family and community members would be considered just a “private dispute”—despite the strong evidence then and now to show that my government would not intervene in what they see as family issues, even where serious physical harm and death are involved.

Part of my asylum claim was that I was targeted because of my feminist political opinion: I believe women and girls have the right to decide what happens to their own bodies. These new rules would prevent those claims too.

It’s unbelievable that things like taking a non-direct flight, as my family did—which had nothing to do with how much we needed protection or whether or not we were telling the truth—could bar someone from being granted asylum protection. That stop, briefly, at another airport in North Africa, would have undermined our entire claim for protection. My husband and I may not be alive today and our daughter would have been married off as the third wife of a man in his fifties by the time she was twelve.

It angers me that the government wants to create all of these new bars to asylum, leaving some asylum seekers with access only to something called “withholding of removal.”

For me, this would have meant separation from my husband and children—who would not have also been granted that protection as my derivatives or who would each have to have their own asylum claim—never being able to travel outside the U.S., never being able to become a lawful permanent resident or a citizen, and continually renewing a work permit and reporting to a deportation officer on a routine basis. We would be living in limbo.

The public can comment on the proposed rules to change asylum until July 15, 2020.

It is painful and frightening for me to speak out, but I have chosen to do so.

I want to ensure that the women who come after me, seeking protection for themselves and their daughters, will not find that the United States has closed its doors and shut its eyes to human rights abuses and persecution against women and girls.  

This story was first published by on July 13, 2020.

Nene Bah is a U.S. citizen granted asylum in 2011. She is a Maryland mother of two. In her home country, she was a high school biology teacher.

Lindsay M. Harris is an associate professor of law at the University of the District of Columbia David. A. Clarke School of Law; the vice-chair of the American Immigration Lawyers Association’s National Asylum and Refugee Committee; and serves on the board of the Asylum Works. Follow her on Twitter at @Prof_LMHarris.

Now that I am here, I finally feel safe.

Click here to submit a comment opposing the Trump administration’s devastating new asylum rule, which would shut the door on thousands of refugee women and girls like Brenda.

I had my daughter when I was 18 years old, and my son when I was 20.

The father of my children isolated me from society. He would not let me have friends, and he would not let me call my family. He said that people would put ideas in my head, and they would make me think in a different way from the correct way I was supposed to think. His way of thinking.

As the years passed, it became worse. He became more jealous, and he became more controlling.

Despite his treatment of me, I always felt that desire to work, and to continue to learn. I enrolled at the National Autonomous University of Honduras. But my partner always tried to keep me from studying. He said it wasn’t good for me — that education was worthless. He hid my books, and he took away my money to keep me from traveling to the university.

On one occasion, he became very jealous. He had heard a rumor that I had a relationship with someone he worked with. He pointed his gun at my head – he was always armed – and he told me that I was a prostitute, that this was going to be the last moment of my life. That moment was horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible for me.

This was not just one incident. This was how life was with him.

He told me, “If you call the police, you know that I will not be locked up.” He laughed at me.

My partner had a lot of influence in Honduras because he comes from a family that is involved with the police and the military. One time he got so jealous that he beat my face, leaving my eye purple and my nose bloody. And he told me, “If you call the police, you know that I will not be locked up. You know I will get out. But if you do that you will not survive.” He laughed at me. I felt frightened that I could not call the police. I told myself, I cannot continue in this situation. 

I told my mom that I had to do something. I needed to leave. In that moment, I realized that I had to come to the U.S. So, I told him, “I am going to the United States, I am going to apply for asylum and then I can help you so that you come with me.” But that was not my plan. I only said that so he would not stop me from leaving, and so that I could bring the children.

When I arrived at the border, I arrived at Hidalgo. I told the truth. I said that I wanted protection because I was suffering from domestic violence in Honduras and that I could not be there anymore. I said that I did not feel safe and that I knew I would feel safe in the U.S. And now that I am here, I finally feel safe.

Now that I have been granted asylum, I feel like a door has opened for me. I have many plans. I have a future, and I have so many goals. My children are super happy in school. They are teenagers. My daughter is 16, and my son is 13, and they are so happy to be here. And I am too. I have work. I want to continue improving my English and continue my studies. I think it is never too late to study and learn.

Free from fear and violence.

Elbia* arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2015 when she was only 23 years old. She came to the United States seeking refuge after enduring years of brutal abuse at the hands of her husband in Guatemala. Elbia had been beaten so badly by him that she had developed chronic numbness on one side of her body. Her hometown had no law enforcement to help her and there was no place in Guatemala she could find safety. So Elbia escaped, forced to leave her son behind, and made the difficult journey through the Mexican desert to the U.S. border.

When Elbia was interviewed by border patrol, she didn’t disclose the full scope of the abuse she had suffered in Guatemala. She was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and did not feel safe sharing her story with the border agent. Though Elbia had never committed a crime of any sort, the U.S. government inexplicably deemed her a flight risk. She was sent to a detention center in Eloy, Arizona and saddled with an exorbitant bond of $20,000.

Conditions in the Eloy detention center are notoriously poor, and the court there is particularly hostile to asylum seekers. Over 94 percent of asylum claims that come before the Eloy immigration court are denied. Elbia spent over a year locked up at Eloy, unable to leave and separated from her young son.

Elbia had one advantage, though: a legal team fighting for her. Asylum seekers with attorneys are five times more likely to win their cases than those without them. But people in deportation proceedings are not guaranteed the right to a lawyer, and it is exceptionally difficult to find legal representation from behind bars. As a result, 86 percent of thousands of immigrants and asylum seekers imprisoned in detention centers are forced to navigate complex legal proceedings alone.

Elbia spent countless hours working with her legal team to prepare her case. Her lawyers also managed to secure extensive testimony from expert witnesses who were able to attest to the prevalence of domestic violence in Guatemala and the dearth of resources available to indigenous women like Elbia. After months of preparation and agonizing uncertainty, Elbia was finally granted asylum on the basis of domestic violence in the spring of 2017.

As an asylee, Elbia was able to petition for her son to join her in the United States. They have been reunited and are now living in safety with Elbia’s brother in Virginia. She and her son are finally building their new life together, free from fear and violence. Elbia has begun attending culinary school and aspires to be a chef someday.

*Name changed to protect anonymity.

If I stayed in El Salvador, I would be dead.

For years, Lupita endured brutal physical, sexual, and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband in El Salvador. Lupita’s husband treated her like she was his property and was incredibly controlling. On multiple occasions, she tried to leave him. But every time, her husband would relentlessly stalk and harass her, forcing her to return to him. In El Salvador, domestic violence is largely perpetrated with impunity, and resources for women like Lupita are scant.

While her husband always expected Lupita to be faithful to him, he openly cheated on her. As a result of his infidelity, he was infected with HIV, which he then transmitted to Lupita. Medical treatment for HIV positive people in El Salvador is substandard at best, and Lupita’s HIV progressed to become full-blown AIDS. At times she was seriously ill.

Lupita applied for asylum in hopes that she could begin her life anew in the United States, free from her husband’s abuse. She made the incredibly difficult decision to leave her daughters, granddaughters, and job behind, knowing that if she remained in El Salvador her life would be in danger. Fortunately, Lupita’s asylum application was granted, and she now lives in safety in San Francisco. Since being granted asylum, Lupita has been able to access good medical care and now lives a full life. An activist at heart, Lupita has immersed herself in several community groups dedicated to advancing the rights of trans women and people living with HIV.

Photo credit: Brooke Anderson Photography

She survived extreme abuse. Jeff Sessions personally intervened to send her back.

Ms. A.B. was born in El Salvador in the 1970s. She lost her parents at a young age and was subsequently separated from her siblings and placed in the care of a family friend who physically and verbally abused her. When she was in her early 20s, Ms. A.B. met the man who would become her husband. After they married, his abuse began.

Over the 15 years that followed, Ms. A.B.’s husband subjected her to horrific physical, sexual, and emotional violence. He beat and raped Ms. A.B. so many times that she lost count. He also frequently threatened to kill her, often brandishing a loaded gun or a knife. Ms. A.B.’s husband was violent even during her pregnancies, on one occasion threatening to hang her with a rope from the roof of their house.

When they first met, Ms. A.B. was pursuing her education, but her husband forced her to cut her studies short. He constantly belittled and demeaned her verbally. Ms. A.B.’s husband also often falsely accused her of infidelity, going so far as ordering her to undress and show him her genitals so he could see if she had been with another man.

Ms. A.B.’s relationship with her husband was characterized by constant brutality and she often feared for her life. She repeatedly sought protection from the Salvadoran authorities, to no avail. While she was able to obtain two restraining orders against her husband, they went completely unenforced, and he continued to abuse and threaten her. After one particularly terrifying incident in which her husband attacked her with a large knife, Ms. A.B. went to the police and they refused to help, saying instead “if you have any dignity, you will get out of here.”

Ms. A.B. went to the police and they refused to help, saying instead “if you have any dignity, you will get out of here.”

Heeding their advice, she left her husband, moving to a town that was two hours away from where they lived together. But he managed to find her there and the abuse continued. Ms. A.B. then sought a divorce, which resulted in escalating threats on her life. A month after the divorce was finalized, her ex-husband, accompanied by his police officer brother, accosted her and told her that the divorce meant nothing and that her life was in danger. Following this incident, Ms. A.B.’s ex-husband and men with whom he associated continued to threaten her, describing in graphic detail how they intended to kill her.

One week before she left the country, her ex-husband tracked her down again and physically assaulted her. With nowhere to turn, Ms. A.B. fled El Salvador to seek protection in the United States.

Upon her arrival in the United States, Ms. A.B. was screened in and permitted to apply for asylum after an Asylum Officer found that she had a credible fear of persecution in El Salvador based on the violence she had suffered at the hands of her ex-husband. Ms. A.B.’s case was sent to the Charlotte Immigration Court, one of the courts most notoriously hostile to asylum seekers, to be heard by V. Stuart Couch, an immigration judge with a long history of denying asylum to domestic violence survivors – and having his decisions overturned on appeal. Unsurprisingly, Judge Couch denied Ms. A.B.’s asylum application.

Ms. A.B. appealed Judge Couch’s decision, and her case was then heard by the Board of Immigration Appeals, the appellate court with nationwide jurisdiction over immigration cases. The Board reversed Judge Couch’s denial, finding Ms. A.B. eligible for protection based on her experiences of domestic violence and sending her case back to the court in Charlotte for Ms. A.B. to be granted asylum.

In a departure from usual practice, Judge Couch refused to issue a new decision in the case. He instead attempted to send the case back to Board. Seven months later, Attorney General Jeff Sessions took advantage of a rarely used power to refer the case to himself for a decision.

On June 11, 2018, Sessions issued a deeply disappointing decision in Ms. A.B.’s case, reversing the Board’s decision. In ruling against Ms. A.B., Sessions overturned an important precedent decision known as Matter of A-R-C-G-, which in 2014 affirmed the right of domestic violence survivors to seek asylum protection. In his decision Sessions made the troubling statement that asylum claims “pertaining to domestic violence” should “generally” no longer be approved.

“They don’t understand that we are fleeing for our lives.”

The Attorney General’s decision completely disregarded the extensive evidence – over 700 pages’ worth – that Ms. A.B. submitted to corroborate her asylum claim. Instead, Sessions insisted on calling into question Ms. A.B.’s honesty. Consistent with his previous attacks on asylum seekers, Sessions mischaracterized her as an economic migrant gaming the asylum system. His treatment of A.B. suggests that he never had any intention to consider her application for asylum fairly.

Sessions’ decision is not the last word in Ms. A.B.’s case. Her legal team is continuing to fight for her and is determined to win her the protection she deserves. But Ms. A.B. thought her odyssey for protection had ended when the Board ruled in her favor. Instead, the legal battle continues and she remains in limbo, uncertain what her future holds. Ms. A.B. also remains separated from her three children in El Salvador, because while her case is pending she cannot petition for them to join her in the United States.

Ms. A.B. is hurt and confused by the Attorney General’s ruling in her case and by his refusal to believe her story. After learning about his decision she said, “I think immigration judges have something against immigrants. They generalize about immigrants and think that they are coming to work. They don’t understand that we are fleeing for our lives.”

Photo credit: Kevin D. Liles for NPR