An update from our partners at the Alliance for Immigrant Survivors
Last week, Congress approved a spending bill that will fund the government through September 30, 2019, preventing another damaging government shutdown. Although the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was not reauthorized in the spending bill, a record $497.5 million was allocated for VAWA programs that protect and support survivors of domestic violence, sexual violence, dating violence, and stalking. All provisions included in VAWA that are not related to grant funding, such as protections for immigrant survivors and tribal communities, do not require reauthorization and do not expire.
Advocates are working with Congress to reauthorize a strong VAWA that includes enhanced protections for survivors of gender-based violence, invests in violence prevention, and reduces barriers to accessing justice and safety. As coordinators of the Immigration Subcommittee of the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence (NTF), the Alliance for Immigrant Survivors (AIS) has been working to ensure that there are no reductions in protections for immigrant survivors and that the needs of all survivors are addressed in the reauthorization of VAWA. Read the NTF statement here.
Along with appropriating more funding for VAWA programs, the spending bill has made changes to funding levels of other programs that will impact survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, especially survivors who are seeking asylum. Below, we summarize the implications of the spending bill on survivors seeking asylum and explore other Administration policies that further restrict access to asylum.
Impact of the Spending Bill on Asylum
The spending bill passed by Congress and approved by the Administration on February 15 excludes several amendments that had been a part of a funding bill approved by the House Appropriations Committee last year. Previous amendments that had been recommended by advocates to enhance support for survivors seeking safety in the U.S. included in earlier versions of the spending bill were, unfortunately, left out of the final version. Among these were increased funding for 60 additional agents for U visa adjudications – visas for immigrant victims of crime, such as domestic and sexual violence – to reduce the wait time for applicants to obtain work authorization to six months, as well as defunding implementation of the Matter of A-B- decision.
The spending bill provides additional funding for immigration judges, attorneys, and support staff to assist in reducing the backlog of immigration cases, including asylum claims and VAWA related removal claims. There is also new funding to hire Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to manage and enroll asylum seekers in the family case management program, allowing asylum seekers to reside in the community rather than in detention centers while their cases are pending, as well as language in the spending bill that prohibits the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from using funds to destroy records on sexual abuse allegations.
Although the spending bill provides some modest support for asylum seekers, the increased funding for immigration enforcement will harm the ability for survivors of gender-based violence seeking asylum and other protections to access safety. There is likely to be an increase in the number of Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers by approximately 200 additional agents. The bill also expanded funding for ICE and CBP, for more detention beds, and appropriated $1.375 billion for building physical barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.
In addition to the recent news about the federal spending bills, there have been other policy developments impacting immigrant survivors seeking asylum in the U.S. AIS believes we must recommit ourselves as a nation that welcomes immigrants and offers refuge to migrants fleeing violence instead of detaining them and their children.
Court Upholds Right for Survivors of Domestic Violence to Seek Asylum
Following the decision by the attorney general in Matter of A-B- in June 2018, the Administration released policies instructing asylum officers to generally deny asylum to survivors of domestic violence and gang violence. Twelve asylum seekers who had suffered severe physical and sexual abuse in their home countries and been turned away for citing domestic and gang violence during their credible fear interviews challenged these policies in the lawsuit Grace v. Whitaker. AIS allies the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies (CGRS) filed the lawsuit to protect the right of survivors to seek safety and refuge in the U.S.
On December 19, 2018, a federal court determined that these policies denying asylum to survivors of domestic violence and gang violence as whole categories of people are unlawful and run counter to the purpose of our country’s immigration laws to protect vulnerable immigrants fleeing persecution and violence.
Since the Court ruling, the Administration has released new guidance requiring asylum officers and immigration judges to provide a fair process for asylum seekers in credible fear proceedings and clarifying that there is no blanket rule against claims involving asylum seekers fleeing domestic violence and gang violence.
Remain in Mexico Policy Endangers Asylum Seekers and Immigrant Survivors
Recently, the Administration announced yet another policy that specifically targets asylum seekers, attempting to make them appear dangerous, even when they are not, and, instead, puts them in harm’s way. This is the opposite approach we should be taking if we value our international commitments to asylum seekers and the safety of immigrant survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and trafficking.
DHS’s Migration Protection Protocols – which have been dubbed the Remain in Mexico policy – were announced on January 24, 2019, and require asylum seekers at the southern border to stay in Mexico while awaiting their immigration court hearings. In effect, the policy forces people seeking safety into dangerous environments. It’s unclear how long these asylum seekers would have to remain in Mexico given the current backlog in U.S. immigration courts has reached over 800,000 cases and the recent government shutdown only added to these delays.
The Tahirih Justice Center, an AIS Co-Chair, filed a lawsuit on February 14, challenging the policy. Tahirih is joined as plaintiffs in this lawsuit by Al Otro Lado, Innovation Law Lab, the Central American Resource Center of Northern California, Centro Legal de la Raza, and the University of San Francisco School of Law Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic, and is represented in the action by the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and CGRS.
The lawsuit argues that the U.S. is violating the Immigration and Nationality Act, the Administrative Procedures Act, as well as the United States’ duty under international human rights law not to return people to dangerous conditions. “The right to asylum is enshrined in international law, and U.S. domestic laws create a process that must be fair and available to all who seek protection,” said Archi Pyati, Chief of Policy at Tahirih. “Our mission is to uphold these obligations and support rule of law. The Remain in Mexico policy makes that harder for us as an organization and violates our obligations as a nation.” (Read more)
Vilma’s Story of Detention, Separation, and Reunification
On May 10, 2018, Vilma and her 11-year old daughter, Yeisvi, arrived in the U.S. from Guatemala. They were fleeing horrendous domestic violence and hoping to find safety and seek asylum. Instead, they were immediately separated from each other at the border because of the “zero-tolerance” policy in effect. Because Yeisvi is a U.S. citizen and therefore could not be detained, she was instead placed in foster care in Arizona, while her mother was put in detention in Georgia, 2,000 miles away. The state of Arizona began dependency proceedings against Vilma due to her detention, putting her at risk of losing custody of her daughter permanently.
The Tahirih Justice Center, representing Vilma in her asylum case, worked with AIS partners and other advocates around the country to challenge ICE for refusing Vilma’s release. After months of intensive campaigning and 246 days of separation, Vilma was finally released from detention and reunited with Yeisvi on January 11, 2019. Vilma still has a long road ahead as she pursues her asylum claim, but the victory of her reunification with her daughter is an example of the fruits of a collaborative, comprehensive, and multi-pronged effort.
Read more about Vilma’s story here and on Tahirih’s website here.
Resources on Asylum
We have gathered resources to provide you with additional information and background on the policies and legal changes involving asylum and immigrant survivors.
Advocates submitted comments and developed talking points opposing the asylum ban that would unlawfully block survivors of gender-based violence from receiving asylum if they cross into the United States anywhere except at a point of entry.
More information on how the decision in Grace v. Whitaker and its interpretation of Matter of A-B- will impact domestic violence-based asylum claims moving forward.
- Court Decision
- ACLU – Statement
- CGRS- Press release – New guidance on asylum claims based on domestic and gang violence
Advocates have released statements and talking points for use in opposing the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP).
- Human Rights First – Statement
- Human Rights First – Fact Sheet
- KIND – Statement and Talking Points
- Tahirih – Statement
The Women’s Refugee Commission conducted polling on voters’ attitudes toward refugees and asylum-seekers.