All of them are seeking asylum in the United States, but not because of war, political persecution or the notorious gang battles that have led to unprecedented murder rates in their Central American homelands.
They are seeking refuge from a more intimate danger: abuse at the hands of men.
“He was very violent. He forced me many times. I ran away but he always found me again,” said the 27-year-old Honduran mother of twins, who was detained by federal agents this month and remains in federal custody. Her lawyers identified her only as “Juliza” to protect her from potential retaliation.
“In my country, nobody pays attention to what women suffer,” she said in a telephone interview. “We are just expected to endure.”
A high percentage of the women seeking asylum from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are basing their claims on domestic or sexual violence, according to lawyers and advocates. They say their personal suffering sets them apart from others who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally over the past two years — and qualifies them to be protected under laws originally passed to shelter foreigners facing political, religious or social persecution.
Many of the Central American women have no police or hospital records of their abuse and could have a hard time proving their stories. Moreover, gender-based violence has been accepted as legal grounds for asylum only since the 1990s, and the issue remains controversial; critics say that if every abused woman in a poor country were allowed to seek sanctuary in the United States, the floodgates would open.
“This is potentially opening asylum to scores of millions of women in backward societies with different social expectations,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. “Aren’t women beaten in Haiti and India and Mexico, too? This has no relation to what asylum is supposed to be about.”
But as the national debate over illegal immigration continues to rage, and the Obama administration struggles to find a way to keep longtime immigrants here while deporting those who came more recently, experts say more asylum claims based on domestic abuse are likely.
Of the 12 women who were granted emergency stays of deportation this month after being rounded up with their children by federal agents, at least seven say they came to the United States to escape abuse by a male partner.
“The strongest cases we have are based on domestic or sexual violence,” said Kathryn Shepherd, a volunteer lawyer working with Juliza and other women who were sent to a federal facility in Dilley, Tex. “Some were afraid to go to the police for fear of retaliation, and some are still psychologically traumatized.”
A second opportunity for sanctuary, announced two weeks ago by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, could generate a separate stream of petitions by women facing violence. In cooperation with the United Nations, U.S. officials plan to open centers in all three countries of Central America’s “northern triangle” where people can apply for permanent resettlement as refugees in the United States.
Usually, such programs are established in areas of military conflict or state persecution, such as Syria or Rwanda. The last time Central Americans were granted refugee protection was during the era of civil wars and military repression in the 1980s and early 1990s.
But now, after a generation of civilian rule, experts said violence has become so widespread — and the governments are failing so badly to protect civilian victims — that extraordinary measures are needed.
“This is not a traditional conflict with armies in uniform or governments targeting dissidents,” said William Frelich, a Washington-based official of the nonprofit group Human Rights Watch. “Here we have predatory private groups acting with brutal impunity — forcibly recruiting boys, sexually enslaving girls — as well as abuse in the domestic context. These women and children are literally fleeing for their lives.”
Critics said that advocates for illegal immigrants are conflating gang brutality with domestic violence in hopes that women abused at home — a far more common situation — can sneak into the asylum tent.“They are brainstorming for ways to keep women from being deported,” Krikorian said. “It’s a pretext for legal mischief and an excuse to prevent the enforcement of immigration laws.”
The stories told by a dozen Central American women currently seeking asylum — some in detention, others free while waiting court hearings — are tangled tales of tortured relationships with husbands, estranged boyfriends or gang members.
All involve violence, often including rape. Most of the women said their children were also threatened or in danger.
In many cases, the abuse was part of a complicated set of circumstances with more than one attacker, and it did not fit neatly into a single category for asylum claims. Some women said they were victims of incest; others said they or their relatives were coerced by gang members in ways that included financial extortion or sexual servitude.
Yolanda, a Salvadoran woman who fled to the United States with her adolescent daughter, said she was sexually abused for years by the same relative, then threatened by gangs. Mayra, a Salvadoran mother of two, reported she had been raped and beaten by her ex-partner while pregnant, and said gang members ransacked her house after she tried to have him arrested.
Yolanda and Mayra are among the women in federal detention; both were identified only partially by their lawyers to protect them from retaliation.
Some single women and girls who fled to the border said they were trying to escape gang members who forced them to have sex, hide drugs or weapons, and perform other illegal tasks. Advocates say many women who flee domestic violence are deported without ever telling their stories to an immigration judge.
A teenager named Ana, now living in the Washington area, said she submitted to a gang’s demands after members threatened to kill her grandparents. The first time she ran away, she was caught and beaten unconscious. The second time she managed to cross the border on foot.
“Even to this day, she is still receiving messages from the gang on Facebook, threatening how they would torture her in specific ways if she ever came back,” said Andrea Rodriguez, a lawyer in Arlington, Va,. who is representing Ana in her asylum case and declined to provide her last name. “The gangs consider the girls their property.”
Today, the three “northern triangle” countries are often described by experts as chaotic, failed states where years of civil war and social collapse gave way to an explosion of gang and drug violence, overwhelming and corrupting law enforcement institutions.
Murder rates in El Salvador and Honduras have skyrocketed; gangs control large swaths of territory and routinely extort “rent” from even modest businesses. Those who resist often become another statistic.
“The circle of violence is growing wider and more barbaric, and death seems normal,” said Angelina Marquez, a former policewoman and counselor for abused women and minors in El Salvador, who now lives in Northern Virginia.
“There are 12-year-olds committing massacres, bodies cut up in pieces, and so much violence against women,” she said.
Marquez fled her homeland in 2014 after her father was murdered for testifying against gang members who had burned a man alive. Before she left, she said, the gang came after her and beat her nearly to death — a way of further retaliating against her family.
She was apprehended by immigration agents after entering the United States and released while awaiting deportation proceedings. She has applied for asylum based on the violence she and her family suffered back home.
Despite her background in law enforcement, Marquez said, “even I didn’t want to go to the police” to report the gang assault. “I never planned to leave my country, but there is nothing left.”