In an awful way, Araceli Bonilla was fortunate.
If a U.S. immigration judge had heard the 37-year-old Honduran mother’s tale of repeated beatings and hospital visits, death threats and psychological trauma just a few months earlier, the court probably wouldn’t have been able to help her.
She still has the scars on her arm from where her partner burned her with a cast-iron grill, below her eyebrow where his ring caught her eye and on the finger he almost cut off with a kitchen knife.
A landmark ruling last year by the nation’s highest immigration court gave some victims of domestic violence, such as Bonilla, a path to stay and to remain in the country legally.
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“I feel like I won the lottery,” Bonilla said, somewhat reluctantly. She won permission to stay in November 2014.
Many asylum experts saw theAugust 2014 landmark case, known as A-R-C-G after the initials of the woman involved, as a leap forward for those fleeing “femicide,” the rampant gender-based violence rooted in much of Latin America. But a year after the ruling, applicants face broad disparities in the courts.
A review of recent decisions in domestic violence asylum cases has advocates saying that outcomes continue to be influenced by courts’ locations and whether applicants have lawyers.
Roughly 2 out of 5 reported domestic-violence decisions have been denied since the landmark case, according to preliminary data compiled by the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies at University of California Hastings College of the Law.
The government does not report the immigration judges’ decisions on domestic violence cases, making it harder to track how cases fare across the country. The Center for Gender & Refugee Studies houses the largest repository of gender-based asylum cases.
The center has collected nearly 90 decisions that involved domestic violence since A-R-C-G. Although the sample isn’t large, patterns have emerged showing the significance and limitations of the decision, according to a report by the center titled “Gender-Based Asylum Post-Matter of A-R-C-G” to be published this week in the Southwestern Journal of International Law.
Out of more than 1,600 asylum cases involving partner violence in which attorneys have sought the center’s assistance, there have been 89 decisions. While 43 were granted either asylum or some similar form of relief, 35 were denied and the rest were sent back to court.
“I don’t mean to diminish what is going on, but it hasn’t been so pronounced,” said Blaine Bookey, co-legal director at the center and author of the report, speaking of the ruling’s impact. “A-R-C-G was really such a positive advancement in recognizing domestic violence as a basis for asylum. But it still leaves a lot untold.”
Big policy implications
The interpretation of the law has significant policy implications.
Next month, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement plans to launch a large-scale effort to round up hundreds of families who entered the U.S. illegally and have been ordered removed from the United States by an immigration judge.
If the women fleeing poverty and violence in Central America – many of them mothers traveling with young children – qualify as bona fide refugees, they may be entitled to special protections. And thousandscontinue to be held in controversial family detention centers that the Obama administration resurrected last year to discourage future migration.
At the family immigration center in Dilley, Texas, about half of the roughly 500 mothers being held claim they are victims of domestic violence, said Brian Hoffman, an Ohio immigration attorney who is leading the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project.
The majority are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, having arrived since last year as part of a surge of more than 100,000 migrant families fleeing poverty and violence in Central America.
U.S. immigration officials didn’t respond to specific questions about implications of the A-R-C-G decision, but they said each application was adjudicated on a case-by-case basis depending on the particular facts and applicable laws and regulations.
Some groups are concerned that the U.S. court’s decision has weakened the asylum program created to protect those facing persecution.
While domestic violence certainly should be condemned, the immigration court’s decision is an inappropriate venue to address a worldwide problem, said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington research institute that supports tighter controls on immigration.
“It has the potential to over the long term dilute the meaning of asylum,” Vaughan said. “Anyone fleeing an uncomfortable or dangerous or upsetting or difficult circumstance could then qualify for asylum.”
Reached just over a year ago, the A-R-C-G decision by the nation’s highest immigration court was supposed to resolve nearly two decades of court battles over whether battered women formed a social group subject to persecution and thus had standing to seek asylum under U.S. immigration laws. The Board of Immigration Appeals in Falls Church, Va., ruled that a 41-year-old Guatemalan mother of three who was beaten and raped by her husband would receive asylum based on domestic violence.