Diana’s husband raped and repeatedly beat her. Next time, he told her, he’d kill her. When she sought safety, the police in her home country in sub-Saharan Africa laughed: There were no laws protecting women in Diana’s situation. So she had to seek asylum elsewhere in order to survive.
Being granted asylum in the United States isn’t easy. Diana (not her real name) worked with a lawyer, appearing in court and recounting the painful, intimate details of the trauma she had endured. She also described these painful experiences to us, her asylum doctors, who recorded the myriad scars from her husband’s belt buckles, razor blades, and ropes.
As doctors who provide pro bono examinations for people seeking asylum, we have seen countless people such as Diana fleeing domestic abuse, and others trying to escape gang violence, who had no recourse or protection in their own countries. Our role in forensic evaluations for people seeking asylum is an impartial one — we record what we see and hear, from physical scars to psychological trauma, as evidence for their asylum hearings in court.
We can’t be similarly objective or dispassionate about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ unilateral, unwarranted, and deeply concerning decision to deny asylum to victims of domestic abuse and gang violence. Many of these individuals, unprotected by laws in their own countries, face death unless they can escape.
Since the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, the United States has committed to protecting any person “who is persecuted or who has a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” In a landmark case in 2014, the Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that a Guatemalan woman fleeing domestic violence qualified as a member of a “particular social group” eligible for asylum. Advocates and immigration lawyers have extended this precedent to apply to those escaping gang violence as well. The Sessions decision overturns the 2014 ruling and removes this protection.
Our clients — many of whom are victims of domestic abuse and gang violence in their countries of origin — entered the United States legally, and seeking asylum is their human right. It is impossible not to be moved by the physical and mental scars they carry from the trauma they survived, and to ignore the desperation that stems from their injuries.
Luis, for example, had a long scar down the side of his throat. Gang members made that gash, but not until after they had robbed his father’s store and shot his father multiple times in front of his children. Luis had no choice but to leave home and seek asylum; otherwise, he would have been killed.
When Luis sought safety in the United States, asylum doctors noted this scar and how it corroborated his story. If he returned home, the gang would find him and finish the job they had started. Like Diana, Luis is a victim of violence routinely ignored by law enforcement in his own country. He, too, was a member of a targeted group without protection from persecution.
The callous unilateral policy toward people such as Diana and Luis is not only reprehensible but also antithetical to our nation’s values. Our country committed to protecting women who are victims of intimate partner violence with the passage of 1994’s Violence Against Women Act. This federal law criminalized intimate partner violence, provided funding for women’s shelters and support groups, and coordinated care among law enforcement, prosecutors, victim services, and attorneys. The decision to deny asylum to victims of domestic abuse simply because it occurred beyond our borders does not reflect the American ethos that allowed bipartisan passage of this act.
Sessions’ policy of “zero tolerance” will cost thousands of innocent lives. It is time for the checks and balances inherent in our government to kick into action and restore the possibility of asylum for victims of domestic abuse and gang violence.
Allison Bond, M.D., Katherine Crabtree, M.D., and Rashmi Jasrasaria, M.D., are physicians with the Massachusetts General Hospital Asylum Clinic. They acknowledge the contributions to this article by Matthew Gartland, M.D., who directs the clinic.