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Central American women are fleeing domestic violence amid a pandemic, but few find refuge in U.S.

After four years of beatings, humiliation and sexual abuse, María de Jesús mustered the courage to leave the man who would punch her in the face for even changing her clothes to go outside, saying she could only look pretty for him.

Then the death threats began.

"You will never, ever be happy," her ex-boyfriend told her on the phone in December. "And when I find you, I will disappear you and your entire family."

María de Jesús packed her bags and fled Guatemala City with her 11-year-old son on a cold night weeks later. She paid a smuggler and trekked north to the U.S.-Mexico border, where she hoped the Biden administration, promising a more humanitarian approach toward migrants, would welcome a domestic violence survivor like herself into the country.

"The only solution was to be far away where I didn't feel scared every day," said Maria de Jesus, 39, who declined to give her last name out of security concerns.

She is among scores of Central American women fleeing brutal violence from boyfriends, spouses and others in one of the world's most dangerous regions for women who have recently arrived at the southern U.S. border only to find they now encounter an uphill battle to be let in.

Though President Joe Biden quickly signed several executive orders to roll back some of President Donald Trump's most draconian policies - including one that sent asylum seekers back to Mexico to await their court hearings - a number of other restrictive measures and rulings that directly affect domestic violence survivors remain in place.

Biden has ordered a review of the entire asylum system to determine whether authorities provide protection to those fleeing domestic or gang violence "in a manner consistent with international standards." Vice President Kamala Harris visited Central America this past week, vowing to commit millions of dollars to address the root causes of migration while also delivering a stern message: Don't come.

"You will be turned back," she warned.

Those words still may do little to persuade thousands of women who remain at risk in a region with deeply rooted machismo, entrenched corruption and a weak rule of law. Violence against women has increased in many parts of Latin America during the pandemic, as services like shelters shut down and women were forced to stay with their aggressors during lockdowns, women's rights groups and international organizations say.

"It was a pressure-cooker stress where there was pre-existing violence and then no escape route," said Meghan López, vice president for Latin America at the International Rescue Committee, which works with organizations in the region.

Women like María de Jesús who are already at the border, meanwhile, are in limbo. She is currently living at a migrant shelter in Tijuana, anxiously waiting for her humanitarian parole request to be reviewed.

"If they deny it I have nowhere to go and no idea what to do," she said in an interview with The Washington Post.

A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement to The Post that they are working to a rebuild a "decimated" immigration system for one that "treats people more humanely and keeps families together."

"We are moving swiftly to rebuild, but it's going to take time," the spokesperson said.

Central America, the region most of the women seeking asylum in the United States are fleeing, has the highest violent death rates for women in the world, according to data collected by the Small Arms Survey, which tracks violence globally.

According to a 2019 survey by the United Nations' Gender Equality Observatory for Latin America and the Caribbean, Honduras and El Salvador, two countries hard hit by back-to-back hurricanes last year, have two of the highest rates of femicides per 100,000 in Latin America.

Data gathered by the IRC show that in the fall of 2020, requests from across the region for women's services and protection information doubled.

Central America's deep economic contraction, slow recovery from the storms, violence and rumors that the Biden administration would allow new arrivals in all fueled the biggest migrant surge in 20 years.

But in the midst of a heated debate in the U.S. over how to respond to the crisis, the odyssey of women fleeing violence, and domestic abuse in particular, has often been overlooked.

Last month a coalition of immigration advocacy groups, including the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California, sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland and urged him to restore protections for women and families fleeing persecution and torture.

Karen Musalo, the center's director, said some of these "backwards" rulings "take us back to the "Dark Ages" in terms of women's rights. She pointed to a 2018 decision by former attorney general Jeff Sessions that established that "generally" claims "pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum."

The case involved a Salvadoran woman, known as AB, who said she had been sexually, emotionally and physically abused by her husband for years, reversing an appeals court ruling that found her eligible for asylum.

"It created an avenue for judges or asylum granters who were already not inclined to granting it, to have the basis to do it and disregard individual circumstances," said Musalo, who was also a defense layer on the AB case.

The case became a symbol of an administration that slammed its doors shut and turned away scores of immigrants that were not only fleeing gang violence, poverty and climate devastation, but in the case of many women, brutal aggression from their partners in countries where domestic abuse is pervasive.

Asylum seekers interviewed by The Post say they sought protection in their own countries and decided to leave as a last resort, disputing criticism that they migrate to the United States solely in search of better economic opportunities.

Such was the case for women like AB, who asked to be identified only by her initials for fear of reprisal from immigration authorities. She said she endured years of violence and sexual assault from her ex-husband and left El Salvador in 2014 after multiple failed attempts to escape his wrath by moving houses and cities.

"I didn't know anything about this country. I just knew it was a faraway place where people feel safe," the 50-year-old Salvadoran said in a recent interview. "Staying meant dying."

With her case still pending eight years after she first crossed the border, AB reflected on the grueling process of her quest for protection.

"This wait has been so sad and stressful," she said. "I have traveled to all the courts, done everything I have been asked to show that I did not come here to steal anyone's job or food, that I came here because I was trying to save myself."

Being separated from her three children, whom she left behind after her husband threatened her with a handgun, has been the biggest torment, she said.

"If I knew everything that was going to happen, maybe I would have preferred to die," she said in tears.

Prior to the Trump administration and Sessions's decision, survivors of domestic violence had a lesser threshold to overcome and their cases often prevailed when they proved that their countries lack the resources or willingness to offer them protection from their abusers, experts say.

"Now people are not even afforded that level of process and are just being tossed away," said Margaret Cargioli, an attorney with the Immigrant Defenders Law Center, a social justice law firm in California.

While experts argue the Sessions ruling has created an additional hurdle for domestic violence victims, it did not rule out protection completely, as these cases are decided on a case-by-case basis by immigration court judges.

Court data does not record the grounds for asylum claims, making it difficult to get a quantifiable sense of how these policies have impacted immigration court rulings on domestic violence cases.

Amid the pandemic and the recent surge of migrants at the border, Biden has continued one of the most controversial Trump policies, known as Title 42, which indefinitely closed the border to "nonessential" travel, citing emergency health concerns due to the pandemic.

While technically migrants at the southern border can still seek protection under U.S. law, the order has translated into approximately 700,000 rapid expulsions - including families and unaccompanied minors - since March of last year, without due process or access to asylum, according to immigration advocacy groups and experts.

Cargioli said the current restrictions are doing more harm than good.

"If Title 42 has to do with health safety, how can a system that is purported to save lives, instead put them in peril?" she asked. "It is illogical."

Only a small number have been allowed into the country for humanitarian reasons that can include health concerns or being at imminent harm or risk of torture, according to immigration advocates.

Sitting in a hotel in San Diego, 19-year-old Rosie from Honduras remembered the many failed attempts to escape her ex-boyfriend's house, where he would keep her captive, rape her and forced her to cut any contact with her family or friends, she told The Post in a recent interview.

If she managed to sneak out of the house, he would drag her by her hair through the dirt roads back inside, she said.

The journey to the U.S. was traumatic: Rosie said she was sexually assaulted in Guatemala as she tried to make her way north.

More than two months after being apprehended at the border and deported to Mexico, she was temporarily allowed in on May 10 under a humanitarian parole, said Cargioli, who is representing her case.

Now in the U.S., she said she dreams of becoming a doctor.

"I felt I could breathe for a minute, and finally stop feeling scared all the time," she said, sobbing.

She faces a potentially years-long wait for her case to be resolved and could still be denied protection, which keeps her awake at night.

Advocates say the vast majority of domestic violence victims arriving at the border have virtually no chance of gaining protection while restrictions are still in place.

Most end up staying in Mexico in cramped tent cities or shelters, some of them falling prey to organized crime groups or migrant smugglers. Others end up going back to the dangers they are trying to escape.

In Tijuana, María de Jesús anxiously waits to find out what will happen with her humanitarian parole request, which would allow to await her asylum process in Indiana, where her sister lives.

She can't fathom going back to Guatemala, still traumatized by the ex-boyfriend who used to create fake Facebook profiles to get information of her whereabouts.

"For so long I thought violence was my destiny," she said. "I just hope that I am wrong."

Published : June 14, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Paulina Villegas