Advocates push AG Merrick Garland to restore asylum protections for domestic violence victims

Advocates ask if domestic violence isn’t credible fear, what is?

SAN ANTONIO – If any of the families at the Battered Women and Children’s Shelter are in the U.S. illegally, Marta Pelaez, president and CEO of Family Violence Prevention Services, said she wouldn’t know since they’re not asked about their legal status.

“That is unthinkable. We do not collect that information,” Pelaez said. “I would never imagine asking a woman that comes with her two front teeth wrapped in a tissue paper whether she is properly documented.”

But Pelaez said she is aware of how their abusers often use their undocumented status to threaten them. She said she also knows that asylum laws had protected victims escaping domestic violence back home until Jeff Sessions became the U.S. Attorney General under the Trump administration.

“If domestic violence is not a credible fear, I don’t know what that would be,” Pelaez said.

Lance Curtright, an immigration attorney, said many of his asylum cases involve women who were terrorized in their home countries bythe worst form of domestic violence that you can possibly imagine.”

“The police will be called, and they will see this as a domestic issue, or in some countries, they’ll see it as a man who can’t control his spouse,” Curtright said.

When not even their own governments would protect them and their children, Curtright said, “Fleeing is the last choice they had.”

He said yet not even the U.S. government offers them protection after then-Attorney General Sessions decided “non-governmental violence between two private individuals (would) rarely, if ever, be enough to merit asylum.”

However, Curtright said, as part of an executive order signed by President Joe Biden in February, the U.S. Homeland Security and the Justice Department are reviewing asylum laws as they pertain to domestic violence victims. They will then come back with proposed recommendations for regulations.

But rather than wait months, Curtright said a quicker alternative would be to reverse the case that prompted Sessions’ decision back then.

“Restore the law to what it was before the Trump administration dramatically reformed it by declaration of the Attorney General,” Curtright said.

Now, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland is being urged by advocates to act as soon as possible.

Curtright said he’s unaware of any blanket policy to deport domestic violence victims, including his own clients. He said it seems that government agencies are holding off, for now, to see what the Biden administration ultimately does.

Still, Pelaez said victims no doubt still fear they’ll be sent back.

“Deporting victims of domestic violence is sending them to battering, abuse and sometimes, sure, death,” she said.

About the Authors:

Jessie Degollado has been with KSAT since 1984. She is a general assignments reporter who covers a wide variety of stories. Raised in Laredo and as an anchor/reporter at KRGV in the Rio Grande Valley, Jessie is especially familiar with border and immigration issues. In 2007, Jessie also was inducted into the San Antonio Women's Hall of Fame.

Luis Cienfuegos is a photographer at KSAT 12.