In Houston and around the country, immigrant women seeking refuge from domestic violence are more likely to face deportation under new Department of Justice decision.

On Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a legal decision that erodes protections for domestic violence survivors and all refugee women. Through a seldom-used legal procedure, Sessions reversed the Board of Immigration Appeals’ grant of asylum to a Salvadoran domestic violence survivor in a case known as Matter of A-B.

As noted by the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies (CGRS), a member of Ms. A-B’s legal team, “Ms. A.B. fled to the United States after suffering 15 years of brutal violence at the hands of her ex-husband. He beat and kicked her, including while she was pregnant; bashed her head against a wall; threatened her with death while holding a knife to her throat and while brandishing a gun; and threatened to hang her. Ms. A.B. attempted to secure state protection, to no avail.”

The facts of Ms. A-B’s case are tragic, but not at all uncommon among refugee women who come to Houston in search of a safer life for themselves and their children.

“The issues underlying this decision point to a larger problem which enables violence against women to go under-reported and under-prosecuted both in the U.S. and abroad. Imagine suffering abuse from your intimate partner and availing yourself of every possible avenue for relief in your home country, but your country and its criminal justice system fails you. Where would you ago?” asks Rachna Khare, executive director of Daya Inc, a non-profit that provides holistic services for domestic violence survivors, specializing in South Asian clients. Moreover, “categorizing domestic violence as ‘private violence’ minimizes the role governments and patriarchal societal norms play in keeping women and girls oppressed and unsafe in their homes. As a public health crisis affecting 1 in 3 women worldwide, domestic violence is the opposite of a private matter.”

Hana is one such survivor, whose life was saved because of American asylum laws with assistance from Daya. Years of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse by her partner in Libya created a life where she felt she “couldn’t breathe” and “couldn’t see.” Throughout her marriage, Hana was forced to have sex with her abuser, often after episodes of physical violence that left her bruised on the ground. She described countless nights of being thrown, punched, and kicked. He would pull her hair and rape her, even during difficult moments of her pregnancies. As part of a traditional mixed family structure, her in-laws witnessed and partook in this abuse as well. There was nowhere she could safely report the behavior, and furthermore, spousal rape is not recognized in Libya as a crime.

Hana became cautiously hopeful when her husband secured an international scholarship for her at the University of Houston, allowing her and her children to come to the United States legally. Over time, Hana was empowered by the U.S. criminal justice system to call the police,  receive protection from her abuser, and eventually apply for asylum with the help of a pro bono attorney and Daya. After more than four years, an immigration judge in Houston granted her asylum claim, which was based on her past persecution as a victim of domestic violence.

Almost eight years later, Hana now helps others as an instructor at a local community college; she owns a house and her children are thriving.

“I still believe that coming to America was the right decision for my family, but with every turn comes more difficulties from the government,” Hana said of Jeff Session’s decision in the Matter of A-B. “The frequent deprivation of humanitarian needs caused by the unjust asylum law of America has left sorrow and pain in my heart.”

AG Session’s decision means that Hana may not have been able to secure her safety via the asylum process. Under his decision, the United States is more likely to deny asylum to women seeking protection from domestic violence and places doubt on the ability of women to receive protection from any form of persecution inflicted by individuals not acting on behalf of the government.

In the 1940s, when the asylum definition was written, gender wasn’t a specific protected class – yet in recent years courts had been moving towards an understanding that the treatment of women in society merits special consideration. This decision is an attack on women’s rights and the progress we have made in ensuring that violence against women, including rape, is treated as seriously as any other crime,” said Andrea Guttin, legal director of the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative.

Winning an asylum claim is already extraordinarily difficult anywhere, but particularly in Houston, which has one of the lowest asylum grant rates in the country,­. From 2012 through 2017 in the Houston immigration courts, judges have denied 86% of asylum claims because of the complex burden of proof and lack of legal representation for asylum seekers.

“I am outraged by the decision. By overturning previous legal precedent and changing long-settled U.S. policy, Jeff Sessions is creating conditions for women and girls who cannot get justice in their own countries, who have fled for their lives, and who are relying on the U.S.’s adherence to international legal standards, to be sent back to face abuse and death,” said Anne Chandler, executive director of the Tahirih Justice Center’s Houston office, which provides free legal representation to asylum seekers.

Tahirih recently encountered a woman, Sara* from Central America who came to Houston fleeing severe domestic abuse from her partner, who is the father of her young children. The first time Sara’s partner abused her, he beat her so badly she was hospitalized, and upon returning home, he promptly beat her again and she was returned to the hospital.  Though she filed a police report, nothing came of it and she became increasingly afraid of him and the abuse continued. He would constantly threaten her, saying if he ever saw her with another man he would kill her. On multiple occasions, he threatened to take their children away. When he was not home, Sara’s partner began to keep her and their children locked in the home, at times denying them food.  After a particularly violent beating, Sara gathered the courage to come to the United States with her children in the hopes of finding safety through the asylum process.

While Sara is now safe from immediate harm, Jeff Sessions’ decision puts Sara’s chances at winning her claim in serious jeopardy, which could mean deportation back into abuse and a legal system that will continue to fail her. If Houston is to truly be a welcoming city for all immigrants and refugees, we must recognize the local implications of decisions like this one. The deliberate erosion of the legal asylum system is one that should concern all Houstonians.

*not her real name

Under public and congressional pressure, Attorney General Jeff Sessions will “un-pause” funding for the Legal Orientation Program

April 25, 2018 – During testimony to the Senate Appropriation’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies today, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he would allow funding for the Legal Orientation Program to continue while the “efficiency audit” is ongoing. This is a relief to the agencies providing critical “know your rights” information to the more than 30,000 immigrants in 12 of Texas’ immigration detention centers. Sessions had previously announced that the program would end on May 1 while the audit took place.

The announcement means that the YMCA International Services will be allowed to continue its legal information program in the Houston area’s three detention centers, reaching more than 6,000 individuals per year. This program guarantees access to accurate and essential legal education for immigrants facing deportation in immigration detention centers, more than 80% of whom are without legal representation. Moreover, these programs improve the efficiency of the immigration court system and ultimately produce a net savings for taxpayers.

Nevertheless, the temporary cessation of LOP funding underscores the vulnerability of low-income immigrants, particularly those in detention and facing deportation.

Kate Vickery, Executive Director of the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative said,
While this is wonderful news today, we worry that we will be facing the same situation in the future if the DOJ’s audit does not support the continuation of the program. As a community, we need to recognize the importance of supporting programs that provide due process and information for immigrants facing deportation. The basic information provided by the LOP program should not hinge on a single funding stream, and the fact that this program could end anytime should motivate us to create additional programs and systems, such as our new Deportation Defense Houston project.

The Collaborative’s Deportation Defense Houston program will provide full representation to immigrants currently detained in the Houston region.

Members of the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative call on Congress to take action to restore funding for the efficient and effective LOP program

On Tuesday, April 10, 2018, news broke that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is pausing the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) “legal orientation program” (LOP)  while it conducts an “efficiency audit.” Contracts with the 20 immigration legal services provider nonprofits around the country will end on April 30. This means that, starting May 1, 53,000 immigrants will no longer be provided with information regarding their due process rights, leading to increased deportations and family separations. The nonprofits who provide these services, have a mere 20 days to determine alternative methods to getting vital legal information to detained immigrants as there is little to suggest that this “pause” will be anything but permanent.

Across Texas, five nonprofits provide legal orientations to more than 30,000 immigrants in 11 facilities in the border region, San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston. Through the Legal Orientation Program, unrepresented detained immigrants learn about the removal process, find out about potential immigration relief, discuss their situation with an attorney and, in some cases, obtain referral to pro bono attorneys and other nonprofits in Houston. The Program is administered nationally by the Vera Institute of Justice.

In the Greater Houston Region, the YMCA International Services has been the only provider of legal orientations to detained immigrants since 2007. Through the LOP, they provide legal orientations to more than 6,000 individuals annually in three detention facilities: Houston Contract Detention Facility (Houston); Joe Corley Detention Facility (Conroe); and Polk County Adult Detention Center (Livingston). A new facility will open later this year, also in Conroe. These detention centers have some of the lowest legal representation rates of any in the country: only 27% of the approximately 3,000 detained immigrants have legal representation at any point during their case.

Elizabeth Sanchez-Kennedy, Immigration Legal Services Director, YMCA International Services said,
“Ending the Legal Orientation Program will dramatically decrease immigrants’ access to the information they need to be able to make informed decisions about the deportation process and further reduce the number of immigrants represented in immigration court. Our staff at the YMCA have passionately participated in legal orientation programs for many years and have developed an expertise in navigating the murky system for which there is no guide.”  

The Legal Orientation Program was created during the George W. Bush administration as a mechanism to improve immigration court efficiency. The program does not provide direct representation for individuals, but is the primary pathway for detained immigrants to get referrals to attorneys and organizations who can represent them.

Kate Vickery, Executive Director, HILSC, said,
“We believe that it is fundamentally unjust for anyone living in the United States to face a judge without an attorney to help them navigate a complex legal system or to face deportation without ever being informed of their rights and options. It is our assumption that without advocacy, this temporary pause of the program will be permanent, as the current administration has shown little regard for due process and access to legal counsel for immigrants in removal proceedings. The end of LOP will certainly result in a decrease of representation and an increase in unjust deportations. This is another tactic – along with immigration judge case quotas, increased court hearing speeds, and family separation at the border – to deny immigrants access to counsel.”

The LOP program allows providers such as YMCA International Services to have a regular presence in immigration detention facilities, where they can reach out to detainees who have limited English proficiency, financial resources or cognitive capacity who will otherwise be unable to access any legal assistance. Without the EOIR’s LOP, each Houston detention facility will be left to decide whether or not, or to what extent it will allow legal orientations to detainees, diminishing detained immigrants’ only access to legal assistance.

A 2012 EOIR report to the Senate Appropriations Committee showed unequivocally that facilities run more smoothly when people are informed and court dockets move more quickly when people understand their rights and eligibility for relief. Overall, the savings to the government due to LOP was more than $17.8 million, and the system improves efficiencies for immigration judges, ICE, and facility staff while simultaneously increasing chances of detainees winning their case and making dignified decisions.

Members of the Collaborative stand opposed to this latest attack on immigrants and are calling on our community to call members of congress to state their support for the Legal Orientation Program. 

To learn more about the Collaborative’s efforts to provide justice to immigrants facing deportation, visit Deportation Defense Houston


YMCA of Greater Houston
United We Dream
Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston
Tahirih Justice Center – Houston
Justice For Our Neighbors – Houston
The Alliance
OCA-Greater Houston
Mi Familia Vota
Chinese Community Center
Human Rights First
Access Justice Houston
Terri Burke, Executive Director, ACLU of Texas
Law Office of Teresa Messer.
Powers Law Group, P.C.
Justine K. Fanarof, JD, MPH
Brandon Roché, JD
Rosemary Vega,  Attorney at Law