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

Migrant women carried children in the rain at an intake area after turning themselves in upon crossing the US-Mexico border on May 11, 2021, in La Joya, Texas.
Migrant women carried children in the rain at an intake area after turning themselves in upon crossing the US-Mexico border on May 11, 2021, in La Joya, Texas.Gregory Bull/Associated Press

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."

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 US-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.

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“The only solution was to be far away, where I didn’t feel scared every day,” said de Jesús, 39, who declined to give her real 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 US 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 former 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.

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"You will be turned back," she warned.

Those words 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 and 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 preexisting 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 such as María de Jesús who are already at the border, meanwhile, are in limbo. She is 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.

A spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement 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.

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According to a 2019 survey by a United Nations group, 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 United States 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 establishing 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.

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"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.

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,” said the 50-year-old Salvadoran 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."

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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.