Video by Monica Wise
Dora Marisol López helped put the woman’s husband in jail years ago.
“He would leave work to go stay in the street in front of her house. She would go to the market, and he’d go along behind her,” López recounted. “She went to the kids’ school and he’d be right behind her. At night, he’d climb up on the roof of the house and shine a light into her bedroom to see if she was sleeping with someone.”
The woman had come to López, a litigator for the Guatemalan public prosecutor, with gouges on her hands where her husband had driven a pen beneath her skin. He told her that if she denounced him to the authorities, he’d kill her. But she did it anyway, and the prosecutor’s office brought charges. He was sentenced to 12 years.
This past July, eight years into her husband’s punishment, the woman got a worrisome visit from his brother. The sentence had been commuted, she learned, and he would be released that very weekend. The brother had a message: “It didn’t matter to him if he spent the rest of his life in jail, when he got out, he would kill her.”
The woman called López in a panic. López, a graying, middle-aged woman who has been handling cases of violence against women for years, said she remembered her story clear as day; she’d felt great affection for the woman, and her predicament had affected López deeply. She counseled the woman to leave the city immediately and go into hiding. In the meantime, López went to the office in charge of reducing sentences and tried to argue against the commutation, but did not prevail.
“I know if she didn’t leave the capital this weekend, he would get out of jail and kill her, and this case would become a femicide like so many others,” López said. The woman wanted to apply for asylum in the United States – but her chances of even getting in front of a judge have decreased significantly under policies instigated by the Trump administration.
Over the past few weeks, leading up to the midterm elections, President Donald Trump has stoked animus against immigrants from Central America by spreading falsehoods about refugee caravans currently making their way north through Mexico. He has ordered thousands of troops to the southwestern border, promised to hold asylum-seeking families in tent cities, and floated an executive order that would limit Central Americans’ ability to request asylum. But the administration has already taken steps that have drastically impacted the prospects of one group in particular: Central American women fleeing domestic violence.
Guatemala has one of the highest rates of deadly violence against women, or femicide, in the world — 7,357 violent deaths tallied between 2008 and 2017 by the nonprofit Grupo Guatemalteco de Mujeres (Guatemalan Women’s Group, or GGM.) An unknown but certainly large number of those crimes, both physical and sexual, begin in the home, as domestic violence at the hands of husbands, partners, or relatives. The particular combination of factors that contribute to violence against women in Guatemala — a patriarchal culture, devastating poverty, racism against Indigenous Maya, and a society strained by the legacy of armed conflict and now riven with violence from gangs and drug traffickers — has been recognized internationally, including in the United States.
In 2014, a landmark decision by the Board of Immigration Appeals, which has jurisdiction over all U.S. immigration courts, established that “married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship” qualified as a particular social group that could be singled out for persecution. The board underlined that the Guatemalan state was incapable of providing protection and could even be complicit in the violence against them. That decision, building off others that recognized violence against women as grounds for asylum, set a far-reaching precedent that has been especially important for women from Central America.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, however, aimed to change all that. In June, using a rarely exercised power of his office, Sessions personally intervened to overturn an asylum decision concerning a woman from El Salvador. He used the opportunity to issue a sweeping statement about the nature of domestic abuse, calling it a private crime, and saying that “generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by nongovernmental actors will not qualify for asylum.” The decision also argued against the idea that widespread violence against women in Central America meant that local governments were unwilling or unable to take on the problem, “any more than the persistence of domestic violence in the United States means that our government is unwilling or unable to protect victims of domestic violence.”
Sessions’s decision led to new guidelines for officers who conduct “credible fear interviews,” an initial step in a petition for asylum at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. The new guidance follows Sessions in saying that gang and domestic violence cases likely won’t qualify, and also tells officers to factor in whether someone crossed illegally, and if they could’ve found refuge within their home country or another country besides the United States.
In August, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, filed suit, saying that the new guidelines were causing people with legitimate asylum claims to be rejected, thus putting their lives in danger. The attorneys general of 19 states joined the suit, with the attorney general for Washington, D.C. writing that the “cruel policy arbitrarily closes our borders to refugees who seek asylum due to legitimate fears of violence in their home countries,” and added that it “ignores decades of state, federal, and international law.”
Guatemala has one of the highest rates of deadly violence against women in the world.
A decision in the suit is expected soon. In the meantime, lawyers and advocacy groups are pushing forward with domestic violence asylum claims and urging refugees not to give up hope: They say that Sessions’s word is not, in fact, law.
Sessions’s ruling “tries to bully decision-makers to deny these cases,” said Karen Musalo, a professor at UC Hastings and director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies. “The attorney general with this decision doesn’t rip out stem and root the viability of these cases. But he’s trying to signal that these cases are no longer viable, and some asylum officers doing credible fear interviews, and some judges reviewing cases — they are going to take the path of least resistance and dismiss.”
The Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for USCIS said, “We are unable to comment on matters involving pending litigation.”
The government does not release statistics that break out the reasons why asylum-seekers are approved or denied, so it’s not possible to know precisely how many women have been granted asylum on the grounds of domestic violence before or after the 2014 decision, and it will be hard to know how many are turned away because of the new guidance.
But recent statistics show that the number of asylum cases approved overall has dropped sharply this year. Advocates say that there has been a visible narrowing of opportunity at the credible fear stage, where migrants rarely have the assistance of a lawyer who prepares them to make a nuanced argument for why they need protection. Groups working in border detention centers say that, anecdotally, they’ve seen an increase in denials of credible fear from domestic violence cases since June.
Robert Painter, with the Texas legal services organization American Gateways, said that his organization is seeing cases in which officials are interpreting the guidelines simplistically: “Other components — political opinion, ethnicity — those tend to get overlooked by the asylum officer or the judges. If they hear the words ‘domestic violence,’ their knee-jerk reaction is to think, ‘This isn’t a good claim.’”
In Guatemala, the administration’s attempts to close avenues for asylum have reverberated deeply. Multiple women’s rights advocates interviewed in early August said outright that there was now no asylum for domestic violence in the United States. Despite that common belief — which attorneys in the U.S. say is incorrect — lawyers, shelter directors, and others argued forcefully that Sessions’s decision rested on fundamental misunderstandings of how violence against women functions in Guatemala.
In his argument, Sessions made a glancing, dismissive reference to a “broad charge that Guatemala has a ‘culture of machismo and family violence,’” which he said was “based on an unsourced partial quotation from a news article eight years earlier.” But most everyone agrees that the situation for women in Guatemala is dire and not improving.
“If they hear the words ‘domestic violence,’ their knee-jerk reaction is to think, ‘This isn’t a good claim.’”
In 2016, eight years after Guatemala recognized femicide and other forms of violence against women as a specific crime, the government said it had received over 456,000 reports since 2008, with 65,543 made in 2016 alone. In 2017, according to the Grupo Guatemalteco de Mujeres’s count, 732 women died violent deaths; every recent year has seen a similar figure.
The roots of Guatemala’s patriarchy run deep, said Gabriela Monroy, a psychologist who works at Casa Alianza, a home for abused girls in Guatemala City. “The man is the master, the head, the boss of the family and the home. And this is so deep in our culture that it justifies that the man has physical and sexual access to his wife, his daughters,” she said. She connected this to the legacy of colonialism and to Guatemala’s decades of armed conflict, when many men were forced to watch their wives and relatives raped, abused, and killed by those in power: “There was also the use of female bodies to cause damage to men.”
Poverty exacerbates the situation, making it difficult for women to leave their abusers: “How are you going to report the man who is keeping the household afloat? If you say something, your five siblings or your five kids are going to be left without any economic protection,” Monroy said.
“We’re at the lowest levels in terms of education, health, and employment,” said Carolina Escobar, Casa Alianza’s director. One child had come to the shelter after her father sold her into marriage with an older man “in exchange for a double-liter of soda and some sandwich bread.”
“The parents couldn’t feed the rest of their kids,” Escobar said. “It’s horrible what I’m saying, but it’s a real case, even if it seems so surreal.”
Indigenous women especially struggle to access justice and face additional discrimination. The lead plaintiff in the ACLU’s case, a Mayan woman going by the pseudonym of Grace, was raped and beaten continuously for 20 years by her non-Indigenous husband, who “frequently disparaged her and mocked her for being indigenous and unable to read and write,” the ACLU said. In rural areas, there are few outposts of the public prosecutor, few specialized judges, and little police presence. “There’s discrimination against women wearing Indigenous clothing, and they often aren’t bilingual, and the judicial system is all in Spanish,” said Hilda Morales Trujillo, a pioneering women’s rights lawyer and activist.
The entire country has suffered from an increase in drug trafficking and the spread of gangs. When a woman’s abuser is connected with organized crime, the situation can be extremely dangerous not just for the woman, but also for those who try to help her, said Norma Cruz, director of the Fundación Sobrevivientes (Survivors’ Foundation), a shelter and legal services provider in Guatemala City.
As for whether the Guatemalan state is capable of handling the problem, most agree that police protection is inadequate, justice is excruciatingly slow, and impunity is the norm — for femicides, it’s estimated to be 98 percent. Even if authorities aren’t actively complicit in the crime — which is sometimes the case — they often display the same prejudices that generated the violence in the first place.
Morales Trujillo said that women are often discouraged from coming forward with their denunciations as often by officials they encounter as by their families and communities; they’re told that they’ll be shunned or suffer more if they denounce their husbands, that they will lose their family’s breadwinner, that their children will grow up without a father. She has also seen judges perpetuate the antiquated stereotype that a woman who has been abused must have provoked it.
That’s despite the fact that in 2008, Guatemala passed path-breaking legislation, the Law Against Femicide and Other Violence Against Women, which recognized new categories of violence specifically directed at women, opened new angles for prosecution of those crimes, and the possibility of reparations for victims. It also created a network of specialized prosecutors and judges who were sensitized to deal with them. It was hailed as a major turning point. But the law hasn’t been sufficient, advocates say.
“The patriarchal interests, the macho interests, those classist, racist interests — they’re taking the teeth out of that law,” said Giovanna Lemus, director of a government-funded network of women’s centers and shelters run by GGM. As of August, the shelters had received no money in 2018. In a recent report, GGM laid out various ways in which the law’s impact has been weakened by lack of funds, contradictory legal developments, and bureaucratic slow-walking.
Many of the programs set in motion by the law are no match for the burden of caseloads. For instance, there is a specialized team from the public prosecutor that works with Indigenous women, offering translation and culturally sensitive services, but their reach is limited. “There are backlogs everywhere because there’s too much need and too little capacity,” said Escobar. (The U.S. government is a major donor to initiatives attempting to strengthen Guatemala’s judicial systems, and Trump’s threat to cut off aid over Guatemala’s handling of the refugee caravan could make things worse.)
Many of the advocates blamed the current president, a comedian-turned-politician named Jimmy Morales, for steps backward on women’s rights. They were especially distressed by Morales’s silence and inaction in the case of 41 girls who died in a fire at a government-run shelter in March 2017. After the fire, stories of abuse and human trafficking in the shelter surfaced. (A former Guatemalan foreign minister made headlines this summer saying he knew of several women who’d accused the president of sexual abuse, but to date, no victims have come forward. Morales has denied any wrongdoing, dismissing the allegations as rumors and lies.)
“With this government, we’re losing the advances we’d made because we have a government that’s indifferent toward policies protecting women, to laws for women and children,” said Cruz.
To compare the United States’ handling of domestic violence and Guatemala’s, as Sessions did in his decision, was “crock,” said Musalo, of UC Hastings. “To argue that even in the U.S. we don’t have a perfect system for protecting women, it’s so not comparable that you can’t even wrap your mind around it.”
Near-total impunity combined with the lack of funding and political will for women’s rights also makes it difficult for advocates to accept the idea, implicit in Sessions’s decision, that women could simply move within Guatemala. Aside from the limitations imposed by poverty and lack of resources, Guatemala is a small country, and it’s not so easy to disappear.
Authorities can be bribed for information or paid to track a woman down, said Lemus, mentioning the long history of Guatemala’s shady, deadly intelligence apparatus. Narcos can pay others to do their dirty work. “When the abusers have more resources, they do more,” she said. After helping women from rich and powerful families, Lemus said her group ended up under surveillance, with cars circling their offices and sex workers placed outside to watch the door. They’d even had their phones tapped.
“When the women want to leave, they believe that the only way to get away from the violence is to get out of the country. And I believe them. Justice is very slow. They can’t stay shut up in a shelter the whole time,” said Cruz. In extreme cases, her foundation finds places where women can stay for up to 15 days completely isolated, without a phone and without leaving the premises, to hide from their abuser. Sometimes the women aren’t even told exactly where they are. But that solution isn’t permanent, and prolonged protection also puts shelter staff in danger. The network of shelters in Guatemala is small and insufficient to the number of women needing help.
The guidelines also tell USCIS officers to consider which other countries asylum-seekers passed through before reaching the United States. The Trump administration has been pressuring Mexico to accept the status of being a “safe third country” to which the U.S. could send asylum-seekers. In Mexico, on top of well-documented threats to migrants and the fact that in many states they’d remain within easy access of their abusers, women have fewer economic opportunities and encounter less robust immigrant communities to welcome them than in the United States, said Cruz.
The idea that the U.S. has a moral burden to take in more Central American refugees was a common refrain among Guatemalan advocates. After supporting a 1954 coup against Guatemala’s left-leaning president, the U.S. funded and supported the genocidal regimes of Guatemalan military leaders during the civil conflict that lasted 36 years, until 1996, killing over 200,000 people, many of them Maya.
“There is a chain that has not been broken with the armed conflict,” said Morales Trujillo. “The violence was organized with the support of the United States. … There is a responsibility from a political point of view because of their interference in Guatemalan affairs. But also from the point of view of humanity. When someone comes knocking at your door, and they have no alternative, the door has to open.”
Reporting for this story was supported with a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation.