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Guest post: Defending against ongoing attacks on the right to seek asylum


In 2018, the Florence Project responded to unprecedented attacks on the right of immigrants to seek asylum in the United States – a right guaranteed by both United States and international law.

Unlike defendants in criminal court proceedings, who are guaranteed free legal representation, detained immigrants do not have the right to a public defender. Without representation and access to legal education, most asylum-seekers will lose their cases and be returned to the conditions they fled. For some, this is a death sentence.

While last summer’s family separation crisis dominated the 2018 news cycle, it was just one element in a series of attacks that continue to undermine our clients’ ability to live freely and safely in the United States. Among these attacks were a February 2018 Supreme Court ruling (Jennings v. Rodriguez) that resulted in mandatory detention for thousands of immigrants, a unilateral decision (Matter of A-B) by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions that made claims relating to gang violence and domestic violence ineligible for asylum, and a recent proposal by the Trump Administration that would force asylum seekers to remain in Mexico as their claims are adjudicated.

These actions have had direct and dire consequences for our clients, many of whom are now ineligible for asylum or unable to attain legal representation as they remain indefinitely detained. The Matter of A-B has been particularly devastating for our clients. At the time of Attorney General Sessions’ decision, nearly 40% of the Florence Project’s ongoing asylum claims were related to domestic violence. As a direct consequence of A-B, many clients who won asylum prior to June 2018 would no longer qualify today. Consider, for example, the story of Katia [see Fall 2016 Newsletter], an indigenous woman from Nicaragua who fled her home after enduring extensive abuse at the hands of her husband, Orlin. Despite reporting the abuse to police, Orlin continued to beat Katia and her daughter without repercussion. Just before Katia fled to the United States, Orlin beat her daughter so severely that she died from her wounds. As a result of the Matter of A-B, individuals like Katia are no longer eligible for asylum in the United States.

Every day, the Florence Project works with women whose stories are similar to Katia’s. In many cases, these women come from countries where law enforcement officials are unable or unwilling to prosecute crimes of domestic violence, thus leaving them vulnerable to ongoing abuse. By declaring claims relating domestic violence and gang violence ineligible for asylum, Attorney General Sessions defied well-established legal precedent and imperiled the lives of detained immigrants with potentially valid asylum claims. Going forward, women like Katia will have limited avenues for legal relief and may be returned to the lethal conditions that drove them to leave their home countries.

The Florence Project fully expects the Trump Administration’s attacks on asylum seekers to continue into 2019. Indeed, our staff is already preparing to respond to the consequences of the Administration’s “Remain in Mexico” plan, announced at the end of 2018. Forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their asylum claims are processed in the United States will further restrict access to counsel in a system where nearly 90% of immigrants are already unrepresented in court proceedings. Moreover, it is a direct violation of U.S. law, which unambiguously guarantees the right of asylum seekers to wait safely in the United States pending completion of their cases.

We cannot overstate the devastating effects that continued restrictions on due process and asylum eligibility will have for thousands of immigrants seeking safety and refuge in the United States. Although we cannot predict what new and unprecedented policy decisions we will see in the upcoming months, the Florence Project will continue to advocate for justice in our immigration system and fight on behalf of our clients, who are strong, resilient individuals who inspire us every day.

For 30 years we have worked towards a legal system in which immigrants are treated fairly and humanely, and our work is as important now as ever before. It is easy to feel overwhelmed as an individual who disagrees with our government’s onslaught on the right to seek asylum but feels powerless to fight back. You too, however, can stand in solidarity with the Florence Project’s clients by staying educated and informed about rapidly changing policy. Injustice can only be perpetuated if it remains hidden from public view, tucked away where no one can see it. By being a microphone for our clients’ stories, you can make their voices heard and ensure that the right to seek asylum remains protected under U.S. law.

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