Despite U.S. Asylum Ban, Honduran Women Fleeing Violence Remain Undeterred
HEYDI LIZBETH GARCÍA GIRÓN is haunted by the memory of the day her partner tried to kill her.
“I can’t sleep at night because when I close my eyes, I see the image of him over me with a machete,” said García Girón, in an interview at the office of a women’s rights organization in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, in June.
In October of last year, García Girón returned to her home in Tegucigalpa with her partner of nine years, their 6-year-old daughter, and García Girón’s 12-year-old son. Her partner was in a nasty temper, accusing her of lying about being with a friend earlier in the day. He sent her son to the store, and the couple went inside with their daughter.
García Girón thought that it was just another one of his moods, violent but temporary. She started cooking dinner in the kitchen and tried to drown him out.
As she stood over the stove, a scream from her daughter alerted her to the danger looming behind her. Her partner raised a machete, bringing it down with full force toward García Girón’s head. She turned quickly to avoid the fatal strike, but he struck her in the neck. He slashed her three more times before she escaped when her son came back from the store just in time. At the hospital, doctors told García Girón that her recovery was a miracle.
García Girón’s partner has been behind bars since November 2018, but she fears the day he could be set free. He has managed to get ahold of a phone in prison and continues to call her, repeatedly threatening to finish what he started.
“Being here seems like a time bomb,” said the 34-year-old García Girón. “I can’t give him any chance to think about or plan how he is going to finish killing me.”
García Girón now plans to go to the United States to seek asylum, the only place she believes she can find safety for herself and her family. She joins a soaring number of Honduran women fleeing due to high rates of gender-based violence along with near-total impunity for such crimes. These women, who often arrive at the southern border of the U.S. with children in tow, face an increasingly restrictive system intent on denying their legal right to seek asylum.
THANKS TO A new rule, migrants who arrive at the U.S. border with Mexico without having sought asylum in one of the countries they passed through are now ineligible for asylum in the U.S. The Trump administration introduced the rule in July, but an injunction from a federal judge prevented it from being implemented until last month, when the Supreme Court lifted the injunction while litigation is ongoing. The result is effectively an asylum ban for most Central Americans and many others. People like García Girón can still petition to stay in the U.S. under the Convention Against Torture, but that process has a higher burden of proof and does not provide a pathway to citizenship. And they may well have to wait for a long time in dangerous border cities before they even get a chance to see a judge, joining nearly 50,000 people who have been returned to Mexico under the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” protocols.
“It’s putting up more roadblocks to them seeking protection in the United States,” said Lily Axelrod, an immigration lawyer who represents asylum-seekers, including many women from Central America. Axelrod called the asylum ban a violation of international legal obligations to protect refugees. She said the administration “is not only turning its back, but is punishing people for asserting their belief that they deserve to be free from gender-based violence and envision a life where women are free and equal.”
The rule is another salvo in the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle the asylum system as we know it. In June 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a ruling stating that fleeing domestic violence was not grounds for asylum, overturning precedent that had allowed many Central American women refuge. By December 2018, a federal judge had blocked Sessions’s ruling from being implemented, but the prospects for asylum-seekers fleeing gender violence have not improved much.
In recent years, the U.S. State Department removed key sections related to women’s rights, sexual violence, and reproductive rights from their annual report on human rights in Honduras. (Honduras wasn’t the only place where the administration has attempted to erase violence against women; last year, Amnesty International received notice of a State Department directive with instructions to remove passages about women’s rights from its global human rights report.) These reports are “extremely important” because “judges and asylum officers will automatically take them into account,” Axelrod said. “They are intentionally changing a document that they know can be used as evidence.”
The updated reports suggest that conditions in Honduras are improving for women, but activists on the ground say that is not the case. Along with neighboring Guatemala and El Salvador, Honduras consistently ranks among the worst countries for violence against women.
In 2018, 380 femicides occurred in Honduras — the equivalent of one woman murdered every 23 hours — and in the first few months of 2019, local media reported an alarming spike in femicides. From 2002 to 2017, more than 90 percent of femicide victims in Honduras never saw justice, according to the National Commission of Human Rights Honduras, a government monitor. Sexual assault and domestic violence also pose considerable threats: A 2014 survey of Honduran adolescent women reported that 28 percent had been a victim of physical, psychological, or sexual abuse from their partner.
The Honduran National Congress released a new penal code this year that reduces rape and sexual assault sentences, sending a message to perpetrators, said Jinna Rosales, director of human rights organization Acción Joven Honduras, or Youth Action Honduras. “It’s giving an opening to aggressors to do what they want with women: mistreat them, rape them, beat them, and more.”
Because of the lack of state protections, many women never report their abuse, Axelrod said. García Girón had reported her abuser to the police four times before he tried to kill her, but law enforcement did not offer any help.
“Judges often say, ‘Did you seek protection from authorities in your country?’ They say, “No. I didn’t think [it was] worth it,’” Axelrod said. Women who do come forward often face discrimination from authorities who don’t believe them or tell them to solve their domestic violence problems privately, Honduran women’s rights groups say. Police often release perpetrators within 24 hours — if they are arrested at all.
THIS REALITY CONTRIBUTES to the record-high number of Hondurans apprehended at the U.S. border from October 2018 to August 2019, numbering more than 244,000 migrants, of which 182,000 were detained as a family.
Sixteen-year-old Marisela, whose name has been changed because she fears harm for speaking out, reported her cousin after he raped her. But even behind bars, he continued threatening her family. In May, the cousin sent hitmen to Marisela’s house looking for her, but she wasn’t there. Instead, they killed her father. Now Marisela, her mother, and three sisters are planning to leave Honduras and seek asylum.
“The only thing that I ask for is help to leave this country to have security in a place where my daughters can study, and I can move forward with my life with them,” said Marisela’s mother.
Marisela and her family are part of the 190,000 Hondurans who have been displaced within their own borders. Trump administration officials have repeatedly said that asylum-seekers can seek safety in their own country, but many fleeing Honduras have already tried that.
“The last resort is often migration,” Rosales said. “[They choose to leave the county] because there are no other options.”
That is the case for 26-year-old Isabela, whose name has also been changed because she is still under threat. She went into hiding after she reported her boss for rape. Soon after, two gang members started looking for her, and she believes that her former boss sent them to kill her. She has not returned to her house since.
“I hope to never have to leave my country because I love my country, and my family is here,” Isabela said. “But if the criminal group finds me, I’ll have to go — where, I still don’t know.”
Left/Top: Marisela, 16, who reported her cousin after he raped her. Right/Bottom: Isabela, 26, who went into hiding after reporting her boss for rape.
García Girón sees no future for her family in Honduras. The four scars across her neck, back, and abdomen serve as reminders that she is not safe where her ex-partner might find her. She’s now preparing all the necessary documents to leave Honduras with her kids and seek protections in the U.S. She would have left already, but she’s waiting to have reconstructive surgery on her shoulder to repair nerve damage from the attack. Her surgery was scheduled for early September but was recently pushed back, a casualty of the overburdened public health care system in Honduras.
García Girón fears that the U.S. government will deny her case because of the Trump administration’s increased scrutiny of asylum-seekers. “It scares me,” she said during our interview in June. “It seems like they might say no. They’re returning migrants for so many things.” At that time, she had learned from news reports that it was becoming harder for Central Americans to receive asylum in the U.S., although she didn’t know why.
García Girón was unaware of new agreements that would allow asylum-seekers to be sent back to Guatemala and El Salvador or of the rule change that would require her to seek asylum elsewhere. She remains firm in her decision to leave her country and go to the U.S. The fear of what could happen if she stays in Honduras outweighs everything.
“My kids need me and I need them,” she said. “I want to watch them grow up and I don’t want to die.”