Heidy fled her native Honduras for the United States on the advice of police. There was nothing they could do, they told her, to protect her from her abusive husband, a drug trafficker who spat on her, raped her — the first time when she was 17 — and threatened her at gunpoint.
“He was going to kill me at any moment,” she told a U.S. immigration judge this week. Heidy, whose surname is being withheld because she is a rape victim, is the first test case since the highest immigration court in the United States issued a ruling last week recognizing domestic violence as a basis for granting asylum.
In that case, a 41-year-old Guatemalan mother of three who was repeatedly beaten and raped by her husband was given asylum in the U.S.
Immigration attorneys have seized on the decision, hoping it will help other Central American women. Thousands of such women and their children have been apprehended in recent months after illegally crossing the Southwest border.
At an immigration detention facility here, at least half of the estimated 300 women interviewed by pro bono attorneys claim they are victims of domestic violence, said Blaine Bookey, who was co-counsel on Heidy’s case and is associate director at the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies at UC Hastings College of Law.
Critics say the ruling may allow any woman who suffers from domestic violence to seek shelter in the U.S. Bob Dane, spokesman for Federation for American Immigration Reform, called the ruling “another example of the systematic whittling away of the original intent and definition of asylum.”
The Board of Immigration Appeals decision also may complicate plans by immigration authorities who have vowed to speed up the processing and deportation of thousands of single women with children who have illegally entered the U.S.
Before last week’s ruling, immigration judges regularly denied asylum to victims of domestic violence because U.S. law did not consider them part of a “social group,” a key requirement for asylum.
Asylum applicants must establish a well-founded fear of persecution because of “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion,” according to Citizenship and Immigration Services guidelines.
Asylum seekers also have to prove that their home government is complicit in their persecution or unwilling or unable to stop it. The board found the requirement was met in the Guatemala case, observing that the country has a “culture of machismo and family violence” and that police often fail to intervene in domestic violence cases.
Heidy’s hearing on Thursday showed the challenges officials face in handling a flood of cases this year. The 23-year-old and her attorney were in a makeshift courtroom set up at an immigration facility in Artesia. They were linked via teleconference to an immigration judge and interpreter 1,800 miles away in Arlington, Va.
Heidy testified about her life in Honduras, trying to compose herself as she told Judge Roxanne C. Hladylowycz about the abuse she endured for six years.
“He would push me. He would grab me from my neck. From my jaw,” she said, gesturing with her hands over her neck to demonstrate.
Her face flushed and she bit her lips, trying to hold back tears. “He told me I was an Indian that was worth nothing,” she said. “I told him I was a woman who was worth a lot.” Sometimes the microphone would cut out unexpectedly, forcing her to repeat uncomfortable testimony again and again.
She was walking to high school when her future husband first spotted her. She resisted his advances, Heidy testified, because she had heard he was part of a powerful drug-trafficking family. But he was relentless. After six months of stalking her, he forced into a car one afternoon and raped her.
When he told her that he would take her far away from her family, Heidy proposed they get married so she could stay in town. She soon gave birth to her son — the product of that first rape, she said. Physical and mental abuse started soon after they wed and moved to a house near his family, she said.
A typical day started with her cooking breakfast for his entire family and doing chores around the house. She wasn’t allowed to attend college or leave the home without him.
“I was like a slave for him,” she said.
Even when he landed in prison for his role in a murder, his friends and family kept a close eye on her, and he constantly called on a cellphone smuggled to him.
“He and his entire family are very dangerous people, and the whole world is scared of them in my town. Even police are scared of him,” Heidy said.
Afraid of what would happen to her if she didn’t comply with his demands, she visited him in prison. The guards were paid off to allow him his own room where he would rape her, she said.
Once, she tried filing for divorce, but no government officials would take the case. Eventually, she managed to move to her parents’ home, but her husband, who had been released from prison, wouldn’t leave her alone. He pointed a gun at her, threatening to take away their 5-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter if she went with another man.
The last straw came when he arrived at her parents’ home firing a gun in the air. On June 2, Heidy’s brother took her and her two children to a city three hours away. There, she asked authorities for help. They said her best option was to leave Honduras.
Under cross-examination, a government attorney asked Heidy what would happen if she were deported.
“It would be sure death for me,” she replied.
Hladylowycz had already reviewed Heidy’s asylum packet, which included multiple testimony — including an affidavit by her brother, who helped her escape, and an assessment of conditions for women in Honduras.
Heidy’s situation, the judge said, was a “textbook case” for asylum relief for her and her children.
Heidy put her hands to her face and began to shake. Her principal attorney, Christina Brown, handed her a tissue.
“In one year you can apply to become a permanent resident of the United States,” the judge said. “Good luck to you.”