Beth Fertig reports for WNYC:
They Fled Gang Violence And Domestic Abuse. An NYC Immigration Judge Denied Them Asylum
SEPT. 26, 2019 5:00 A.M.
Seventeen year-old Josue and his mom, Esperanza, were visibly drained. They had just spent more than four hours at their asylum trial inside an immigration court at 26 Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan, answering questions from their attorney and a government lawyer. We are withholding their full names to protect their identities because they’re afraid.
“It was exhausting,” said Josue, whose angular haircut was neatly combed for the occasion. In Spanish, he told us the judge seemed nice but, “you feel bad if you don’t know if you are going to be allowed to stay or if you have to go.”
The teen and his mother crossed the U.S. border in California in the summer of 2018. At the time, a rising number of families were entering the country, and the Trump administration wanted to send a message to them by swiftly deporting those who don’t qualify for asylum. But immigration judges are so busy, they can take up to four years to rule on a case. In November, judges in New York and nine other cities were ordered to fast track family cases and complete them within a year.
This is how Esperanza and Josue wound up going to trial just 10 months after they arrived in the U.S. and moved to Brooklyn. They were lucky to find attorneys with Central American Legal Assistance, a nonprofit in Williamsburg that’s been representing people fleeing the troubled region since 1985.
Listen to reporter Beth Fertig’s WNYC story on Josue and Esperanza’s cases.
Winning asylum was never easy. But in 2018, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions made it tougher for people like Josue and Esperanza when he issued his own ruling on an immigration case involving a woman from El Salvador who was a victim of domestic violence. He wrote: “The mere fact that a country may have problems effectively policing certain crimes—such as domestic violence or gang violence—or that certain populations are more likely to be victims of crime, cannot itself establish an asylum claim.”
Immigration judges were bound to give heavy weight to that ruling. Their courts are run by the Department of Justice, whose boss is the Attorney General. And the AG’s boss, President Trump, frequently asserts that too many migrants lie about being threatened by gangs when they’re just coming for jobs. “It’s a big fat con job, folks,” he said at a Michigan rally this year.
Esperanza and Josue went to court soon after Sessions’ decision. She was fighting for asylum as a victim of domestic abuse; Josue claimed a gang threatened his life. Both would eventually lose their cases.
Esperanza and Josue are typical of the Central American families seeking asylum these days, who say they’re escaping vicious drug gangs, violence and grinding poverty. The two of them came from a town outside San Pedro Sula, one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
During their trial, Josue testified under oath about how gang members repeatedly approached him outside his high school, asking him to sell drugs to the other students. He tried to ignore them, and gave different excuses for resisting, until one day when they spotted him playing soccer and became more aggressive. That’s when he said the gang leader put a gun in his face.
“He told me that if I didn’t accept what he wanted he was going to kill my whole family, my mother and sister,” he said, through a Spanish interpreter.
“I was in shock,” he said. “I had no other choice to accept and said yes.”
He told his mother and they left Honduras the next day. When Josue’s lawyer, Katherine Madison, asked if he ever reported the threat to the police he said no. “That was practically a suicide,” he said, explaining that the police are tied to the gang, because it has so much power.
Josue said his older sister later moved to Mexico because she was so afraid of the gang.
Winning asylum is a two-step process. You have to prove that you were persecuted, and that this persecution was on account of your race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion. Madison, Josue’s attorney, argued that in Honduras, defying gangs is a risky political statement.
“They function in many ways as the de facto government of the areas where people like Josue lived,” she told WNYC/Gothamist, summing up the arguments she submitted to the judge. “They make rules. They charge basically taxes, they say who can live there and who can’t.”
And they’re known to kill people who don’t obey.
In her ruling, issued in August, Immigration Judge Oshea Spencer found Josue did experience persecution. But she denied his application for asylum. She said much of what he described “were threats and harm that exist as part of the larger criminal enterprise of the gangs in Honduras and not on the basis of any actual or perceived opposition to the gangs.”
Esperanza’s attorney argued that her life was at risk because the gang member threatened Josue’s family. But Spencer didn’t find that specific enough. She wrote that the gang members “were motivated by their efforts to expand their drug trade, not the family relationship.” Among other cases, she referred to a recent decision by the current Attorney General, William Barr, that makes it harder for the relatives of someone who’s been threatened to win asylum.
Esperanza also lost on a separate claim that she deserved asylum because she was repeatedly beaten by Josue’s father. In court, she testified about years of abuse culminating in an incident in which he chased her with a machete. She said she couldn’t get the police to issue a restraining order, and said he kept threatening her after she moved to another town to stay with relatives.
Madison argued that women like Esperanza belong to a persecuted social group: they can’t get help from the authorities in Honduras because they’re viewed as a man’s property. The country is one of the deadliest places to be a woman; police are known to ignore complaints; and it’s extremely hard for women to get justice.
But Spencer ruled that there is no persecuted social group made up of “Honduran women who are viewed as property” for being in a domestic relationship.
Echoing the Sessions’ ruling, the judge said these categories “all lack sufficient particularity,” and called them “amorphous” because they could be made up of a “potentially large and diffuse segment of society.”
She also cited evidence submitted by the government that showed conditions in Honduras are improving for women. This evidence came from a 2018 State Department report on human rights in Honduras. Immigration advocates claim it’s been watered down from the much harsher conditions described in the last report from 2016. It’s also much shorter in length.
Jeffrey Chase, an immigration lawyer and former New York immigration judge, said it’s not surprising that Esperanza and Josue would each lose asylum. Judge Spencer only started last fall and is on probation for her first two years in the job.
“This was decided by a brand new judge who didn’t have any immigration experience prior to becoming an immigration judge,” he said, referring to the fact that Spencer was previously an attorney with the Public Utility Commission of Texas. He said she went through training which, “These days, includes being told that we don’t consider these to be really good cases.”
Sitting judges don’t talk to the media but Chase noted that they must consider the facts of each individual case, meaning the former Attorney General’s ruling doesn’t apply to all cases. He noted that some women who were victims of abuse are still winning asylum. He pointed to a case involving a Guatemalan woman who was raped by her boss. A Texas immigration judge found she did fit into a particular social group as a woman who defied gender norms, by taking a job normally held by a man.
During Josue and Esperanza’s trial, there was a lot of back and forth over their individual claims. A trial attorney from Immigration and Customs Enforcement questioned why Esperanza didn’t contact the police again after moving to another town, where she said her former partner continued to threaten her. Esperanza said it was because her brother chased him away and the police “don’t pay attention to you.”
The ICE attorney also asked Josue if his father was physically violent with anyone besides Esperanza. Josue said he did fight with other men. San Diego immigration lawyer Anna Hysell, who was previously an ICE trial attorney, said that could have hurt Esperanza’s case.
“The government was able to make the arguments that he didn’t target her because of being a woman that was in his relationship,” she explained. “He just was probably a terrible person and targeted many people.”
Hysell added that this was just her analysis and she wasn’t agreeing with the decision.
Attorney Anne Pilsbury said she believes Esperanza would have won her case, prior to the asylum ruling by Sessions, because she suffered years of abuse. But she said Josue would have had a more difficult time because gang cases were always tough. And like a lot of migrants, Josue had no evidence — he was too afraid to go to the cops. Pilsbury said immigration judges are even more skeptical now of gang cases.
“They’re getting so that they won’t even think about them,” she said. “They aren’t wrestling with the facts. They’re hearing gang violence and that’s it.”
She said Judge Spencer does sometimes grant asylum, and isn’t as harsh as other new judges. New York City’s immigration court used to be one of the most favorable places for asylum seekers. In 2016, 84 percent of asylum cases were granted. Today, that figure has fallen to 57 percent, according to TRAC at Syracuse University. Meanwhile, the government is forcing migrants to wait in Mexico for their immigration court cases or seek asylum in other countries before applying in the U.S., as the national backlog of cases exceeds one million.
Pilsbury, who founded Central American Legal Assistance in 1985, said immigration courts are now dealing with the result of a regional crisis south of the border that’s never been properly addressed since the wars of the 1980s.
“The anti-immigrant people feel it’s broken because people get to come here and ask for asylum and we feel it’s broken because people’s asylum applications aren’t seriously considered,” she explained. “We should be doing more to understand what’s going on in those countries and what we can do to help them address the chronic problems.”
Esperanza and Josue’s cases will now be appealed. Madison said she believes the judge ignored some of her evidence about gangs. She’s now turning to the Board of Immigration Appeals. However, it’s also controlled by the Justice Department — meaning the odds of getting a reversal are slim. If they lose again, the family can go to a federal circuit court which may have a broader definition of who’s eligible for asylum.
But Esperanza and Josue won’t be deported as long as their case is being appealed. On a late summer day, they seemed relaxed while sitting in a Brooklyn park. Esperanza talked about how happy she is that Josue is safe at his public high school, and can even ride a bike at night with his friends.
“He goes out and I’m always trusting the Father that just as he goes out, he comes back,” she said.
Even if they knew they would lose their asylum case, both said they still would have come to the U.S. because the risk of staying in Honduras was too great. Josue said the gang would definitely find him if he ever returned because their networks are so deep throughout the country. He’s now taking the long view. He knows there will be a Presidential election next year.
“It’s like a game of chess,” Josue said. “Any mindset can change at any moment. Maybe Trump changes his mind or maybe not. But I would have always made the decision to come.”
With translation assistance from Alexandra Feldhausen, Lidia Hernández-Tapia and Andrés O’Hara.
Beth Fertig is a senior reporter covering immigration, courts and legal affairs at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @bethfertig.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this posting incorrectly identified Beth’s network affiliation. She reports for WNYC.
By clicking on the link at the top and going to Beth’s article on The Gothamist, you will be able to get a link to the original WNYC audio broadcast of this story.
It’s not “rocket science.” Better, fairer outcomes were available that would have fulfilled, rather than mocked, our obligation to provide Due Process and protection under our own laws and international treaties.
- Esperanza’s claim is a clear asylum grant for “Honduran women” which is both a “particular social group” (“PSG”) and a persecuted group in Honduras that the government is unwilling or unable to protect.
- Here’s a much better recent decision along those lines from Judge Howard Hom of the same Immigration Court granting a very similar case based on the PSG of “Guatemanlan women.” https://immigrationcourtside.com/2019/09/19/the-good-news-gender-based-asylum-claims-continue-to-win-in-the-post-a-b-era-the-bad-news-applicants-subjected-to-let-em-die-in-mexico-compl/
- Although the last two Administrations have intentionally twisted the law against Central American asylum seekers, Josue has a clear case for asylum as somebody for whom opposition to gang violence was an “imputed political opinion” that was “at least one central reason” for the persecution. See, e.g, https://www.jeffreyschase.com/blog/2018/6/3/3rd-generation-gangs-and-political-opinion.
- In any event, on this record, Josue clearly showed that he faced a probability of torture by gangs with the acquiescence of the Honduran government, and therefore should have been granted mandatory protection by the Immigration Judge under the Convention against Torture (“CAT”).
- The Immigration Judge’s assertion that things are getting better for women in Honduras, one of the world’s most dangerous countries for women where femicide is rampant, not only badly misapplies the legal standard (“fundamentally changed conditions that would eliminate any well founded fear”) but is also totally disingenuous as a factual matter. See, e.g., https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/04/05/opinion/honduras-women-murders.html.
- Additionally, Honduras remains in a state of armed conflict. See, e.g., https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23740973.2019.1603972?needAccess=true. Under an honest Government, granting TPS to Hondurans (as well as Salvadorans and Guatemalans affected by environmental disasters heightened by climate change) would be more than justified.
- Under honest Government following the rule of law, well-documented cases like this one could be quickly granted by the USCIS Asylum Officer or granted on stipulation in short hearings in Immigration Court. Many more Central Americans could be granted CAT relief, TPS, or screened and approved for asylum abroad. They could thereby be kept off of Immigraton Court dockets altogether or dealt with promptly on “short dockets” without compromising anybody’s statutory or constitutional rights (compromising individual rights is a “specialty” of all the mostly ineffective “enforcement gimmicks” advanced by the Trump Administration).
- Over time, the overwhelming self-inflicted Immigration Court backlogs caused by the Trump Administration’s “maliciously incompetent” administration of immigration laws (e.g., “Aimless Docket Reshuffling”) would be greatly reduced.
- That, in turn, would allow the Immigration Courts to deal with cases on a more realistic timeline that would both aid rational, non-White-Nationalist immigration enforcement and provide real justice for those seeking protection under our legal system.
- As I’ve said before, it’s not “rocket science.” All it would take is more honest and enlightened Government committed to Due Process, good court management, and an appropriate legal application of laws relating to refugees and other forms of protection. I doubt that it would cost as much as all of the bogus “enforcement only gimmicks” now being pursued by Trump as part of his racist, anti-migrant, anti-Hispanic agenda.
- Poor judicial decision making, as well illustrated by this unfortunate wrongly decided case, not only threatens the lives of deserving applicants for our protection, but also bogs down an already grossly overloaded system with unnecessarily protracted litigation and appeals of cases that should be “clear grants.”
- Contrary to the intentionally false “party line” spread by “Big Mac With Lies” and other corrupt Trump sycophants at the DHS and the DOJ, a much, much higher percentage, probably a majority, of asylum applicants from the Northern Triangle who apply at our Southern Border should properly be granted some type of legal protection under our laws if the system operated in the fair and impartial manner that is Constitutionally required. The Trump Administration aided by their sycophants and enablers, all the way up to the feckless Supremes, are literally “getting away with murder” in far, far too many instances.
- Consequently, quickly identifying and granting relief to the many deserving applicants would be a more efficient, humane, and lawful alternative to the “Kill ‘Em Before They Get Here” deterrence programs being pursued by Trump, with the complicity of the Supremes, the Ninth Circuit, and some of the other Federal Circuit Courts who have been afraid to put a stop to the extralegal nonsense going on in our Immigraton Courts, detention centers (the “New American Gulag”), our Southern Border, and countries like Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and El Salvador where we are basically encouraging extralegal abuses and gross human right violations against migrants. It will eventually come back to haunt our nation, or whatever is left of our nation after Trump and his gang of White Nationalist thugs, supporters, appeasers, apologists, and enablers, are done looting and destroying it.