Family Separation and Asylum: An Uncertain Future for Central American Women

By Jessica Sirico

Recently, the news has been inundated with countless stories of migrant families being torn apart, primarily by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, otherwise known as ICE. These actions stem from the establishment of a “zero-tolerance policy” by the Trump administration, in which all individuals arriving illegally at the U.S.-Mexico border are prosecuted criminally and in turn, separated from family while being held in detention. Simultaneously, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced that factors such as gang violence and domestic abuse will no longer be considered sufficient claims for asylum in the United States, a huge blow to the thousands of migrants seeking refuge from the continual dangers of living in Central American countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. In direct opposition to the values and history of Unitarian Universalism, people fleeing persecution are being denied their humanity, safety, and are being treated in the most unfathomable of ways, with women among the most disproportionately impacted.

Honduran woman holding her one-year-old son next to a teal house with clothesline outside.

Genesis Cerrato, 16, with her one-year-old son. Along with her whole family, she fled Honduras escaping violence in her home country. Photo from UNHCR/Markel Redondo

Although the Trump administration recently issued an executive order which aims to reverse the course of the aforementioned “no tolerance” policy, the damage has already been done, and continues nonetheless. The executive order will not end the criminal prosecution of all migrants arriving illegally, as it solely allows for families to be detained together rather than apart. Furthermore, approximately 2,300 children have already been separated from their parents, and a multitude of issues present themselves as obstacles to reunification. There is a general reluctance to take action among the administration, with officials confidentially stating that “how or whether families would be reunited wasn't much of a concern to the policymakers.”

Matters have also been complicated by the various bureaucratic agencies that have become involved due to the shift to criminal prosecution. Parents who have crossed the border are detained by ICE, which is a subsection of the Department of Homeland Security, while children are held by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a subsection of the Department of Health and Human Services. Immigration activist and researcher Bethany Carson stated that there are “no communications lines established at all” between the two agencies, and spoke of detained migrant women who “have asked their deportation officers how they can talk to their kids, only to have the officers respond that it’s not their job.”

 The damages done by the cruel policy of family separation goes hand in hand with the aforementioned new asylum restrictions from the Department of Justice. On June 11th, 2018, Sessions stated that claims of domestic violence or gang violence will no longer be regarded as a legitimate causes to request asylum. Domestic violence had been recognized as justification for asylum status since 2014, following the case of Aminta Cifuentes, a Guatemalan woman who suffered horrific treatment at the hands of her husband. Sessions’ decision seriously impacts thousands of women like Aminta, as Central American women seeking refuge from domestic and gang violence (the latter of which often targets women by means of rape and kidnapping) comprise a significant portion of asylum seekers arriving in the United States. The violence they face is not uncommon; a 2015 report from the UN Refugee Agency outlines a crisis of gender based violence in the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, otherwise known as the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA). In this report, it is stated that 64% of Central American women “described being targets of direct threats and attacks by members of criminal armed groups as…one of the primary reasons for their flight.” NTCA countries are particularly dangerous for women compared to the rest of the world: El Salvador ranks first in rates of female homicide worldwide, with Guatemala ranking third and Honduras ranking 7th. Since 2008, the number of female asylum seekers fleeing the region has quintupled, only further emphasizing the absolute need for asylum policies to be broadened, not restricted. Furthermore, these women find they have little to no recourse, with 60% of women interviewed for the UNHCR report stating that they reported “attacks, sexual assaults, rapes or threats to the police… [only to be met with] inadequate protection or no protection at all” The remaining 40% stated that they refrained from reporting since they viewed the act as futile.

Aura Hernandez holds her daughter during a blessing ceremony at Fourth Universalist Society where they are living in sanctuary

Aura Hernández holds her daughter during a blessing ceremony at Fourth Universalist Society in the City of New York where they have been living in sanctuary since March 2018.

With no end to this epidemic of gender based violence in sight, Sessions’ dismissal of the violence faced by these women as “private” and therefore beyond the protection of the state is especially abhorrent and belittles the adversity they face. As Karen Musalo, a lawyer who specializes in Gender and Refugee studies, states, “this decision…yanks us all back to the Dark Ages of women’s human rights.” By removing asylum qualifications, the Trump administration has left these women no choice but to arrive by alternative means, only to be classified still as a criminal and prosecuted following the previously described “zero-tolerance” policy.

Furthermore, while inside immigration detention, these women often experience gendered violence. There is a pattern of rampant sexual abuse throughout the immigration and border control apparatus which has been recognized by organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the ACLU. Typically, more than one complaint of sexual assault occurring within DHS facilities is filed daily. Less than 3% of these complaints are investigated, and the Trump administration has begun to allow ICE to destroy these recorded complaints after 20 years. The complete lack of accountability is evident in the stories of women like Aura Hernández, who fled domestic and gang violence in her home country of Guatemala, only to be sexually assaulted by a Border Control agent in the United States. Customs and Border Protection stated that after investigation, “all allegations…were found to be unsubstantiated,” and a request to provide proof of these investigations was denied. Hernández is currently living in sanctuary at a Unitarian Universalist congregation in New York City.

UUA and UUSC Staff participate in rally to keep families together and abolish ICE. Unitarian Universalists turned out en masse for End Family Separation rallies and marches across the country.

UUSC says #FamiliesBelongTogether

In sum, the recent alterations in U.S. immigration and asylum policy are a huge affront to women. If they seek to escape from violence in their home countries, they are simply placed in a new permutation of unlivable conditions and dehumanized as criminals. This deeply disturbing treatment must come to an end as soon as possible, and must be followed by a reckoning with broader conceptualizations of migration, citizenship, and gendered violence in a world that is only becoming more hostile to those who simply, and rightfully, seek safety. The UUA has condemned this treatment of migrants, citing it as “immoral, inhumane, and indefensible.” The U.N. has issued similar statements condemning family separation and declaring that the executive order which calls for family detention instead “does not address the situation of those children who have already been pulled away from their parents.”

There are several actions one can take to mitigate the harm being done. Get involved with Love Resists, joint campaign between the Unitarian Universalist Association and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) working to expand sanctuary, solidarity, and accompaniment for migrants and refugees. Use UUSC’s action page to advocate for migrant justice. The UUA also recommends donating to the RAICES Family Reunification and Bond Fund. RAICES, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, provides pro bono legal support to help immigrants navigate a deeply broken system.

About the Author

Jessica Sirico

Jessica Sirico is currently working as a Women’s Justice intern at the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office. She is a rising junior at Hunter College, where she is double majoring in Political Science and Women & Gender Studies, and minoring in Human Rights.


For more information contact .