U.S. Immigration Law and Domestic Violence

BY: Anya Howko-Johnson

Anya Howko-Johnson is a junior in the School of Foreign Service studying international politics, creative writing, and French. She is currently a line editor for the Georgetown University Undergraduate Law Review.


As of 2018, the Department of Justice no longer considers domestic violence in a foreign country a sufficient condition for foreigners to qualify for asylum in the United States. This decision, entitled “Matter of A-B-”, was issued by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and reversed the United States’ former immigration policy that granted asylum to most domestic violence survivors.[1] Since “Matter of A-B-” went into effect, immigration judges must deny refugees seeking asylum on the sole basis of domestic violence, even if they will likely continue to experience domestic violence when returned to their native country. The ruling impacts refugees fleeing, among other violence, partner abuse, forced marriages, and legal systems that ignore gendered rights. Critically, this ruling can be overturned by future Attorney Generals.[2] Current Attorney General should consider this course of action to save lives and uphold American values and commitments.

In 2019, NPR published a story detailing the consequences of “Matter of A-B-.”[3] The piece tells the story of a young woman from Nicaragua who fled to the United States with her son after she was repeatedly raped and beaten by her boyfriend. Although she notified the Nicaraguan police, they refused to intervene. In the U.S., the immigration judge presiding over her case acknowledged the significant evidence of her abuse and agreed that she and her son were likely to be harmed if returned to Nicaragua. Nonetheless, he denied her and her son’s request for asylum, citing “Matter of A-B-” in his ruling.[4] Her current status is unknown.

“Matter of A-B-” reflects the persistent, negative trends in the international security community regarding gender. Issues associated with femininity and domesticity—in this case, domestic violence—are often deemed “private” matters that have no bearing on broader “public” concerns such as national security and societal stability.[5] With “Matter of A-B-,” the United States court system legitimized that domestic violence is detached from a community’s overall security and that women’s rights are not necessarily human rights. This ruling, like many policies regarding national security and conflict, essentializes women’s experiences and neglects their complex intersectional identities.  Specifically, “Matter of A-B-” ignores the contexts and systemic injustices that perpetuate cultures of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and generalizes the experiences of all refugee DV survivors. Beyond its moral offenses, this policy violates the U.S.’s commitment to numerous international treaties, such the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees, which obliges signatories to ensure asylum-seekers are not returned to nations in which their lives or freedom will be endangered.[6] Indeed, the U.S.’s current immigration policies regarding survivors of domestic violence endanger women, perpetuate harmful gendered security norms, and infringe the U.S.’s commitments to promote gender equality and refugee safety.

The majority of claims for asylum in the United States come from the so-called Northern Triangle region of Central America which comprises three nations: Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.[7] Between 2008 and 2014 alone, the number of U.S. asylum applications received from Northern Triangle country citizens increased by 13%.[8] The outpouring of refugees from these countries is rooted in the on-going violence that began with the end of bloody civil wars in the late twentieth century.[9] For women, the situation is particularly dire. Gang-related violence and domestic abuse are common realities for women in the Northern Triangle  and primary motivators for why many choose to seek asylum in the U.S. Gangs use sexual abuse and threats of rape as a control and intimidation tactic to goad communities into submission. Men considered to be of low social standing–often indigenous men–may be forced to watch gang members rape their wives as an expression of dominance and control. Local teenage girls may be forced to become “girlfriends” of gang members (novias de pandillas).[10] Disobedient partners of gang members may be subjected to psychological abuse and terror to be “shown their place.”[11] The ex-wife of a Guatemalan gang member reported the following: “Twice, I saw the gang kill two young men who approached the block. My ex required me to watch…it was a way of making me more afraid, weaker. How they screamed and begged for their life, I can’t forget it.”[12] Because the police have little control over territories occupied by gangs, most women report feeling unable to seek any kind of protection or help.[13]

By refusing such women fleeing such situations for asylum in the United States, current U.S. immigration policies perpetuate harm against women, both directly and systemically. “Matter of A-B-” and arbitrary court rulings place refugees of domestic violence in direct harm by repatriating them to countries where their lives and liberties are endangered. Standard practices at U.S. immigrant detention centers contribute to women’s suffering as refugees are harassed and abused without consequence.[14]

On a broader scale, Matter of A-B- legitimizes norms and systems that are harmful to women. By defining all refugee survivors of domestic violence as “victims of private criminal activity,” Matter of A-B- essentializes the experiences of all female domestic violence survivors who seek asylum in the U.S., casting them as indistinguishable victims who found themselves in unfortunate circumstances, much like victims of petty theft.[15] Just because the victims were women, Sessions claimed, does not mean they belong to a persecuted group, unprotected by their governments.[16] Sessions did not acknowledge the systemic vulnerabilities women face in their native countries due to their shared, intersectional identities. He also ignored gendered realities women face in their countries: Northern Triangle police forces dismiss many domestic violence allegations; court systems do not issue sentences that protect women and children; indigenous communities are oppressed by gangs and police alike; and women have few opportunities to gain economic independence.[17] Had such realities, and the countless accounts given by refugees, been considered from a gendered perspective, it would have been clear that women from the Northern Triangle countries who have fled domestic violence deserve asylum to protect them from harm.


[1] Matter of A-B-, 27 I&N Dec. 316 (A.G. 2018), https://www.justice.gov/eoir/page/file/1070866/download.

[2] https://harvardlawreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/803-810_Online.pdf

[3] Joel Rose, “As More Migrants Are Denied Asylum, An Abuse Survivor Is Turned Away,” NPR, January 18, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/01/18/686466207/its-getting-harder-for-migrants-to-win-asylum-cases-lawyers-say.

[4] Joel Rose, “As More Migrants Are Denied Asylum, An Abuse Survivor Is Turned Away,” NPR, January 18, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/01/18/686466207/its-getting-harder-for-migrants-to-win-asylum-cases-lawyers-say.

[5] Ann Tickner, “Feminist Perspectives on International Relations,” Handbook of Internatioanl Relations, file:///Users/anyachj/Downloads/Feminist%20Perspectives%20on%20International%20Relations%20(6).pdf

[6] UNHCR, “The 1951 Reguee Convention,” https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/1951-refugee-convention.html.

[7] Anjali Fleury, “Fleeing to Mexico for Safety: The Perilous Journey for Migrant Women,” United Nations University, May 4, 2016, https://unu.edu/publications/articles/fleeing-to-mexico-for-safety-the-perilous-journey-for-migrant-women.html.

[8] Anjali Fleury, “Fleeing to Mexico for Safety: The Perilous Journey for Migrant Women,” United Nations University, May 4, 2016, https://unu.edu/publications/articles/fleeing-to-mexico-for-safety-the-perilous-journey-for-migrant-women.html.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Women on the Run: First-Hand Accounts of Refugees Fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico,” United Nations Human Rights Council, October 2015, https://www.unhcr.org/56fc31864.pdf.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Nora Ellmann, “Immigration Detention is Dangerous for Women’s Health and Rights,” Center for American Progress, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/reports/2019/10/21/475997/immigration-detention-dangerous-womens-health-rights/.

[15] Matter of A-B-, 27 I&N Dec. 316 (A.G. 2018), https://www.justice.gov/eoir/page/file/1070866/download.

[16] Ibid.

[17] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Women on the Run: First-Hand Accounts of Refugees Fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico,” United Nations Human Rights Council, October 2015, https://www.unhcr.org/56fc31864.pdf.

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