The U.S. Government Only Believes Some Survivors

Last week Donald Trump expelled a rage-fueled series of tweets aimed at DACA, democrats, and the “caravan” of immigrants making their way to the southern U.S. border. Embedded in his temper tantrum were some grossly misinformed ideas about the criminality of the marchers and the nature of the DACA program. 

While no one is shocked at the blaring display of ignorance, this Trump-spun narrative is damaging to human rights movements everywhere. On behalf of the 400 women marching north, we have to straighten the story.

The “caravan” is a peaceful movement comprising roughly 1,000 Central American immigrants – mostly women and children – with hopes of openly applying for asylum in the U.S. The march was organized by an activist group called Pueblos Sin Fronteras. Zero evidence exists that Central American gangs and criminal groups are exploiting U.S. asylum procedures to their advantage.

A frequently dismissed player in the spike of asylum applications is the growing rate of gender-based domestic violence in Central America’s “northern triangle,” which includes El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. In a UN report  done last year, Latin American was found to be the world’s most violent region for women, with officials in northern triangle countries equating femicide and assault rates to epidemics.  In an attempt to escape, women make incredibly risky journeys to the U.S.-Mexican border where they have to prove the credibility of their trauma in order to be granted asylum. From there, asylum-seekers are indefinitely held in detention centers while awaiting their verdict, forcibly suspended in a traumatic purgatory very often without their children.

Passing a “credible fear” interview is the most critical, and potentially most difficult step to being granted asylum. In these interviews the subject is first asked a series of general questions, which quickly segue into inquiries about the source of their fear. If the subject answers “no” to whether or not their prior circumstances involved persecution for religion, ethnicity, political identity or nationality, they are not likely to pass. In other words, if a woman’s trauma does not fit succinctly into said boxes then she is set up to fail.

The Department of Homeland Security does not treat these women like holistic human beings with intersectional experiences. In many cases women are fleeing an amalgam of the listed options, or something excluded from the questionnaire (like sexual or domestic violence). In other cases women worry that fully disclosing their experiences will further harm them due to the volume of death threats they’ve received in their lives. The binary nature of credible fear tests poses an immense challenge to those whose persecution exists in a grey area.

Being denied entry into the U.S. can be a death sentence for many asylum-seeking women. They often feel forced to take enormous risks to get into the U.S. through other means. Several women have reported being sexually propositioned by U.S. border agents they encounter while crossing, or kidnapped by coyotes looking to take advantage of vulnerable migrants. Others return home to the violence they were trying to escape.

For border patrol agents, it all boils down to deeming one woman’s suffering believable and another one’s false. Contrary to Trump’s ideas, most people don’t actually want to leave their home.

While much of the country is caught up in the momentum of the #MeToo movement, survivors who break their silence are praised and honored. And while we must recognize survivors who share their story, we must also honor those kept silent by enormous force – the President, immigration officials, and the American judicial system.  At the root of #MeToo is the importance of believing a woman’s truth even amidst massive cultural skepticism. In the case of thousands of women attempting to find safety in America, their truths are ignored by our government institutions.. Our values are moot if not applied to all women.

Image credit: John Moore/Getty Images

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