Every time I read a story like this, I think of the breathless coverage of Anna Sorokin, the Russian woman who presented herself as a German heiress and swindled the rich for hundreds of thousands of dollars which will play out in what is arguably second-most-anticipated trial of the summer. The fascination, the Hollywood-readiness, the expected plea deal and the inevitable bidding war over life rights: we can already picture the I, Tonya bits where Sorokin turns to the camera to address the viewer; FX’s buildup to a tense cross-examination scene; HBO’s trailer with soaring crescendos and hysterics. Now picture ACM, an anonymous El Salvador woman who is being denied asylum because she was enslaved by guerrilla fighters.
During the Salvadoran Civil War, the woman watched a group of guerrillas from the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) make her husband dig his own grave and then murder him; she was subsequently forced to cook, clean, and wash their clothes. On Wednesday, the Department of Justice’s Board of Immigration Appeals upheld a decision to deny her appeal for asylum on the basis that her slave labor “afforded material support” to the guerrillas.
The 2-1 vote came from board members who were appointed under past administrations, and the DHS has been fighting her appeal for asylum for over a decade. (She originally entered the US in 1991, left and returned following deportation proceedings in 2004). In her dissenting opinion, board member Linda Wendtland writes that the broad use of “material support” in this case is “absurd.”
[P]roviding a glass of water to a thirsty individual who happened to belong to a terrorist organization would constitute material support of that organization, because the individual otherwise would have needed to obtain water from another source. Providing medical care to a flu-stricken member of a terrorist organization would also qualify as material support, since the individual otherwise would have needed to seek help from another doctor. Myriad other everyday activities that involve the crossing of paths with individuals who happen to be members of terrorist organizations would also be covered, such as selling such a member groceries on the same terms as are applied to the public generally, or cooking breakfast or doing laundry for one’s spouse who is a member.
ACM’s attorneys Nicholas J. Mundy and Dawn Pipek Guidone plan to appeal and tell CNN that ACM fears she will be murdered if sent back to El Salvador.
“She is struggling with the inconceivable thought of returning to a country where she fears she will killed upon her return,” her attorneys said. “She intends to vigorously fight this egregious decision to the fullest extent possible and still holds out hope that the US government will not ultimately fail her and her family.” Neither Mundy nor Guidone could be reached for comment at this time.
In 2016, New York immigration judge Noel Brennan denied her application for asylum but deferred her removal under the Convention Against Torture, which protects non-citizens from removal to a country where “he or she is more likely than not to be tortured.” In its decision, the Board of Immigration Appeals determined that Brennan had not provided factual and legal analysis showing that ACM was subject to torture. The DHS argues that ACM “did not demonstrate that it is more likely than not that she will be tortured if removed to El Salvador.”
Mother Jones has excerpted a passage from Judge Brennan’s 2016 ruling which suggests otherwise. “As she told of the circumstances regarding her husband’s brutal death, she broke down, and when questioned in detail about it had further tears,” Brennan said. The guerrilla group was, according to ACM’s testimony, “known to set explosives, rob people, and kill innocent and defenseless people, including children, and...[ACM] could hear explosions from where she lived.”
If the proof is insufficient, DHS could review the abundance of pleas for mercy which went unheard.
Update 6/10: Alison Parker, Managing director of the US Human Rights Watch, returned request for comment, pointing out that the “material support” argument has been used in many cases to deny asylum to victims of human trafficking or violent regimes. She told Jezebel:
We are aware of many other cases of people who otherwise are completely deserving of asylum who have been denied that status under this over-broad definition of providing “material support” for terrorism. I’m aware of cases in which rape victims were denied asylum because they were forced to work for their sexual assailants. I’m aware of Burmese refugees who were labelled terrorists because they fought against one of the world’s most oppressive regimes.
In this case, we also have to recognize that the law that is being applied predates the Trump administration, and the cases I mentioned predate the Trump administration. The law is over-broad, so this will continue to happen to people who are deserving of asylum before Trump and after Trump because Congress needs to pass a law [redefining material support].
There are some people who may be dangerous and are not entitled to asylum, but when they talk about “closing loopholes,” Trump and Sessions are spreading falsehoods about the legitimacy of refugee law. Refugee law is clear that people who are dangerous should not be granted asylum in the US.