US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Asylum for spousal abuse victim

Father Tom Joyce CMF | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

The 21st Century, as I've read these last few days, is said to be "the century we face up to the abuse of women" or "the century of the migrant." Does it have to be one or the other? There are more than 200 million migrants in the world, and most of them are women and children.

The case of Rody Alvarado Peña may indicate the 21st will be both. She is a Guatemalan who fled from an abusive relationship with her husband. Unable to hide in her own country, she came to San Francisco in 1995. Her case has been in immigration court for the last 14 years. She had been ordered deported, but the Justice Department stayed the order to resolve whether a woman can ask for asylum. The U.N. Covenant on Refugees stipulates that those fleeing because of a well-founded fear of persecution must be welcomed. But the refugees must be members of a "particular social group,"--which was usually interpreted as religious, racial, ethnic, political, even professional (e.g., trade uionists)--subject to discrimination and violence.

Alvarado was fleeing a brutal husband, who beat her violently and threatened often to kill her. The immigration courts did not question her treatment at the hands of her spouse. What helped her case was the fact that Rody's husband was a soldier of a country that had experienced enormous official violence. She had nowhere to hide in Guatemala. So she fled first to Mexico, then to California.

Already during the Bush administration the Department of Justice looked favorably on the case. But it took some time coming to the conclusion that fleeing a brutal husband in the context of a country where "femicide" or the murder of women is widespread can be grounds for asylum. Alvarado recently was notified by Department of Homeland Security that she is eligible and merits a grant of asylum (see NY Times article ).

Immigrants and health care reform
The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to vote soon--perhaps as early as tomorrow--on a comprehensive health care reform bill. For the most part, immigration has not drawn much public comment in the debate--save for South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson. But it is an important issue to some representatives. Their concern is not so much with the undocumented immigrant--though inclusion of all immigrants in the benefits of the law is favored by the U.S. Catholic bishops and public health experts--but with the legal immigrant.

The House bill would appear to allow the undocumented to purchase insurance on the exchanges that would be created, but prevent them from receiving subsidies or government funding to do so. The question is whether legal immigrants would be eligible for subsidies. The White House even wants to exclude the undocumented from the exchanges. Currently legal immigrants are not eligible for Medicare or Medicaid for the first five years in the country, and the undocumented can only claim emergency room care and care for pregnancy.

Some observers hope the issue of the undocumented will be resolved through comprehensive immigration reform next year. But the issue now is the legal immigrants' eligibility. Complicating the problem is the fact that many families have mixed situations--some undocumented, some legal, and some citizens. So how does the government count these families for eligibility to participate in the exchanges? (See NY Times article .)

Detainees and Access to Legal Representation
A grave and ironic injustice done to undocumented immigrants is the quick deportation without adequate legal representation. There have been cases even of U.S. citizens rounded up in raids and deported to Mexico. But more common has been the effective denial of legal representation by restricting access or by moving detainees away from their lawyers without notification.

The New York Times reports on a letter sent to the New York City Bar Association, complaining among other things about lack of legal representation at Varick Street Detention Facility at the edge of Greenwich Village. The association investigated the charges and found them to be real. It then set up a "triage"--that is, a quick review of the cases of detainees to determine whether they have cause to plead to stay in the country.

Volunteer lawyers even discovered a detainee who was eligible for citizenship. But they also discovered that the Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) had been known to move detainees without notifying legal representation. ICE promises to improve. Still this underscores the basic problem with detention facilities: that ICE contracts running the facilities to private corporations--in Varick's case, to a for-profit corporation owned by an Alaskan Indian tribe. Such companies are in the business of maximizing their profits by holding down costs. Their facility managers are known to have cheated not only on legal representation, but even on health care.