Background: This qualitative study explores the lived experiences of women from Central America and Mexico seeking asylum from gang and inter-personal violence. This study’s relevance stems from a relative paucity of social work scholarship on women seeking asylum because of gender-based violence. Currently, U.S. asylum case rates are soaring, while at the same time, a racialized political discourse questions the motives of Latinx asylum seekers, including women. Gender-based asylum claims have been called, “private violence’ by policymakers, a framework that casts doubt on women’s eligibility for asylum.
Methods: This study uses interviews with asylum seekers (n=35), ethnographic observation of 15 closed court hearings and analysis of 21 redacted judicial decisions. Our goals were to (1) obtain rich, thick data to understand asylum seekers’ experiences; (2) sample enough respondents to ensure multiple viewpoints; and (3) engage in persistent ethnographic observation. Asylum hearings are closed to the public and decisions written by U.S. immigration court judges are sealed. We cultivated relationships with asylum seekers and immigration attorneys to observe closed hearings and analyze redacted judicial decisions. By using 3 methods to gather data we were able to analyze and triangulate competing viewpoints. All codes were generated inductively during analysis of interviews, field notes and judicial decisions. A thematic analysis identified themes across the data set. A book of 170 raw codes was used to stay close to the data before generating themes. Analysis centered on developing themes while acknowledging complexity and nuance, noting exceptions in thematic patterns and bracketing bias/assumptions.
Results: Women described extortion, robbery, kidnapping and murder of family members, recruitment of male children into gangs, as well as violence by intimate partners including rape. In court, women had to show that their experiences of interpersonal or gang violence fit the narrow legal definitions of persecution and membership in asylum-eligible social groups. They usually faced aggressive cross examination by Department of Homeland Security attorneys. Thus, the promise of asylum was tenuous. Trauma was a pervasive experience across all interviews, although women persevered to establish themselves in the U.S., often caring for children while working menial jobs. Nonetheless, women challenged traditional asylum categories, sometimes winning the right to stay in the U.S. despite legal boundaries.
Conclusion and Implications: This interpretive study sought to understand the lived experiences of Central American and Mexican women seeking asylum. Through narratives illuminating the violent circumstances that forced their migration, women detailed why they cannot return home safely. Courtroom observation revealed the tensions informed by competing policy imperatives: In this system, gender-specific persecution experienced by women, such as rape, is generally considered private rather than political. Such violence has been argued by the U.S. Department of Justice to fall outside the realm of asylum eligibility. In addition, Latinx women seeking asylum face a contradiction in how U.S. policy seeks to conceive national borders –as heavily fortified terrains designed to repel migration while preserving an image on the world stage as a place of refuge for the besieged.