Trump Administration Makes It Harder To Grant Relief To Torture Victims

Originally published on February 10, 2020 5:22 pm
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The Trump administration is increasingly turning away immigrants fleeing violence in their home countries whether those immigrants are refugees or asylum seekers. Now the government is making it harder for those who say they were tortured at home to get protection here. Houston Public Media's Elizabeth Trovall has one woman's story.

ELIZABETH TROVALL, BYLINE: Locked up at an immigration detention center outside Houston, 24-year-old Dania tells the story of why she left her home country, Honduras.

DANIA: (Through interpreter) Gang members were trying to convince me to work for them. They wanted me to be a prostitute.

TROVALL: Dania refused and went to the police instead. But afterwards, she says, police officers came to her house and raped her for not complying with the gang. That's when Dania headed north.

DANIA: (Through interpreter) It was difficult because I left everything behind - the little that I had - taking an unknown path without knowing what would happen.

TROVALL: Dania traveled through Guatemala and Mexico and swam across the Rio Grande, but under a new Trump administration rule, Dania was deemed ineligible for asylum because she failed to apply in another country on the way here. Her pro bono attorney Fariha Chowdry says she deserves protection. Chowdry asked that we not use Dania's last name.

FARIHA CHOWDRY: We just want the judge to understand that, you know, this woman has been terrorized. She's been raped, which is a protected ground and considered past persecution.

TROVALL: There are few legal alternatives to asylum for immigrants in Dania's situation. One is to ask for protection under the Convention Against Torture. That's what Dania's lawyers have done. Under that treaty, the U.S. has agreed to protect people fleeing torture in their home countries. But the standard of proof is higher in those cases, and these legal alternatives do not provide a path to citizenship. They only ensure victims aren't deported.

RUBY POWERS: And those were the backups.

TROVALL: That's Ruby Powers, another immigration attorney in Houston.

POWERS: But now we're seeing people are barred from asylum because of whatever reasons, and so withholding of removal and Convention Against Torture are becoming more of a focus and not just an afterthought.

TROVALL: Just 1,300 people were granted relief under the Convention Against Torture in the United States in fiscal year 2018. Nearly 26,000 were denied, and it's about to get more difficult to win these cases. The Board of Immigration Appeals recently decided that petitioners must prove the torture was carried out in an official capacity. The fact that Dania's attackers were wearing police uniforms, for example, may not be enough. Dree Collopy, an immigration attorney in Washington, D.C., says some judges will seize on the case.

DREE COLLOPY: It's decisions like this that basically to give judges who are less inclined to provide due process and less inclined to interpret the law favorably for a respondent - it gives them the tools to easily just grasp on that and say no.

TROVALL: That's what Dania's father Melvin fears.

MELVIN: (Through interpreter) It would be very painful if we didn't win this case so she can be here with us.

TROVALL: Melvin hasn't seen his daughter in 14 years. He's a construction worker in Houston and says he's raised her from afar. He sent money and called three times a week, hoping she would join him one day. Now that she's so close, he's worried they'll never be reunited.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Trovall in Houston.

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