In the Spotlight   

CSJ Students Win Asylum for Honduran Family

CSJ Secures Asylum for a Honduran Family

Professor Farrin Anello: “By granting asylum to adults and children fleeing domestic violence, the United States immigration courts are recognizing that these survivors are refugees, and that their governments have failed to protect them.”

The Center for Social Justice celebrated a victory in February: the Immigrants’ Rights/International Human Rights Clinic obtained asylum for a woman and her two children, survivors of severe domestic violence and child abuse in their native Honduras.

“Our clients, like many women and children fleeing Honduras and its neighboring countries, fled to the United States to save their lives,” explained Farrin Anello, Visiting Assistant Clinical Professor in the Center for Social Justice (CSJ), who supervised the case. “By granting asylum to adults and children fleeing domestic violence, the United States immigration courts are recognizing that these survivors are refugees, and that their governments have failed to protect them.”

Branka Banic '16The two students on the case, Diane Lopez ’16 (pictured, above, center) and Branka Banic ’16 (pictured, left), worked relentlessly to prepare for this family’s day in court. The students met with the clients numerous times over the course of nearly six months to gather the details of their story and to prepare them to testify. They sought opinions from experts on domestic violence in Honduras, obtained psychological and medical evaluations, drafted a legal brief, and researched the Honduran government’s failure to protect women and children from domestic violence.

The students amassed such a strong written evidentiary record that, upon receipt of the asylum application submitted by the Center for Social Justice, the prosecuting attorney took the unusual step of agreeing that the claim to asylum was valid. This development spared the mother and children from having to testify in court about the deeply painful abuse that forced them to flee Honduras.

“The students did such amazing work,” said Professor Lori Nessel, Director of the CSJ. “Their careful, thorough corroboration of the facts both saved this family the trauma of examination, and won them well-deserved asylum.”

Lopez, who is bilingual, spoke of the close bond she developed with her clients. She eagerly accepted the responsibility of being their advocate and was determined to do everything she could to ensure the family's safety. She worked on the case tirelessly throughout the holiday season and for months after her class ended and she was no longer receiving academic credit for her work. “I strove to build a strong case because I was their voice, and I was in a position to make real change in their lives.” said Lopez. “The look on their faces when we won the case represented the culmination of months of perseverance. That look meant more than I ever imagined. It will stay with me forever.”

The facts of the case were harrowing. The mother, who was subjected to violence from her husband throughout their long marriage, had no access to police protection in Honduras because the local police treated domestic violence as a private matter rather than a crime. In their brief, Lopez and Banic cited an expert report by Honduran domestic violence expert Claudia Herrmannsdorfer: “Because neither the battered woman, nor her family, nor her neighbors, nor community members act to stop this violence – and because the authorities also fail to respond – women are not safe in Honduras. Far too often, the direct result of this societal acceptance of violence against women is murder.”

The students’ research showed that, in Honduran culture, women are often viewed as the property of their male husbands or partners. In Honduras, as in many other countries, domestic violence is a pervasive problem: 27% of women aged between 15 and 49 years, and 37% of women aged between 45 and 49 years, have been subjected to physical violence at some point in their lives. Although Honduras has laws against domestic violence, they are rarely enforced. Thus, those women who report violence are very unlikely to obtain protection and are more likely to face life-threatening retribution from their abusers.

Today, the mother suffers from chronic pain as a result of the abuse and her inability to obtain proper medical treatment while living with her abuser. She and both children also suffer ongoing psychological effects of this abuse.

The mother finally became so desperate to escape that she took the children and made the long and dangerous journey to the United States. When they reached the United States, U.S. Customs and Border Protection arrested mother and children, separated them from each other, and placed them in holding pens that have become known as hieleras, or iceboxes – extremely cold, crowded enclosures surrounded by a chain-link fence. The mother and children were later sent to a detention center in Dilley, Texas, a remote facility with little access to lawyers. After an asylum officer interviewed the mother and determined that she had a credible asylum claim, she was granted bond and allowed to live with relatives in New Jersey, where she was put in touch with the Center for Social Justice.

Without CSJ’s representation, this mother and her children would have been forced to fight their case in immigration court without representation, and most likely, forcibly returned to their abuser in Honduras. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recently began an operation specifically targeting mothers and young children for arrest and deportation – even though data from a recently published TRAC Immigration report shows that 86% of these families were ordered deported without a lawyer to represent them in immigration court. Without lawyers, the families are being deported without due process of law – that is, without a meaningful opportunity to present their claims to asylum or Convention Against Torture protection.

“The same thing could have happened to our clients if they had not been able to get legal representation,” said Professor Anello. “This family was one of the lucky few who were released on bond and were able to obtain legal counsel.” Now that asylum has been secured, students Dina Ibrahim ‘16 and Milissa Ralph ’16 are now working with the family on their post-asylum applications.

“Working in the Immigration Clinic with our clients was one of the most satisfying experiences at Seton Hall and life generally,” concluded Branka Banic. “I am incredibly relieved and happy that the family has a safe home here with us in the U.S.”

Pictured above, from left, are and CSJ students Milissa Ralph ’16, Diane Lopez, and Dina Ibrahim ’16 as they left the Peter W. Rodino Jr. Federal Building after securing asylum for their clients.