Many Canadians are rightly horrified by the Trump administration’s recent move to begin separating children from their asylum-seeking parents when they cross the US-Mexico border. A related — and perhaps equally devastating — change to American policy has received far less attention: domestic violence and gang violence no longer qualify as grounds for asylum in the US. Because the Canadian government still adheres to the Safe Third Country Agreement with the US, Canada is complicit with a policy that could sentence tens of thousands of Central American refugee women to extreme physical abuse, sexual enslavement, and death.
Carmen* and her daughter fled Guatemala after a marero — a member of a criminal gang — offered them a choice: if Carmen wouldn’t enter into a sexual relationship with him, he’d force Carmen’s daughter to become his girlfriend instead. It was not an idle threat. This same marero had already murdered a female in Carmen’s family, he’d stalked Carmen, and shot up her house. When Carmen, her husband, and their kids fled to another part of Guatemala, the marero found them. And that was when he made his impossible offer.
Rosa* and her children fled Honduras to escape extreme domestic violence. Rosa’s husband regularly beat her and confined her to their home. Her husband warned that if she ever left him, he would use his extensive connections to find her. When her husband began hitting their kids, too, Rosa fled with them to the US. People in Rosa’s hometown report that her husband is still looking for her.
Carmen and Rosa’s experiences are shockingly common among female asylum seekers from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The UN Development Programme reports that Latin America is the most violent region in the world for women. Rates of femicide are particularly high in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. In 2016, one woman was murdered every 19 hours in El Salvador. In 2017, it was one every 18 hours. 2018 is on track to be even deadlier.
Because they have crossed onto US soil, Carmen and Rosa — and so many others like them — are prohibited from seeking asylum in Canada, due to Canada’s Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States. Although the Canadian Council for Refugees, Amnesty International, and many Canadian immigration lawyers have called for the repeal of Canada’s Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States on the grounds that the American asylum system and detention practices violate international and Canadian law, the Trudeau government is instead looking to “modernize” and perhaps extend the Agreement, as demanded by the opposition Conservative Party.
Canadians must question just how “safe” the United States is for Central American women trying to escape extreme violence. The United Nations recently called on the United States to stop detaining irregular migrants and to stop separating children from their families at the border, arguing that these practices are illegal. The Global Migration Project at Columbia University established that deportation has indeed been a death sentence for many Central American migrants deported from the US.
Earlier this month, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions ruled that asylum-seekers like Rosa and Carmen should not be allowed to remain in the US, as domestic violence and gang violence will no longer qualify as grounds for asylum. His ruling came as part of his personal intervention in the case of a Salvadoran woman seeking asylum in the United States to escape the domestic violence she endured for over a decade in El Salvador. Sessions questioned whether US protection was warranted for this woman, and so many others like her. As Sessions phrased it, “I have no doubt that many of those crossing our border illegally are leaving behind difficult situations, but we cannot take everyone on Earth who is in a difficult situation.” To characterize flight from domestic violence in a country where one woman is murdered every 18 hours as “a difficult situation” is an appalling and egregious understatement.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made much of his feminism. But if he really cares about keeping refugee women and girls alive, his government needs to show it by rescinding the Safe Third Country Agreement.
*Not her real name
Jaymie Heilman teaches Latin American History and the History of Illicit Drugs at the University of Alberta.
Maria Walker has an MA in Latin American Studies from Stanford University and volunteers at an immigration detention center on the US-Mexico border.