Article by Victoria Law, Truthout. Excerpt below:

No national agency tracks the number of rape or domestic violence survivors imprisoned for self-defense. Similarly, no agency tracks the number of immigrant survivors who face detention and deportation for their self-defense actions. What is known is that the majority of incarcerated women have survived physical and domestic violence before arrest. A 2016 report found that 86 percent of women in jails experienced sexual violence and 77 percent experienced partner violence prior to their incarceration. What is also known is that abusive partners frequently use the threat of deportation to prevent immigrant victims from seeking help or leaving.


Linus Chan is Shefa’s attorney and the director of the Detainee Rights Clinic at the University of Minnesota Law School. Shefa is his first client facing deportation for defending herself against sexual violence, but he noted that it’s not uncommon for women to be coerced into criminalized and deportable acts by abusive partners. Chan also noted that many survivors of trauma and abuse cope by using controlled substances — and then face incarceration and deportation for their substance use.


“I Want to Speak Up and Help Other Women”


Under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), immigration officials should have informed Shefa about resources for domestic violence and sexual assault, as well as avenues of relief for noncitizens with abusive spouses. Under the 2005 Marriage Brokers Regulation Act, they also should have provided a pamphlet notifying her that domestic violence and abuse are illegal in the U.S. and outlining available resources for survivors. (It is unclear if such a pamphlet is available in Amharic.)


Shefa, however, did not speak English. Her husband translated for her during all interviews with immigration officials. If such information was offered, she was never told.


While at Shakopee, Shefa began learning English — and practicing with the women around her. Hoping to one day be reunited with her children, she also attended parenting classes offered by the Minnesota Prison Doula Project. That was how she came to the attention of Tonja Honsey, the co-founder of We Rise!, a leadership circle for formerly incarcerated women, and the director of the Minnesota Freedom Fund, which posts criminal and immigration bonds.


“The justice system fails Black, Brown and Indigenous women. We see that over and over again,” Honsey told Truthout. Quantifying the number of survivors remains difficult — fear and shame keep many from speaking openly about their experiences, even when these experiences lead to their criminalization and threatened deportation. For immigrant survivors, who are far from home, friends and family, there’s even less support for sharing their experiences — and advocating for their freedom. “Shefa is the first survivor [facing deportation] in Minnesota that we know of,” Honsey said, but there may be others whose stories never make it to outside ears.


Shefa knows this all too well. In a phone call to Truthout, she said that she met numerous women both in jail and prison who had suffered extensive abuse; some were also imprisoned for defending themselves. Now, she said, “I want to speak up and help other women.”


Organizers Call Attention to Plight of Immigrant Survivors


Activist Ny Nourn knows the pathway from abuse to prison to deportation firsthand. Nourn spent 16 years in prison after being convicted of murder after her abusive boyfriend fatally shot her boss. Paroled in 2017, she was immediately taken into ICE custody to await deportation to Cambodia, her mother’s home country. (Nourn was born in a Thai refugee camp and immigrated to the U.S. at age 5.)


While in prison, however, Nourn became involved in organizing and connected with outside advocates. When she was transferred to ICE custody, organizers waged a campaign to free her — raising public awareness, crowd-sourcing bond money and even occupying the local ICE office for her birthday. “Support is really crucial to helping survivors gain their freedom. I don’t think I’d be here today if it wasn’t for that support,” Nourn told Truthout.


Nourn is now an organizer with Survived and Punished, a national network fighting to free incarcerated abuse survivors. On May 20, she and other organizers secured the release of Liyah Birru, an Ethiopian abuse survivor who served four years in prison and faces deportation after shooting her abusive husband (who survived). The judge who granted bond to Birru noted that she had a defense campaign. Nourn pointed out that Survived and Punished’s efforts also brought Birru’s story to local politicians. As a result, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has called for California Gov. Gavin Newsom to grant Birru a pardon, which would remove the threat of deportation.


“Organizing is important to bringing attention to immigrant survivors,” noted Nourn. Now, instead of languishing in jail, Birru can directly participate in her own defense campaign.

Read the full article.

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