The soft chatter in the waiting room at the Yarra Law Group offices in Fresno are muffled by a Food Network show playing on TV. Receptionist tap their keyboards and answer phone calls.
A 23-year-old woman from El Salvador, who we’ll call Ana, is among the dozen people in the room. A receptionist calls her name and she goes in to see her immigration attorney, Jeremy Clason. He’s preparing documents he’ll eventually file with the immigration court in San Francisco. She speaks to him softly as she begins to tell her story.
“When I first got together with my son's father everything was normal," Ana says in Spanish. "Time passed and he became aggressive, violent and there were moments when he would hit me.”
Valley Public Radio is granting Ana anonymity because her ex-boyfriend, who’s also her son’s father, doesn’t know where they are now. She says she fears if he discovers where they are, he’ll find them and hurt them.
Ana is among the hundreds in the San Joaquin Valley and thousands in the nation who are in limbo after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced gang and domestic violence doesn't qualify as a valid asylum claim in the United States anymore. Before his decision, people escaping gang or domestic violence had been eligible for asylum, alongside those facing persecution because of race, religion, political opinion, nationality or their social group.
On June 11, Sessions overturned an immigration appeals court decision during the Obama Administration that ruled domestic and gang violence fall under the "social group" category.
But for Ana, who has an open asylum case citing domestic violence, it's unclear what's going to happen.
“It’s all so new that attorneys across the country are trying to formulate, we’re trying to formulate, and we’re trying to put her into a different box," Clason says. "We’re trying to formulate how we can, how we can put her in a social group without saying that the social group is women that are property of their domestic partnerships.”
Ana and her son left El Salvador nearly a year ago. She says with the help of a family member they reached the Texas border. She says it was her best option because her sons’ father was never going to stop looking for them.
While she was at a detention center in Texas, she says an asylum officer interviewed her. And according to the documents, the asylum officer found a “credible fear finding” citing domestic violence.
Clason recalls the day Ana first came in to see him, on June 7. He says he remembers telling her she would "absolutely" win her asylum case. But, says he had to call her shortly after to tell her she has a much lower chance of winning her case now.
Tears stream down Ana’s cheeks as she relives the beatings and the bruises. She wipes her eyes dry and sniffles during most of the interview.
“He would hit me and I’d get huge bruises," she says. "I didn’t go out so people wouldn’t see and ask me about it.”
Ana says the abuse began about a year she started dating her son's father. After their son was born, she says the beatings and verbal abuse got even worse. And the only people around to witness it, his family, looked the other way.
“They mistreated me, they mistreated my son like we were people who didn’t matter," Ana says. "The beatings were frequent. There was even a moment where he hit me with a machete. His family did nothing to defend me. They pretended like I was an animal who was being mistreated.”
Ana says she tried to get help. She says she called the police one night he was beating her while she was pregnant. He was let go the next day, she says. Nothing happened, and she says nothing got better.
For the next few years, Ana says she was abused daily. She says her ex-boyfriend called her names and would hit her with whatever was in his hand for any reason.
Clason says his office has dozens of asylum cases around the San Joaquin Valley. He says most of his clients applying for asylum who are from Central America and Mexico were escaping domestic or gang violence. He says the outcome of Ana's and other asylum cases are going to depend on which judge they get.
“It matters a lot, it matters a lot. Although, the vast majority of judges in San Francisco make decisions that are favorable to immigrants in the asylum context.”
According to data from TRAC, a nonpartisan and nonprofit data research center, over the years asylum outcomes have continued to depend on which judge is assigned to the case. They’ve been compiling data on all asylum outcomes for more than a decade, and their most recent data follows that trend.
The San Francisco immigration court is where Valley cases are heard. According to TRAC data compiled from 2012 to 2017, the odds of getting an asylum case denied there ranges from about 9 percent to 97 percent, depending on which judge is assigned the case.
TRAC’s report also mentions that its “natural” for asylum decisions to vary since each case is different.
“Individual asylum officers and judges consider individual cases, so it’s really mixed," says Lindsay Harris, an assistant law professor at the University of the District of Colombia. "There certainly has been some cases denied after the A-B decision but in other cases, judges are still granting and attorneys are tweaking their arguments and submitting additional evidence in order to try and address ways in which Sessions attempted to change the law.”
Harris, who also co-directs their immigration and human rights clinic and has a focus on asylum cases, says more asylum cases will probably get denied than before.
“One thing that’s very certain is it’s an absolute increase in attorney resources and time that has to be put into the cases and kind of redoing the cases and setting up new arguments and coming up with new particular social groups and submitting more evidence on country conditions and things,” Harris says.
When the attorney general announced the asylum policy change, he said the law doesn’t protect violent instances based on private or personal matters. Over time, Sessions says the asylum qualifications expanded beyond what Congress originally intended.
Officials at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services declined to do a phone interview. But in an emailed statement to Valley Public Radio spokesman Michael Bars wrote the “current system is prone to loopholes, fraud and abuse and prevents legitimate asylum seekers from being seen in a timely fashion.”
Back in Clason’s office, Ana stands up and shows him the scar she has on her calve from the machete attack. It’s healed now, but the memory is still vivid.
She can’t know for sure, but Ana says if she stayed in El Salvador she believes her ex would’ve killed her. Even though Ana’s case will be an uphill battle, Ana and Clason say they’re both hopeful.
“These are the cases that keep me up at night, to be honest," Clason says. "It’s the cases that I think about over weekends where you have to go even beyond 100 percent. Every plausible argument that I can think of and conceive I have to fight because it truly is a life and death situation.”
It could take years until Ana knows what will happen in her asylum case. But she says at least now she doesn’t have to live with the “torment” of thinking her ex will find her.
For the record, Clason’s firm - the Yarra Law Group is a corporate supporter of Valley Public Radio.