Immigrants Who Defend Themselves From Sexual Violence Face Prison, Deportation

On September 10, 2018, Amreya Shefa was released from the Minnesota prison in Shakopee. But the 45-year-old mother didn’t have a chance to take a breath of freedom before she was driven to the Kandiyohi County Jail, which contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain immigrants.

For the past two years, Shefa has fought for her freedom through the courts. Now Shefa, who is HIV-positive, must also worry about contracting COVID-19.

Shefa, an Ethiopian citizen and divorced mother, was living in Addis Ababa when she met Habibi Tesema, a U.S. citizen in search of a wife. The couple married in 2006. She remained in Ethiopia; he visited periodically for the next six years. During that time, the couple had two children.

In 2012, Tesema brought Shefa and the children to Richfield, a suburb of the Minneapolis-St. Paul region. (Shefa’s oldest daughter, from her previous marriage, remained in Ethiopia.) That first night, he refused to allow her to call her parents; instead, he ordered her to cook dinner and forced her to have sex.

The abuse happened daily. If Tesema was dissatisfied with the house’s cleanliness, he beat Shefa. He raped her on a near-daily basis. He forbade her to leave the house. Shefa, who spoke virtually no English and knew no one else in the United States, was unable to seek help. One month after her arrival, Tesema brought another man home; both men raped Shefa. Later, she learned that she had contracted HIV. Tesema told her that if she ever challenged him, she would be deported and lose her children.

On December 1, 2013, Tesema woke Shefa and forced her to have sex. When she resisted having sex a second time, he cut her hand with a knife. The two struggled and Shefa stabbed him. He died; she was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. At trial, the prosecution attempted to depict her as having murdered her husband because he watched pornography and wanted to introduce other people into their relationship. The judge acknowledged that Shefa had experienced ongoing physical and sexual violence but still convicted her of manslaughter and sentenced her to five years in prison. She has not seen her children, now living with Tesema’s brother and sister-in-law-, since that night. Her parental rights were terminated in 2015. As a noncitizen, Shefa now faces deportation.

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.

Fighting Deportation While Incarcerated

Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, the attorney general may not deport a person if that person’s life or freedom would be threatened in that country because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. The Act provides an exception for those convicted of a “particularly serious crime.”

Domestic violence and rape, while technically illegal, remain pervasive problems in Ethiopia. A 2007 study found that of the 83 criminal cases involving the murder of women, the defendant was the woman’s partner in 95 percent of these cases. There are no more recent studies about domestic violence and spousal homicide. At Shefa’s 2017 immigration hearing, an expert in gender dynamics in Ethiopia testified about the lack of government protection for domestic violence victims and the danger of retaliatory violence for a woman who kills her husband.

While in prison, Shefa received letters from her sister warning that their family had received death threats, forcing them into hiding; Shefa’s oldest daughter even fled the country. Furthermore, HIV also remains stigmatized in Ethiopia. Shefa fears being unable to access her medications, work or find a place to live if her HIV status is known.

Nonetheless, an immigration judge dismissed her fears and ordered her deportation.

Shefa has applied for a U-visa for immigrant victims of crime. Her criminal court judge certified that Shefa had been a victim of sexual violence, but her application was denied. Shefa has appealed the denial. She also applied for a T-visa for immigrants who have been trafficked.

As of May 19, Kandiyohi County had 420 confirmed COVID-19 cases, though no cases have been reported at the jail. But COVID-19 has been spreading in other jails and Shefa’s HIV status puts her at risk for serious repercussions. Chan has filed a petition for her immediate release. Members of Minneapolis’s First Universalist Church, who befriended Shefa during her detention, have secured her a place to live if she is released.

On May 11, 2020, a federal court remanded her case for a hearing as to whether her conviction for first-degree manslaughter constitutes a “particularly serious crime,” which would require deportation into potentially life-threatening circumstances.

“The judge is supposed to look at the underlying facts and circumstances of her conviction,” explained Eduardo Castro, a student attorney working with Chan on Shefa’s case. “Central to her conviction was that she was a victim of rape.” Thus, Castro says, a decision about whether her conviction constitutes a “particularly serious crime” should take into account the repeated sexual and physical violence she endured.

The federal court’s decision to require a hearing invalidates the previous order of deportation. Now, Shefa is awaiting her first bond hearing. If a judge grants her bond, she may be able to live in the U.S. free of coercive control for the first time while she fights deportation.

Until then, Shefa shares a 5×10 foot cell with another person and a common area with 12 other people. As in jails and prisons nationwide, social distancing is impossible.

Shefa has also applied for a pardon, which would expunge her conviction, removing the threat of deportation. In Minnesota, unlike California where the governor has executive power, pardon applications must be unanimously approved by a panel of the governor, the attorney general and the state supreme court’s chief justice.

Castro notes that, thanks to activists’ efforts and #MeToo organizing, society is now in a process of reexamining how survivors of domestic and sexual violence are treated by the legal system. He’s hoping that the pardon board will take that into consideration — and recognize that Shefa was the victim of repeated rapes and physical violence from her husband.

Shefa’s pardon hearing is scheduled for June 12. Honsey and other advocates plan to attend the hearing to show that Shefa has community support. For now, however, they’re raising awareness about her story, both with the general public and legislators. “I know a lot of people now,” Shefa said about the people she met while in prison and through her fight against deportation. “I wish I’d known them long ago.”

“If Amreya [Shefa] were a U.S. citizen, a lot of what we’re asking for would not be necessary,” Chan noted. “But she’s not and that needs to be considered by the pardon board.”