Home of the Brave by Avantika Rao, Attorney
I am a longtime asylum and immigration lawyer who has worked with immigrants from Zimbabwe to Argentina. While U.S. immigration law is historically oppressive and exclusionary, I use the law to multiply freedom, to unite immigrants with their family, to allow longtime immigrants to be able to vote and participate as U.S. citizens, and to protect those who have been dehumanized due to their dissident or minority status.
While I am a joyful spirit, I have experienced and been witness to more suffering than most could conceive. I am myself a survivor of virtual captivity and I work with immigrants and torture survivors from all over the world. I also recruit and mentor diverse attorneys to stay in the legal profession despite life-threatening challenges such as burnout, prejudice, and addiction.
I am still haunted by the memory of the Salvadoran trans woman who had been disowned by family, tortured by police, and was enslaved as a performer in Mexican cantinas. Despite being jailed with the men, living with HIV, and suffering a stroke, she continued to send me drawings of Catholic saints with halos and hearts, adorned with messages of love and gratitude.
She lost her claim for protection as a persecuted sexual minority. The white male immigration judge stated that she had a “victim complex” and blamed her for not remembering either her prior political asylum claim or details of the traumatic events. Judges can embody prejudice, transphobia, and patriarchy in their black cloak. She had been raped so many times that she had blocked entire years out of her memory.
While intense trauma is not uncommon among the asylum seeking population, what is heart opening is the myriad ways in which immigrants and asylum seekers bravely overcome. Over the years, there were children and families from all over the world, crime survivors who qualified for visas after they cooperated with law enforcement investigations, political dissidents, girls or women or sexual minoritiesescaping forced female genital mutilationor domestic slavery or sexual assault, those whose nations were engulfed in deadly civil strife, those whose particular social groups made them subject to persecution, and those who wanted to reunify with their family, work in the United States, or be united with an immigrant they had fallen in love with.
I recently worked with a Nigerian woman whose bravery clarified for me the profound reason why I do this work. She had been through absolutely horrific domestic violence and stalking. Yet, she was so strong, sure of herself, and positively effervescent.
In a tribal marriage custom of Nigeria, the husband pays the bride’s family a “bride price” at the time of marriage. The return of that money finalizes a divorce. A husband can block a divorce by refusing the returned bride price. This is what happened in this woman’s situation.
As a daughter of Indian immigrants growing up in suburban Los Angeles, my childhood had largely consisted of me witnessing my father turn my mother into a virtual captive through aggressive assaults, verbal degradation,restrictions on food and finances, and isolation.
The tactics were even harsher when unleashed on us childrenbecause we had no way to defend ourselves and had no money of our own. It was a prison like atmosphere. He tied me up with ropes and left me locked in dark rooms. Food and clothing rations were given in an atmosphere of coercion and penance. He gave in to my pleas for pet dogs only to chain them up in the yard and flagellate them when they barked with loneliness before dropping them back at the shelter. If I asked for a Christmas decoration or a Halloween costume, I would get verbally assaulted for weeks before he would find something so incredibly cheap and ugly that I would conclude that I should not have asked in the first place.
My father created an elaborate facade. He was the quite literally the P.T.A. President. I recall the evening that I witnessed my father drag my mother down the stairs by her hair and, fearing for her life, called the police. Two male L.A.P.D. officers stood outside on the stoop. “Is everything fine?” The abuser stood an inch or two away from her, quivering with rage. He had already torn the phones out of the wall. She nodded.
I was mercilessly punished for trying to save my mother's life. My school books torn up. Assaulted and terrorized. Forced to give up any hard-won scholarship monies received.
In my diary, I recorded the moment that I realized that my mother would never leave. I had come home and the abusive episode had already occurred. Adead feeling in the air. My father said authoritatively to my mother, “No one will ever believe you because I talk nicely to everybody.” She went to the front door of our home in Los Angeles. She opened the door. She let out a primal scream. Then, she closed it.
She never sought refuge in a domestic violence shelter. She shunned counseling. She and my father constantly insulteddivorced women. She boasted about the dozens of invitations to lavish weddings and social events she got each yearfrom people she barely knows because of her status as a married woman in the local Indian immigrant community. Inside, she remains paralyzed with fear andshame, never wantingher toxic secretsrevealed to an adjudicator or discussed by the other Indian immigrants we socializewith. The fear and shame is still infused inevery fiber of her body. A code of silencehidden in ever larger and more luxurious homes and encircled by an invisible mental fence.
In my work to free survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking, I often come across grooming, justifications, and feedback loops that enable the abuse. Each abuser has their own ecosystem. Manyin the ecosystem, including the victims,act as apologists and enforcers for the abuser. Those targeted for abuse quite frequently either numb themselves through addiction or perpetuate the abuse. Abusive ecosystems replicate themselves.
I recently observed to my mother that it was not that she ever made an affirmative decision to stay, but that she quite simply never developed the courageto leave. “I agree, I am not brave,” she replied.
Bravery is developed in the face of challenge to life or freedom. There are many alternatives to developing bravery. Self-pity, obsessing, or distraction. Workaholismor rescuing behaviors. Self-neglect or self harm. Harming othersthrough abuse. Adictive or compulsive behavior. Enmeshment. Perfectionism. Drama. And there is always the option of remaining paralyzedin fear and shame.
The Nigerian womanhad unsuccessfully reported the abuse to the police and a human rights commission. The police had said, “Go back to your husband, madam.” Neither had reined in the abuser, much less investigated the matter.
I asked what it was that sparked the Nigerian woman’s decision to flee. She said she hadread articles about domestic violence. She realized that itwas a major social problem, indeed a life-threatening one. Though she had attempted to get her daughters passportsto be able to travel with her, her abuser used their two young daughters as leverage. After she fled, her abuser sent achilling message with a photo of the girls’ passports stating that she would never see her children again.
She fled to the U.S. without her two daughters. At the time she fled, her girls were not even old enough to attend school. I filed for gender-based asylum for her. We won. However, her ordeal is far from over. Her gaining asylum is just the first step in a long fight to petition the legal system for her daughters to be reunited with her. In the Nigerian courts, from what I have read, it is a system in which the father’s power over custody and family decision making power is assumed.
When she read the articles, she realized that her very life and freedom wereat stake. In her flight to freedom, she, like many of the courageous immigrants I represent, exemplifies bravery. I hope that one day I get to witness the smiles of her two daughters holding their mother’s hands in the home of the brave.
Avantika contributes to spiraling up justice through direct service (particularly to immigrant survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and/or modern-day slavery), uplifting diverse candidates into the legal profession, and collaboratively detonating injustice and prejudice. Avantika has defended (adult & child) immigrants at the US-Mexico border and served as a founding attorney in San Francisco's immigrant defense network. Her Sacramento-based law practice operates at the intersection of immigration & human rights. Prior to law school, Avantika studied environmental and gender policy in the U.S., India, & Nepal. She prefers milk chocolate to dark.
**Special thanks to Ricardo Arechiga for his graphic design of the project logo**