Her case ended with a joyful welcome at the airport, but the future of the asylum remains uncertain.

ATLANTA. When Anabel fled El Salvador, she had to leave quickly without saying goodbye to her children.

Eight years later, she waits nervously in the international terminal of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to reunite with these children and meet her two grandchildren in person for the first time.

She is already crying tears of happiness.

“Because I don’t know them,” Anabel says in Spanish. “And I finally get to know them.”

Their reunion this month is a joyful conclusion to a closely watched immigration case, closely intertwined with the asylum debate for those who cross the US-Mexico border.

So far, NPR has only referred to Anabelle by her initials, Miss A.B., as she is identified in court documents. For this story, she gave us permission to use her name – but only her name, because she still worries that her abusive ex-husband found her all these years later.

“This is what the asylum system was designed for. You know, for someone whose life is in danger,” said Blaine Bookie, one of Anabel’s lawyers at the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California, San Francisco College of Law. Francisco.

But this reunion is unpleasant for Buka and other immigrant advocates. First, they say, it should have happened many years ago. And it comes just as the Biden administration is considering new rules that would make it harder for migrants arriving at the border to gain asylum, including, these supporters say, women like Anabelle.

“It shouldn’t be that hard,” Buki said. “And the only games we play with the lives of people like her.”

Sweeping new asylum restrictions spark tensions

In January, President Biden announced further tightening of border restrictions. “Don’t — don’t — just show up at the border,” he said, laying out a new approach.

The administration has proposed a rule that would make it harder for migrants who illegally cross the border to obtain asylum without first seeking protection in Mexico or another country they passed through along the way.

Critics have complained for years that migrants are using the asylum system to their advantage. The immigration courts are overwhelmed and dragged on for years. Immigration hardliners say this creates a loophole that allows migrants to apply for asylum even if their claims are unconvincing, because they know they will be allowed to stay in the US while their cases are being processed.

Republicans argue that this is an important reason why the record several migrants have been arrested at the southern border in the past two years.

“Deterrence is a key component of a secure and secure border,” US Senator John Cornyn (D-Tex.) said on the Senate floor earlier this month. “And until the administration starts to deter would-be migrants with unfounded asylum claims from crossing the border, we will remain in a constant crisis.”

This is the strain the Biden administration is trying to manage at the border: how to keep asylum protection for those who need it, as well as keep migrants from illegally crossing the border in large numbers and overloading the system.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Majorcas defended the administration’s approach in an interview at Fordham University Law School this month.

“This is not an asylum ban,” Majorcas said. “What we’re trying to do is encourage a legal, safe and orderly way” to apply for asylum, Majorcas said, “and discourage migrants from relying on smuggling organizations that “leave a huge trail of death and tragedy in their wake.”

Under the proposed rule, migrants who wish to apply for asylum at the border must make an appointment through a smartphone app called CBP One.

Immigrant advocates call it a betrayal of the administration’s promises to rebuild the border shelter.

First, they say the app is buggy and migrants have struggled to get a limited number of appointments at entry points. And proponents argue that requiring migrants to use a smartphone app would put safe haven out of reach for many vulnerable migrants with valid claims.

Lawyer Blaine Bookie says that if this rule had been in place when Anabelle arrived at the border in 2014, it would have been almost impossible for her to obtain protection in the US.

“She didn’t have money in her name, so she wouldn’t have a smartphone. She would not have had the opportunity to sign up for one of those meetings,” Buki said. “This is just a mockery of our asylum system.”

Joyful reunion at Terminal F

Anabel fled El Salvador in 2014 after years of abuse by her ex-husband. According to her, she tried to move inland, but he found her. In the end, Anabel left and moved to the United States, illegally crossed the border into Texas and asked for asylum.

For a while, it looked like Anabelle would win her case in immigration court. But then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions personally intervened in her case and used it to set the precedent that domestic violence should not “usually” be a ground for asylum.

NPR first interviewed Anabelle almost five years ago, right after Sessions opened up about her case.

“It was very sad at the time, very hard,” she says now. “Not knowing what will happen to my children if I have to return to my country.”

But her lawyers continued to fight. After the 2020 election, Attorney General Merrick Garland overturned his predecessor’s decision, opening the way for Anabel to finally get asylum and bring her children here to join her in the US. Atlanta.

On the day their flight is due to arrive, Anabel arrives at the airport a few hours early. She is accompanied by her longtime partner as well as Andrés López, the lawyer who helped prepare her initial asylum application.

“She was like a rock,” says Lopez, admiring her resilience. “I have never seen her angry, never. I have always seen her full of hope. Even when she was sad. .”

Anabelle snuggles up against a retractable nylon barrier in the international arrivals hall in Terminal F. She nervously watches her children and grandchildren arrive, frequently checking her phone to see if they’ve landed.

Finally, after we waited in the terminal for over an hour, they left the baggage claim area. She rushes towards them.

For a long moment, the whole family huddles in one big hug in the middle of the terminal. Anabel talks about the hugs of her two sons – they were still teenagers when she left El Salvador, and now they are young people. She too hugs her daughter before turning to squeeze her granddaughters, who are 8 and 3 years old. One of her sons playfully tosses the younger girl into the air, while Anabelle gently scolds him for being cautious.

“My heart skipped a beat,” Anabelle says, describing the moment she saw them.

In the morning, they plan to head over to her house to start their life together again and celebrate at her favorite restaurant, a Chinese buffet.

When Anabelle talks about the future, there’s something new in her voice: relief.

“I always said I wasn’t fat when they were in El Salvador,” she says. “I was 50 percent happy and 50 percent upset. Now I feel 100 percent happy.”

Anabel’s lawyers know all about mixed feelings. They share her happiness, but fear that cases like hers will soon be harder to win.

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