After Fleeing Abuse, an Immigrant Mother Faces Losing Her Daughter Forever

In 2009, Nan-Hui Jo did the only thing she thought she could do – leave. Her visa was about to expire and she was living with Jesse Charlton, the father of her child, who she said was abusive and violent. Court documents and testimony show that, shortly before she left for Korea, Charlton threw Jo against a wall and choked her. Jo called the police twice, but they made no arrests.

In her first phone interview since her arrest, Jo described her situation: “I couldn’t stay in this country. I had no help, and I couldn’t survive here. I didn’t have any other choice.”

Charlton suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury as a result of two tours in Iraq, where he was hit by at least three roadside bombs. According to an interview he gave the Sacramento Bee, the Department of Veteran’s Affairs found him 70% disabled.

According to court testimony Charlton, who is 12 years Jo’s junior, didn’t attend his daughter’s birth and was a less than dutiful parent. Jo, meanwhile, was the primary breadwinner for the family, trying to make ends meet while also attending school. Charlton’s attorney did not respond to requests for comment.

Emails produced at trial between Jo and a relative of Charlton reflect anxiety on Jo’s part at the time. In 2009, she wrote: “Jesse is really dangerous for my baby so I just protec[t] my baby as a mom. Cause I don’t want any [child] get child abuse especially my baby.”

In 2009, Jo finally fled with her daughter to Korea, where they remained until July 2014, when she brought Hwi to Hawaii to enroll her in school. She said that she did not inform the father because she was afraid of him. Charlton said that he communicated with Jo after she left the US, emailing her to ask about their daughter. He also admitted in an interview with the Sacramento Bee that he threatened her and sent emails saying that he would spend “thousands of dollars on a scary bounty hunter” if Jo cut him off.

Jo discovered that she was a wanted fugitive when, upon landing in the US, she was arrested and tried for child abduction. She told me that she didn’t know anything about her legal situation at the time.

Her first trial resulted in a mistrial (the jurors could not agree), and the second, decided in March, found her guilty of child abduction and custodial interference.

Dennis Riordan, Jo’s criminal defense attorney, argued that the jury received improper instructions on the definition of malice. But judge David Rosenberg rejected the request for a new trial, downgraded her conviction to a misdemeanor, and sentenced her to 175 days in jail plus three years probation.

Jo was released on 28 April with time served after being held for nine months. Upon leaving the courthouse, however, she was immediately detained by US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents who were waiting outside the courtroom, alongside Jo’s numerous supporters.

As of late 2014, ICE’s detention policies prioritize the detainment and deportation of individuals convicted of felonies and “significant misdemeanors.” Jo falls into the second category, and may lose her right to stay in the US – immigrants who commit crimes are not welcome on US soil, even though anyone who applies for asylum in the US (as Jo is) must be here in order to apply.

As such, she faces a deportation hearing based on her criminal history that threatens to prevent her from ever seeing her daughter again.

Jo’s case has raised the interest of advocates for survivors of domestic violence, as well as the Korean-American community. Her supporters have signed petitions and issued a statement of support signed by 150 domestic violence organizations.

They argue that Jo has been unfairly targeted by the district attorney’s officer for being both an immigrant and a victim of domestic violence, two groups that have historically been mistreated.

Hyejin Shim, a core organizer with the Stand With Nan-Hui campaign and a domestic violence advocate at the Asian Women’s Shelter, said women like Jo “are vulnerable because of their status. Korean immigrant survivors face significant barriers to getting support due to limited language access, isolation from support systems, unfamiliarity with the laws and customs of the US, and immense scrutiny from both American and Korean community members. If they are undocumented, the challenges only grow – especially if there are children in the picture – because of fears of detention, deportation, and separation from loved ones.” Abusive partners can use this as a way to frighten women into submission.

According to Jo’s testimony, she came to the US initially on a student visa in 2002 and then married. Jo left her first husband and never filed for citizenship as a result. She moved to Sacramento, where she met Charlton. In 2009, Jo was denied her application for a green card because her paperwork was not in order, and her temporary visa expired. In order to avoid overstaying her visa and to protect her daughter, Jo left the country. She never married Charlton because her initial application for a green card rested on her first marriage.

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was enacted in 1994 for just these types of situations: the law allows undocumented partners in abusive relationships to petition for legal immigration status without the support of their partner.

Jo’s immigration attorney, Zack Nightingale, explained that she wasn’t given the opportunity to apply for asylum under VAWA when she left her first husband, who never filed her citizenship papers.

The VAWA statute, as amended in 2005, requires that immigration officials notify individuals applying for fiancée visas with a pamphlet that describes their legal rights and available resources, including support if the individual encounters domestic violence. This was enacted as a way to assist the vulnerable population of immigrants who remain in abusive relationships to avoid deportation. As such, Jo should have been notified of her rights under VAWA, Nightingale emphasized, but she was not.

Even worse, this provision is still not being followed 10 years after the passage of the requirement. A 2014 report indicated, “In about 52% of interview case notes (76 of 147), consular officers did not document that they had provided beneficiaries the … pamphlet as required by State’s guidance.”

By law, Jo could be released from custody on a bond amount, but ICE has refused. Because Jo was found guilty in criminal court for removing Hwi, the immigration courts can take this conviction into account when deciding on the outcome of the case. The determination of her immigration case will obviously have a major impact on her ability to see her daughter, according to Nightingale.

According to Yolo assistant district attorney Steve Mount, Jo’s immigration status was not relevant to her decision to leave the country. Mount also disputed the relevance of Jo’s status as a domestic violence survivor, arguing in closing arguments that Jo was a “tiger mom” who was “competent” at protecting her own daughter and thereforecould not be the victim that she claimed to be.

In an email interview, Mount said that Jo “refused to appear in court, denied the father any contact with the child (no pictures, no letters, no knowledge that the child was well or even alive) and in fact lied to the child and told her that she was special and didn’t have a father. This lie to the child has caused great harm to the child who is now in therapy trying to deal with it all.”

If Jo is deported, she will not be able to return to the US to see her daughter. For now, however, the two parents have been attempting to resolve the issue of visitation and custody as amicably as possible under the circumstances, according to Jo’s family law attorney John Meyers. There is some hope that Jo will soon be able to speak to her daughter on the phone. Meyers told me, “Both the mom and dad have agreed that they didn’t want [Hwi] to see her mom in jail.”

Currently, Charlton has custody of Hwi, which has caused some struggle because Hwi did not speak English well and hadn’t seen her father since she was young.

Over the telephone from Yolo County, where she is still detained, Jo told me that she just wants to be out of detention and see her daughter, to whom she hasn’t spoken for nine months. When asked what she hopes for, she said, with a note of sadness in her voice, “To stay in the US with my daughter. My daughter is here. I want to be with her. I should be allowed to have her.”

~the Guardian – June 6, 2015