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Liyah Birru, a Black immigrant from Ethiopia, was prosecuted and incarcerated for defending herself against her abusive husband who had subjected her to beatings, sexual assault, verbal abuse, threats, and racial slurs. After serving her sentence, she now faces the added punishment of deportation. Liyah’s story is all too familiar. Black women, particularly immigrants, are incarcerated and deported at over twice the rate of white women. Upwards of 90% of incarcerated women are survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault.
Liyah doesn’t have to be deported and further punished for surviving abuse. Governor Newsom can stand with survivors, grant a pardon and stop Liyah’s deportation!
Liyah met her husband in Ethiopia where he was stationed with the military. After two years in a long distance relationship, Liyah moved to rural Northern California as a green card holder to join her husband.
Life became a nightmare for Liyah soon after she moved in with her husband. Liyah’s husband, a white man, began referring to her as a slave and using racial slurs towards her. The abuse soon escalated - he began destroying her possessions, clothes and became physically abusive. He’d often apologize and promise to change but would soon become violent again.
Isolated in rural California, without a car, and with no friends or family for hundreds of miles, Liyah felt trapped. As the abuse rapidly escalated, she began to fear for her life. Her husband owned a handgun that he kept loaded and would often hold during arguments. Liyah began secretly unloading the handgun when he was not home. When he became violent, Liyah threatened to call the police. Her husband was unphased, promising that police would believe him, a white man, not her, a Black woman, and that he’d have her arrested and deported. Liyah wanted to leave and go to a domestic violence shelter but had no way to get there. Her husband refused to let her leave.
The abuse continued to escalate until one day when he slammed her head into a wall, pulled her hair, and hit her in the ribs. Her husband was twice her size. Terrified, Liyah went into the bedroom, unloaded his handgun, and took it. She hoped the sight of her with the gun would cause him to become less aggressive but he continued. Scared that she had no way out, Liyah fired the unloaded gun hoping it would scare him. Unknown to her, one bullet had been left in the chamber of the gun and hit her husband. Liyah called 911. Her husband successfully underwent surgery to remove the bullet.
When police arrived, they found Liyah bruised and bleeding. Still, they did not investigate the violence against her and charged her with assault and domestic violence. Facing aggressive prosecution by the district attorney's office, Liyah accepted a plea deal with the promise of a lighter sentence.
California law requires judges to consider if someone is a survivor of intimate partner violence. Liyah’s husband testified that he had never been abusive despite the bruises and cuts on Liyah when police arrived and numerous notes apologizing for past abuse. The judge refused to believe Liyah, found that she was not a survivor, and gave her a six-year sentence which would also carry the double punishment of deportation after she completed her sentence.
As California Attorney General, Kamala Harris opposed Liyah’s appeal arguing that the record was unclear as to whether she was really a survivor. Liyah’s appeal was dismissed. After serving her six-year sentence, Liyah was arrested by ICE as she left prison. She was taken to the Yuba County Jail which rents space to ICE to be held pending deportation.
Liyah’s story is not the exception:
Multiple studies indicate that between 71% and 95% of incarcerated women have experienced physical violence from an intimate partner.
In 2017, there were 219,000 women in US prisons and jails, most of them poor and of color. In 2014, according to the Sentencing Project, black non-Hispanic females had an imprisonment rate over twice that of white non-Hispanic females.
Black immigrants face deportation for criminal convictions at a rate 3x higher than other immigrants.
Liyah has suffered enough abuse: first from her violent husband, then from the courts, then from prison, and now, immigration detention. Governor Gavin Newsom can help stop the further abuse of deportation by granting her a pardon.
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