When Assia Serrano became one of the first imprisoned survivors to receive a reduced sentence under the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, she hoped it would allow her to finally reunite with her children.
For the last time, she called her 17-year-old daughter from Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, where Serrano had spent the past 17 years in prison — and where she was set to complete her sentence the next day.
“I’m being released tomorrow, but I’m not going home,” Serrano said.
For a moment, it had seemed like the mother and daughter might finally be reunited under a state law, implemented in 2019, that offers relief to imprisoned survivors of domestic violence whose abuse factored into their crime. But at the time of her arrest, Serrano was undocumented. So on the day of her release — May 4, 2021 — she was transferred directly to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Now, nearly a year later, Serrano, 38, is living in her native Panama, over 4,000 miles away from her children, who live with their father — Serrano’s former abuser — on Staten Island.
“You have to decide whether you’d rather be close to your family and incarcerated, or free and miles and miles away,” said Serrano, who immigrated to New York City when she was 15 years old.
But because New York state collaborates with ICE on the cases of incarcerated immigrants, the reduced sentence led to her premature deportation — thought to be the first under the new law — and an even more painful family separation than the one she endured in prison. For other immigrant survivors with applications in progress, it’s a troubling sign of things to come.
Under the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, a convicted person can apply for more lenient sentencing if they can prove that abuse played a significant role in their crime. The bill was enacted after years of lobbying from advocates, who note that a staggering nine out of ten women in New York prisons are survivors of abuse.
“It’s important to understand how trauma and abuse impacts people in the long-term,” said Kate Skolnick, the director of the Survivors Advocacy Practice at the Center for Appellate Litigation, as well as the co-chair of the DVJSA Statewide Defender Task Force, which has coordinated the law’s implementation. Under the DVSJA, judges now have the discretion to grant reduced or alternative sentences to survivors.
The law didn’t exist when Serrano was arrested in 2003. When Serrano was just 19, her abusive ex-partner coerced her into robbing 85-year-old Petra Cuchola, who died from a blood clot after Serrano bound the victim’s hands on her stomach. Serrano later pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 18 years to life in prison.
She was three months pregnant at the time of her arrest. Serrano remembers that when she delivered six months later, she went “into the hospital with this big old belly and came back with nothing in my arms.”
For years, she battled with her ex-partner over parental rights, eventually taking him to family court, winning unlimited phone contact, visitations, and other decision-making powers.
She also made a life for herself in prison. In 2017, she became one of four women incarcerated in the state to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. She also worked as a translator in the prison’s childcare center. Under the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, whose guidelines take into account applicants’ character, Serrano’s spotless record made her an ideal candidate for resentencing.
A lawyer from the Survivors Advocacy Practice, John Vang, wrote an affidavit certifying that the abuse Serrano experienced played a significant role in her crime. Letters of support came pouring in from people Serrano knew in prison. Even the original prosecutor in her case supported her application, and after negotiations, the district attorney’s office agreed that it should move forward.
Last April, Serrano became one of the first people to successfully apply for a reduced sentence under the new law. A judge resentenced Serrano to time served on her highest charge, and had she been a United States citizen, she would have been free to reunite with her children.
What she didn’t realize at the time was that her deportation was already in motion.
Serrano had undergone deportation proceedings in 2007, while incarcerated. Though deportation hearings often occur while incarcerated immigrants are imprisoned, their deportations are not scheduled until after the sentence is completed. During her hearing, Serrano’s lawyer assured her there would be another hearing of her case once she had finished serving time.
When Serrano was released under the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, she was transferred directly into ICE custody.
Serrano spent 14 days in isolation at Rensselaer County Jail, and for a week, it did not allow her access to a shower. Last September, advocacy groups filed a civil rights complaint alleging physical and medical neglect at the facility, which has a contract with ICE to hold women facing deportation.
Contrary to the promise Serrano’s lawyer had made years ago, she was not given a second deportation hearing.
Also Read: Domestic Violence Resource List
At 2:30 a.m. one night, staff woke Serrano up, told her to get dressed, and boarded her on a plane. She had no idea she was being deported that day. Serrano arrived at Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport with only the clothing on her back. When her sister rushed to greet her at the airport, Serrano didn’t recognize her. The last time they saw each other was before Serrano left for the United States at 16. At the time, her sister was only 10 years old.
Serrano now lives in her sister’s home in Panama. Her ex-partner is currently refusing to allow their children to apply for a passport so they can visit her.
“I have no idea when I’ll be able to hold my kids again,” said Serrano. “I did a certain amount of time for my crime, and I’m very remorseful and regretful. But, I feel for my children because they’re continuing to pay for what I did.”
“I’m happy that she’s out of prison, but it’s frustrating,” said Vang, the lawyer who wrote the affidavit for Serrano. “It’s like she’s being punished twice.”
Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act Leads to Deportation
Immigrant women experience domestic violence at rates nearly three times the national average, according to the National Organization for Women, with undocumented immigrants particularly vulnerable to abuse related to their immigration status.
Some undocumented immigrants who are victims of domestic violence in the United States are eligible for the U visa program, which provides temporary work authorization and a pathway to citizenship. But immigrants with serious criminal records like Serrano — or other potential beneficiaries of the DVSJA — are generally ineligible for relief.
Through volunteer awyers at Survived & Punished, an organization advocating for imprisoned survivors of domestic violence, Serrano is appealing the immigration court’s decision to deport her, arguing that the lawyer who originally represented her had failed to properly inform her during her initial deportation hearing. They are also lobbying Governor Kathy Hochul to pardon her conviction.
“Unless the governor is ready to pardon anyone released under the DVSJA, then every immigrant released will just be triggering the next phase of their criminal punishment process,” said Nathan Yaffe, one of Serrano’s immigration lawyers at Survived & Punished. “This time, at the hands of ICE.”
The Survivors Advocacy Project is assisting several other applicants who are non-citizens and, like Serrano, are at risk of deportation if they are granted a reduced sentence. Staff have been counseling them that a successful application might mean an earlier deportation, and while the center has attempted to find remedies, a solution is far from certain.
“We often have to come up with these creative workarounds that sometimes work and sometimes don’t,” said Kate Skolnick, the project’s director.
Within prison walls, some survivors have begun to see what happened to Serrano as a cautionary tale. Many of Serrano’s friends are also immigrant survivors, who might be eligible for relief, but would prefer to postpone their release rather than take the risk by applying.
“They’re afraid that if they get the right outcome, they’ll get deported,” said Serrano.
For now, she and her children Facetime every night. Recently, Serrano’s daughter shared her college application essay — which she wrote about her mother.
“They’ve waited for me all of their lives,” said Serrano. “Had I known that it was going to happen this way, I wouldn’t have even filed.”