A petition on Change.org asks California Governor Gavin Newsom to grant Liyah Birru a pardon and stop her deportation back to Ethiopia.

Birru was released from prison after serving the full term of her six-year sentence, only to be immediately picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and taken directly to Yuba County Jail, where she will be held indefinitely as she awaits deportation.

That Birru is a legally documented immigrant here on a green card visa, coupled with the fact that she was defending herself against sustained sexual and physical abuse appears to have amounted to little in the eyes of the law.


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According to the petition, Liyah Birru met her husband, a white American man, while he was stationed with the U.S. military in Ethiopia, where Birru is from. The two maintained their relationship long distance for two years before Birru was granted a green card visa that allowed her to travel legally to the U.S. and join her husband in rural Northern California.

Soon after, things took a turn for the worse for Birru. Her husband allegedly became physically, verbally and sexually abusive. He took to calling Birru his “slave,” and would hurl racial epithets at her. According to the petition, “He began destroying her possessions, clothes and became physically abusive.” Birru’s husband would also tell her that if she ever tried to report him to the police, they would take the word of a white military man over that of an African immigrant and that he would have her deported, often holding his fully loaded gun while threatening her.

As is often the case in domestic violence situations, Birru’s husband would then apologize after his attacks, writing her notes promising not to do so again, only to break his promise and maintain the barrage of abuse against her. To protect herself, Birru took to removing the bullets from her husbands gun whenever he left the house.

“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,” the petition states.

Despite that it was Birru herself who called 911 and that the police found Birru battered, bruised and bleeding upon their arrival, law enforcement chose not to investigate her claims of abuse. To add irony to insult and injury, Birru was charged with domestic violence and assault.

The petition on Change.org also points out that “California law requires judges to consider if someone is a survivor of intimate partner violence.”

Birru was able to provide multiple of the notes her husband had written to her apologizing for his abuse. Still, as he’d promised her he would, Birru’s husband denied ever having abused and assaulted her. The judge believed him, stating that Birru was, in fact, not a survivor of domestic violence, despite the notes and her cuts and bruises.

All too often, poor, Black defendants find themselves unable to afford competent legal representation. Birru found herself in the same predicament. “Facing aggressive prosecution by the district attorney's office, Liyah accepted a plea deal with the promise of a lighter sentence,” the petition says.

Birru was sentenced to six years in prison and an order of deportation upon completion of her sentence. California Attorney General at the time, Kamala Harris opposed Birru’s subsequent appeal, maintaining that Birru’s status as a survivor of domestic abuse was “unclear.”

The details of Liyah Birru’s case are all too familiar. For instance, Marissa Alexander fired a single, nonfatal shot at her husband, who had been abusing her for years, only to find that the very laws that should have worked in her favor failed to protect her under a legal system that’s upheld by patriarchy and the denigration of Black life. Like so many other immigrants in the criminal justice system, Birru’s efforts to protect herself placed her squarely up against the tandem forces of the prison industrial complex and the immigration industrial complex.

For many of these immigrants, deportation after time served amounts to compounding of punishments, a levying of additional penalty after they have already paid their “debt to society” in the form of their prison sentence.

“Our laws treat immigrants who have been convicted of any crime very differently than others here, with an entirely different set of laws and a wholly different level of respect for rights. That distorts our notions of fairness and equal treatment. People certainly need to be held accountable for their actions, there’s no question about that. But having two sets of laws creates confusion, breeds unfairness, and isn’t in line with our values,” The Opportunity Agenda explains.

Unfortunately, what many of us know all too well is, this country has always had a separate set of laws for Black bodies, women and immigrants. Finding yourself at the nexus of any of these — and so many other marginalized identity markers — can mean a narrowing of the likelihood the law will turn in your favor.

Even recent advancements in criminal justice legislation fail to take the breath of the relationship between immigration and criminalization into account. According to writers from The Hill, “The irony of excluding immigrants from federal criminal justice reform is that migration-related cases make up more than half of all federal criminal prosecutions in the U.S.”

It’s clear we have a long way to go before the most vulnerable in our society can come to expect equality and justice from our governmental apparatus. However, there are organizations leading the fight. 

The petition for Birru’s pardon was started by Survived & Punished, a coalition which fights to “de-criminalize efforts to survive domestic and sexual violence, support and free criminalized survivors, and abolish gender violence, policing, prisons, and deportations.” You can follow them on Twitter @surviveandpunish to stay up to date with the latest news on Birru’s case. You can also join Survive & Punished and “take action in three steps” to fight the criminalization of domestic abuse survivors. The Opportunity Agenda has also created a list of Immigration Policy Solutions. Consider including these, or any others you deem appropriate, in letters to your state and local politicians. And you can follow the Black Alliance for Just Immigration on Twitter @BAJI to stay up to date with their work fighting for justice across Black immigrant communities.

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