‘I Was in Constant Fear’: Immigrant Faces Deportation After Prison for Domestic Dispute
Aylaliya Birru has served over four years in a California prison for assaulting her husband, who she said was physically abusive. A pardon from Governor Gavin Newsom is her last hope to stay in the U.S.
Aylaliya Birru’s life in Roseville, California, 20 miles northeast of Sacramento, was nothing like she had dreamed when she left friends and family in her native Ethiopia to build a home with her husband. Birru had married Silas D’Aloisio, a former Marine, in 2012, when he was working at the American embassy in Addis Ababa.
Three weeks after Birru arrived in the U.S. on a green card on April 1, 2014, she and D’Aloisio became verbally abusive toward each other. That summer, she said D’Aloisio became physically abusive. That October, D’Aloisio purchased a handgun; he kept it in their bedroom closet, taking it out and looking at it when fights got especially bad, Birru claimed.
“He had become a very violent person physically, and I was in constant fear of what he could possibly do to me next,” she later wrote about her experience. “He even would tell me he sometimes worried he might end up hurting me really bad.”
On Dec. 13, 2014, Birru confronted D’Aloisio at their home; she suspected he was cheating on her. The vicious argument that ensued continued the next morning, when D’Aloisio allegedly shoved Birru against a wall, pulled her by her hair and hit her in the face and ribs with his fists. She said he called her a “psycho whore.” When the beating stopped, Birru retrieved her husband’s .45-caliber handgun and inserted what she thought was an empty magazine. As she pointed the weapon at her husband, Birru pressed him for answers about his infidelity. She thought he needed to hear the click of an unloaded gun to convince him it was no joke. When D’Aloisio turned away from Birru, she pulled the trigger, and a bullet struck him in the back. D’Aloisio fled their home, and neighbors called the Roseville Police Department. Birru also dialed 911, and the police arrested and booked her into the Placer County Jail on charges of felony assault with a firearm and corporal injury to a spouse.
D’Aloisio survived the shooting but suffered a collapsed lung and fractured ribs. He admitted to verbally abusing Birru but denied ever physically assaulting her. D’Aloisio could not be reached for comment for this article.
Birru, like many women, was punished for defending herself from an abuser. She was sentenced to six years in Folsom State Prison for the felony assault charge.
A majority of incarcerated women have experienced physical or sexual violence prior to their imprisonment. As an immigrant, Birru also faces deportation as a result of her felony conviction. And because Birru is Black, she is more than three times as likely to be deported on criminal grounds than other immigrants. For Birru, her last resort is an act of clemency by Governor Gavin Newsom, whose office has not yet acted in her case.
Offender or survivor
According to a police report of the Dec. 14 incident, Roseville officers observed swelling, bruises and blood on Birru’s face consistent with domestic battery. Still, Placer County Deputy District Attorney Shannon Quigley filed charges against her.
On June 18, 2015, Birru pleaded no contest to the felony assault charge in California Superior Court, as part of a deal to dismiss the separate spousal abuse charge. She also asked to receive a sentence of probation. Birru’s defense attorney, Patricia Campi, hired a marriage and family therapist to conduct an intimate partner battering assessment, which evaluated Birru’s written statements about the trauma and abuse that preceded her arrest. The therapist, Linda Barnard, concluded Birru was a “victim of intimate partner battering, including physical, verbal, and psychological abuse, by her husband.” She wrote that “when battered women do use force they have to use enough force to stop an attack, which, in most cases, means using more severe violence than their attacker.”
Barnard’s report was presented in court on Sept. 18, 2015, when she testified about her findings. Photos purportedly showing Birru’s injuries from the 2014 incident and an audio recording proving that she and D’Aloisio exchanged vulgar, verbal insults were introduced at sentencing. But Judge Eugene Gini did not agree that Birru’s actions were necessary to prevent a domestic assault and sentenced her to prison on Sept. 25, 2015.
“It doesn’t seem like domestic violence victims have many rights,” Birru, 35, told The Appeal from Yuba County Jail in Marysville, California, where ICE rents space to detain immigrants. “The system is supposed to be there to protect us but instead criminalizes us with the stigma of being a felon—an aggravated felon, even.”
Placer County, with a population of roughly 393,000 people, is 85 percent white and 2 percent Black. As a Black woman and an immigrant, Birru believed she was seen as less credible than her husband, who is a white United States citizen who served in the Marine Corps. “The justice system in Placer County is very unfair, especially to domestic violence survivors,” Birru added. “All of the evidence showing that I was a survivor of domestic violence was ignored. They believed a white man who was a citizen over me at every step.”
The system is supposed to be there to protect us but instead criminalizes us.Aylaliya Birru, convicted of felony assault with a firearm
The Placer County district attorney’s office told The Appeal its prosecution of Birru was based on evidence that the shooting was an act of jealousy. “The only evidence that the defendant was a victim of domestic violence was that from the defendant,” Jeffrey Wilson, the chief deputy district attorney, wrote in an email. “If the defendant had credible evidence that would have justified her conduct, I am sure her counsel would have pursued a trial by jury and would not have allowed her client to plead guilty.”
In 2016, Birru appealed her sentence on the grounds that Gini did not follow a state law that requires courts to consider at sentencing if a defendant is an abuse survivor. The office of then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris opposed Birru’s appeal, arguing in court that the photos and audio recording provided “little evidence” of Birru’s abuse claim, and that Barnard “based her opinion on a substantial amount of hearsay evidence that was not corroborated.” The court denied Birru’s appeal in 2017.
Birru could not qualify for federal protection from deportation for abuse survivors, known as a U visa, in part because the local criminal legal system did not label her as the victim, said Anoop Prasad, a staff attorney at the San Francisco-based Asian Law Caucus who also represents Birru. “The problem with the U visa is you need to get the DA, judge, or police to certify that you are a victim of domestic violence, and it seems that they all have taken the exact opposite position,” Prasad told The Appeal.
In April, a federal immigration judge ordered Birru removed from the U.S. Although she has appealed the decision, Birru won’t avoid deportation without a pardon from the governor.
Hope for a second chance
At the Yuba County Jail, Birru “remains hopeful,” Prasad said. But her detention is taking a toll. Birru is housed in a pod with no windows, at a facility without a yard or outdoor space available to detainees. “She hasn’t been outdoors since November,” he said.
“I’d never been in a prison before and only had the image of prisoners that you get from movies,” Birru told The Appeal. “The women that I’ve encountered throughout this ordeal in jail, in prison, and immigration [detention] who have gone through the same trauma, the same criminalization, and the same tragedy have been a blessing. They made me believe that this wouldn’t be the end of my story.”
Grassroots efforts urging governors to use clemency to pardon women incarcerated for crimes related to their experience with physical and sexual violence have garnered increased attention in recent months. In January, the governor of Tennessee commuted Cyntoia Brown’s life sentence, and the Ohio governor granted clemency to Thomia Hunter; these two Black women each spent 15 years in prison for killing their abusers.
In the summer of 2018, Catina Curley, a Black woman convicted in 2007 of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for killing her abusive husband, was granted a retrial after the Louisiana Supreme Court found that her defense attorney failed to argue her status as a battered woman could have justified her use of self-defense. In March, New Orleans Criminal District Judge Arthur Hunter acquitted Curley in the case. “How many more children have to be traumatized, how many more people have to go to prison, how many more people have to die before we get more proactive than reactive with domestic violence?” Hunter wrote in his opinion.
Liyah should have never been criminalized for defending herself against her abusive husband.Stacy Suh, a founder of Survived and Punished
In Birru’s case, her status as a noncitizen permanent resident was revoked with her felony conviction. She has petitioned Governor Newsom for a pardon to avoid deportation, Prasad said, even though an act of clemency may not halt the process. Newsom, who took office in 2019, announced seven executive clemency grants on May 13 that included pardons for two Cambodian refugees who were facing removal from the country and separation from their families.
“While our office does not typically comment on individual applications, I can tell you that each case is closely reviewed and evaluated on its own merits,” Brian Ferguson, a spokesperson for Newsom, said in an email, when asked about Birru’s petition.
Prasad and other advocates said they hoped Newsom would follow the lead of his predecessor, Jerry Brown, who issued a “significant number of clemency grants” to incarcerated survivors such as sex trafficking victim Tammy Garvin, who was serving life in prison without the possibility of parole related to her role in a murder committed by her abuser. National advocacy groups like Survived and Punished, which started a #FreeLiyah petition online for Birru in February, have been putting pressure on Newsom to grant clemency.
“Liyah should have never been criminalized for defending herself against her abusive husband,” Stacy Suh, a founder of Survived and Punished, said in a phone interview. “California, through Governor Newsom’s leadership, can show nationally how states can really commit to protecting immigrants and survivors during this time of #MeToo, and in a very openly hostile anti-immigrant, racist climate.”
‘My eyes are opened’
Birru has long-expressed remorse for the actions she said she took to defend herself against her husband. “It was never my intention to cause harm to anyone, especially my husband. If I could take back that day, I would do things different,” Birru said in a handwritten note to Gini, her sentencing judge. Carol Brown, a volunteer chaplain who facilitated a weekly Bible study class that Birru attended while at the Placer County Jail in 2015, vouched for Birru’s growth in a letter to Gini. “In my 12 years serving inmates, I have a very tender heart for them,” she wrote, “but this is the first time that I have felt compelled to attempt to intervene on one’s behalf.”
While she has been incarcerated, Birru has obtained a GED and an associate’s degree in social sciences, records show. She also told The Appeal she’s on a mission to inspire other domestic violence survivors. “I wish I could disperse the courage I have now to all other survivors trapped in abusive relationships,” she said. “I’d give a drop of it to each one.”
If given the opportunity, Birru said she would tell Governor Newsom that she has achieved significant personal growth despite suffering abuse.
“I’d want him to know who I am and that the worst moment of my life isn’t who I am,” she said. “My eyes are opened to what so many domestic violence survivors are going through. I want to continue to work towards a society where domestic violence is unthinkable and tragedies like mine don’t happen.”