Nan-Hui Jo is a proud and devoted Korean single mother, an avid photographer, and writer of children’s books. She loves to spend time with her daughter, take photos, and visit places alongside the ocean.
In 2009, Nan-Hui fled to Korea with her daughter to escape physical and emotional abuse by the father of the child, a combat veteran of the Iraq War with PTSD and anger issues. Using a common manipulation tactic to control a partner’s attempts to regain independence, her ex-partner reported Nan-Hui for child abduction. When Nan-Hui landed in Hawai’i with her daughter in July 2014, she was handcuffed, arrested, and immediately separated from her daughter in an operation that involved Yolo County Child Abduction Unit, Honolulu Police Department, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol). Nan-Hui has not been able to see her daughter since. She has also been placed under an immigration hold issued by CBP and enforced by ICE.
Nan-Hui’s former partner has publicly testified about his repeated violence against her, confirming at least one incident of physical assault. He has also, on two separate occasions, broken his hand while punching the wall by her head, and again when punching the car’s steering wheel when she was in the car with him. When Nan-Hui fled and attempted to rebuild her life, he “sent emails saying he was ‘considering spending thousands of dollars on a scary bounty hunter.” It must be noted that domestic violence thrives behind closed doors, away from the eyes and ears of the public, and these incidents are simply the ones that have been publicly brought to light.
Nan-Hui and her daughter have an incredibly close and caring relationship. She named her daughter Vitz Da, meaning “all light” in Korean. Like many survivors of domestic violence, Nan-Hui has also been concerned about violence against her child. According to a study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, 30 to 60% of perpetrators of intimate partner violence also abuse children in the household. Vitz Da, who lived in Korea for most of her life, has been abruptly disallowed any contact with her mother, and she is now under full custody of her White American father.
Domestic violence is not just physical violence; it often involves “coercive control, economic abuse, emotional abuse, and/or sexual violence. It is intended to gain or maintain power and control over a romantic or intimate partner to intimidate, frighten, terrorize, humiliate, blame, or injure.” Nan-Hui’s former partner’s patterns of violence fit well into the prototypes of abusive partners, using different forms of power to control, manipulate, and smear their partners. Conflict in relationships is normal. Punching walls and hitting steering wheels to intimidate your partner, escalating into extreme physical assault, and threatening to use a bounty hunter is a pattern of abuse and violent behavior.
Nan-Hui was tried on December 15, 2014, for “child abduction,” and the trial resulted in a hung jury. The Yolo County District Attorney Steve Mount, however, pursued a retrial. He refused to acknowledge the importance of domestic violence in Nan-Hui’s case and instead, used all resources available to prosecute her. It is deeply disturbing how aggressively the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office, Customs & Border Protection (CBP), and Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) is working to prosecute, criminalize and deport a single immigrant mother and survivor of domestic violence. Instead of being granted protection, survivors of domestic violence are often criminalized: the ACLU reports that of all incarcerated women in the United States, 85-90% have a history of domestic and sexual abuse. Survivors of domestic violence should not be punished for defending themselves, protecting their children, and rebuilding their lives from the violence of an abuser.
On March 3rd 2015, Nan-Hui was convicted of “child abduction” in her re-trial. On April 28, she was sentenced and released, only to be picked up by ICE agents right from the lobby of the county jail. She was incarcerated for the next three months in immigration detention at Yuba County Jail, where she and many other survivors like Rosa Martinez were held in poor conditions—women incarcerated at Yuba County Jail were held in an underground facility, where they receive little to no sunlight, and are only rarely and irregularly allowed outdoors. Nan-Hui was finally released on July 17, 2015.
Though we are overjoyed at Nan-Hui’s release, we know that this is but one step towards healing and full freedom for her and her daughter. We know that the struggle is far from over, and will continue to stand with Nan-Hui and all criminalized survivors of domestic violence.