Trump administration moves to block victims of gang violence, domestic abuse from claiming asylum

Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions has ordered immigration judges to stop granting asylum to most victims of domestic abuse and gang violence, a move that would block tens of thousands of people, especially women, from seeking refuge in America.


The decision, which immigration advocates are sure to aggressively fight, came as Sessions seeks to use the authority of his office to sharply change U.S. immigration law to make it less friendly to asylum seekers.

The attorney general has the power to issue decisions that serve as binding precedents for immigration judges. In this instance, he used a case involving a victim of domestic violence from El Salvador to rule that survivors of such “private” crimes are not eligible for asylum under U.S. law.

“Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum,” Sessions wrote in his ruling. “The mere fact that a country may have problems effectively policing certain crimes — such as domestic violence or gang violence — or that certain populations are more likely to be victims of crime, cannot itself establish an asylum claim.”

In a speech earlier in the day to a training session for immigration officials, Sessions telegraphed his position, saying that “asylum was never meant to alleviate all problems — even all serious problems — that people face every day all over the world.”

His anticipated “ruling restores sound principles of asylum and longstanding principles of immigration law,” he said.

Sessions emphasized at the conference that immigration judges will be required to follow his interpretation of the law. Under immigration law, the attorney general’s rulings are binding on immigration judges unless overturned by a federal appellate court.

The policy Sessions took aim at lies at the heart of an area of immigration law that has been hotly contested over the past two decades. During that time, advocates for victims of domestic violence have succeeded in winning cases that liberalized the law to protect victims of abuse or extortion whose home governments couldn’t or wouldn’t protect them. Many of the immigrants granted asylum as a result were fleeing Central American nations that offer little protection to victims of domestic abuse and gangs.

The government does not appear to keep statistics on exactly how many asylum claims fall into the categories Sessions is now excluding, but advocates estimate that domestic violence victims seeking asylum number in the tens of thousands each year. A large share of those requests have been successful, as a result of several administrative rulings and court cases during the Obama administration.

“There are many, many Central American women and women from other parts of the world who have been able to obtain protection,” said Denise Gilman, director of the immigration clinic at the University of Texas Law School in Austin. “Many women sitting right now in detention under these claims might lose their right to obtain protection and be deported to dangerous situations.”

Sessions’ action on Monday overturned earlier court decisions and a 2014 ruling by the Board of Immigration Appeals, which held that people trapped in domestic violence in Central American could qualify for asylum in the U.S.

The attorney general’s decision forms a key part of a broader Trump administration effort to restrict immigration and discourage asylum seekers from coming to the U.S. The administration has also stripped various legal rights from detainees, and has been separating families detained by immigration agents.

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees had urged Sessions against changing the asylum rules. It warned that such action would violate international agreements the U.S. has entered into concerned refugees and would subject victims to being returned to situations where their lives are in danger. The American Bar Assn. warned that ending the asylum eligibility for victims of domestic violence “would further victimize those most in need of protection.”

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