In a sweeping decision that reverses years of US immigration policy, Attorney General Jeff Sessions told immigration judges on Monday to stop granting asylum to many victims of domestic abuse and gang violence.
Overruling an immigration appeals court decision that had granted asylum to a woman who was abused by her husband, Sessions said victims of private crimes such as domestic abuse are not eligible for asylum.
"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 opinion. "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."
Because Sessions is the head of the Department of Justice and immigration courts fall under the agency, he is able to overrule previous court decisions and dictate the policies that immigration judges must follow.
It's unclear how many people would be affected by this decision but advocates put it in the thousands and denounced the decision. Still, the decision does not stop victims of domestic violence from applying for asylum in the US.
“The Trump administration just handed a death sentence to thousands of women and families fleeing domestic and gang violence by barring them from accessing asylum in the US," said Jess Morales Rocketto, political director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, an advocacy group. "Nothing this administration does is about our nation’s security; it’s about advancing Trump’s anti-women and anti-immigrant agendas. Trump and Sessions will not rest until women are stripped of our rights, and there are no immigrants left.”
Beth Werlin, executive director of the American Immigration Council, said the decision is another attempt to close the doors on immigrants.
"The attorney general’s decision — if permitted to stand — will no doubt result in sending countless mothers and children back to their abusers and criminal gangs," Werlin said. "Turning our backs on victims of violence and deporting them to grave danger should not be the legacy sought by any administration.”
Sessions' ruling came in the case of a woman from El Salvador, identified only as AB, who requested asylum in the US after suffering domestic abuse at the hands of her husband. The Board of Immigration Appeals in 2016 said AB was part of a particular social group, a requirement of US asylum law, and qualified for asylum because she was part of a class of "Salvadoran women who are unable to leave their domestic relationships where they have children in common” with their partners.
But Sessions ruled that the appeals board was incorrect in determining that AB was part of specific social group. "An alien may suffer threats and violence in a foreign country for any number of reasons relating to her social, economic, family, or other personal circumstances," Sessions said. "Yet the asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune. It applies when persecution arises on account of membership in a protected group and the victim may not find protection except by taking refuge in another country."