Attorney General Jeff Sessions signaled Monday that victims of domestic abuse and gang violence generally will not qualify for asylum under federal law, a decision that advocates say will endanger tens of thousands of foreign nationals seeking safety in the United States.
Sessions’s ruling vacated a 2016 decision by the Justice Department’s Board of Immigration Appeals that said an abused woman from El Salvador was eligible for asylum. The appeals board is typically the highest government authority on immigration law, but the attorney general has the power to assign cases to himself and set precedents.
Such cases can ultimately end up with the federal appeals courts.
Sessions told immigration judges, whose courts are part of the Justice Department, that his decision “restores sound principles of asylum and long-standing principles of immigration law.” He said it will help reduce the growing backlog of 700,000 court cases, more than triple the number in 2009.
“We have not acted hastily, but carefully,” Sessions said in the statement to the judges. “In my judgment, this is a correct interpretation of the law.”
To qualify for asylum, foreign nationals must establish that they have a fear of persecution in their homeland based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or “membership in a particular social group,” a catchall category that has in the past included victims of domestic violence and other abuse.
But in the ruling, Sessions said such cases would be less common going forward.
“Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum,” he wrote. “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.”
Critics called Monday’s ruling the latest effort by the Trump administration to erode asylum protections for hundreds of thousands of immigrants, particularly those fleeing rampant gang violence and high homicide rates in Central America.
They said Sessions’s decision overturns decades of legal efforts to protect abused women.
“Women and children will die as a result of these policies,” Michelle Brané, director of the Women’s Refugee Commission’s migrant rights and justice program, said in a statement.
The American Immigration Council, a nonprofit immigrant advocacy group, said Sessions is “taking away a vital lifeline” for victims of severe domestic and gang violence.
“Today’s decision by the attorney general is yet another attempt to close our doors,” said Beth Werlin, executive director of the American Immigration Council. “Turning our backs on victims of violence and deporting them to grave danger should not be the legacy sought by any administration.”
The Trump administration has accused migrants of exploiting the asylum system to gain entry to the United States, aware that the immigration courts are so backlogged that their cases could take years to complete.
To discourage people from coming to the United States, federal officials recently adopted a “zero tolerance” policy for illegal border crossings, criminally prosecuting people even if they are seeking asylum or have crossed the border with their children. Such criminal prosecutions mean separating parents from their children.
Monday’s ruling by Sessions centers on an asylum case filed by a Salvadoran woman who entered the United States illegally in 2014. She said she was escaping from an ex-husband who had physically and emotionally abused her for years, even after she moved elsewhere in El Salvador. The woman said that her ex-husband had raped her and that his brother, a police officer, had also threatened her.
A Charlotte-based immigration judge denied the woman asylum. She appealed and, in 2016, the board ruled in her favor, saying it was clear that the Salvadoran government was unable to protect her even after she moved to another part of the country. The board based its ruling partly on a 2014 precedent known as the “Matter of A-R-C-G,” which Sessions also vacated Monday, saying it was “wrongly decided.”
Blaine Bookey, one of the woman’s lawyers, said her case will now return to the immigration judge who initially denied her asylum, though she can appeal if the judge again rules against her.
The attorney general’s ruling said it is still possible that crime victims could win asylum in the United States, but they would have to pass a tougher test in the courts, including showing that their home government is unable or unwilling to protect them, and that they cannot safely relocate to another part of their country.
The case is one of several Sessions has assigned to himself since becoming attorney general. In March, he ended a requirement that asylum seekers get a full hearing before an immigration judge, making it easier for judges to close cases they deem frivolous or unlikely to succeed.
Hours before he issued Monday’s decision, Sessions told immigration judges that it will be their “duty to carry out this ruling.”
He has also ordered them to complete 700 cases a year, imposing a quota system for the first time.