Michelle Brané is director of the Migrant Rights and Justice Program at the Women’s Refugee Commission.
With all eyes on Singapore this week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions took the opportunity to ramp up the Trump administration’s assault on asylum-seekers at the U.S. border, with a special focus on women and children.
In his decision on “Matter of A-B-,” a case in which a Salvadoran woman fleeing 15 years of domestic abuse, including rape and death threats, had been granted U.S. asylum, Sessions overturned her approval essentially by changing the rules. Despite long-standing precedent to the contrary, he now claims that those seeking asylum because of domestic or gang violence “generally” no longer qualify for protection.
He argues that, because domestic violence and gang abuse are committed by private actors and not by the government directly, this kind of harm and abuse falls outside the scope of asylum cases.
Despite this rhetoric, recognizing that private actions can qualify for asylum does not provide blanket protection for anyone and everyone who has ever suffered harm — all applicants are required to meet rigorous standards and prove their case through U.S. law.
Sessions also states that the applicant in this case was targeted because she was the abuser’s wife and not necessarily because of being a member of a particular social group as required under law.
This point demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of domestic violence generally as well as a distortion of the context surrounding domestic and gang violence in Mexico and Central America. Persecution, particularly against women and children, is often hidden behind so-called private acts, such as domestic violence. And perpetrators are routinely protected by the government or state agencies such as the police.
This was the case for the woman in the “Matter of A-B-,” and it is the case for many other women in similar situations. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, more than two-thirds of women fleeing violence in Central America report that they have attempted to relocate internally but have been unsuccessful in finding safety.
In closing his argument, Sessions also makes vague and unsubstantiated assertions that asylum-seekers are not credible and are exploiting the system under false pretenses. He provides no basis for this assumption.
Evidence from the region documented by the U.N. and other agencies shows the opposite to be true. These are women and children seeking protection as a last resort and availing themselves of their right to seek asylum under international and U.S. law.
But the United States is increasingly sealing off any legal pathway that they have to survive. With Sessions’s ruling, these women are trapped between unspeakable violence at home and the U.S. border.
The Trump administration is taking us back to a time when women’s rights were not considered human rights and cementing a new set of values in our name: that we are a nation that no longer wants to uphold our long-standing commitments to protect refugees, that we no longer value our own rule of law, and that we are willing to turn our backs on our fellow human beings and look the other way when our help is most needed.
Make no mistake: This latest ruling is part of an insidious pattern of thuggish policies — ending Temporary Protected Status for Haitians and others, ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and separating children from their parents at the border — that hurt legitimate asylum-seekers. And it is a cynical nod to those who would be happy to see our borders closed completely — even if it means sending women and children back to almost certain death.