United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions signaled on 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 safe harbor in the United States.
Sessions' ruling overturned 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 be appealed to the circuit courts, which are part of the judicial branch of government.
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 catch-all 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' decision overturns decades of legal efforts to protect abused women. Michelle Brané, director of the Women's Refugee Commission's Migrant Rights and Justice program, said in a statement: Women and children will die as a result of these policies.
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.