United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions ruled Monday that most victims of domestic or gang violence alone generally were not eligible for asylum under federal law, a move that reverses long-standing U.S. policy and, immigration attorneys and advocacy groups say, paves the way for victims of violence to stay trapped in their home countries.
Sessions overruled the Board of Immigration Appeals in the Matter of A-R-C-G-, which dealt with married Guatemalan women who were trapped in abusive relationships. Sessions wrote that the Board's 2014 decision “was wrongly decided and should not have been issued as a precedential decision.”
One of the respondents in that case was beaten and raped by her husband but was told the police could do nothing to help her, according to the Catholic Legal Immigration Network.
In Monday’s decision, Sessions wrote that, while circumstances in certain countries might be less than ideal, such conditions don’t automatically apply to current asylum laws.
“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,” he wrote.
In the opinion, Sessions said that the Board of Immigration cited the 2014 ruling to overturn a 2015 asylum denial concerning a Salvadoran woman also fleeing violence, referred to in court documents as A-B. The decision was also vacated after Session said the board did "little more than cite" the previous case in its reversal.
“I can’t even tell you how many people moving forward this is going to effect,” said Austin-based immigration attorney Jacqueline Watson. “Not to mention this is totally ripping individual [judge’s] fact finding away from them, which is insane.”
Asylum seekers must prove they face persecution in their home country due to their “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” In the 2014 case, the Board of Immigration Appeals said those petitioners belonged to the social group comprised of “married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship.”
Beth Werlin, the executive director of the American Immigration Council, blasted the decision for its effects on people also fleeing gang violence.
“Through our work serving detained mothers and children in Dilley, Texas, we see firsthand the trauma of domestic and gang violence and the desperate need for protection,” she said. “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.”
Jeanne Atkinson, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, said that asylum law has long viewed it as a form of persecution when abuse comes from entities that a national government is unable or unwilling to control.
“To declare that asylum can no longer be granted to victims of gang violence or spouse abuse not only flies in the face of the American tradition of protecting the most vulnerable immigrants, it sets a dangerous precedent for other victims of violence, including those who are targeted for their religious beliefs,” Atkinson said.