United States Attorney-General Jeff Sessions has ruled domestic and gang violence can no longer be considered by judges as grounds for asylum, in a ruling that will affect large numbers of immigrants.
- Ruling overturns a 2016 decision that gave asylum status to a woman from El Salvador
- US asylum claims backlog now stands at hundreds of thousands of cases
- Former immigration judges sign letter criticising “affront” on rule of law
“Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-government actors will not qualify for asylum,” Mr Sessions wrote in a 31-page decision that takes effect immediately.
The move overruled a Board of Immigration Appeals decision in 2016 that gave asylum status to a woman from El Salvador who fled her husband.
Mr Sessions reopened the case for his review in March as the administration stepped up criticism of asylum practices.
He took aim at one of five categories to qualify for asylum — persecution for membership in a social group — calling it “inherently ambiguous”.
Domestic violence is a “particularly difficult crime to prevent and prosecute, even in the United States”, Mr Sessions wrote, adding that its prevalence in El Salvador does not mean that its government was unwilling or unable to protect victims any less so than the United States.
Mr Sessions said the woman obtained restraining orders against her husband and had him arrested at least once.
“No country provides its citizens with complete security from private criminal activity, and perfect protection is not required,” he wrote.
People seeking political asylum at the US border in Tijuana, Mexico in June. (AP: Elliot Spaga, file)
Sending women back to ‘dark ages’
An administration official said last month that the backlog of asylum cases topped 300,000, nearly half the total backlog.
Despite President Donald Trump’s tough talk on immigration, border arrests topped 50,000 for a third straight month in May and lines of asylum seekers have grown at US crossings with Mexico.
Fifteen former immigration judges signed a letter calling Mr Sessions’ decision “an affront to the rule of law”.
“For reasons understood only by himself, the Attorney-General today erased an important legal development that was universally agreed to be correct,” they wrote.
The government does not say how many asylum claims are for domestic or gang violence, but asylum seeker advocates said there could be tens of thousands of domestic violence cases in the current immigration court backlog.
Karen Musalo, co-counsel for the Salvadoran woman and a professor at University of California Hastings College of Law, said the decision could undermine claims of women suffering violence throughout the world, including sex trafficking.
“This is not just about domestic violence, or El Salvador, or gangs,” she said.
“This is the Attorney-General trying to yank us back to the dark ages of rights for women.”
Mr Sessions sent the case back to an immigration judge, whose ruling can be appealed to the Justice Department’s Board of Immigration Appeals and then to a federal appeals court, Ms Musalo said.