Tijuana, Mexico – A US federal judge on Wednesday struck down the policies put in place by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions that made it harder for individuals fleeing domestic and gang violence to obtain asylum.
Last June, Sessions reversed precedent put forth by the Obama administration that allowed more individuals to cite domestic violence and fears of gang violence as part of their asylum application. Sessions argued that “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.”
On Wednesday, Judge Emmet Sullivan found the policies “arbitrary, capricious and in violation of the immigration law”. Sullivan also ordered federal officials to return plaintiffs who were deported and provide them with new credible fear determinations “consistent with the immigration law”.
The decision was the result of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of a dozen asylum seekers, including children, who had their asylum claims rejected after their “credible fear” screenings by asylum offices, an initial step in the asylum process where officers determine whether asylum-seekers have a well-founded fear of persecution.
Plaintiffs in the ACLU case were placed in removal proceedings without a hearing, according to the ACLU. That included an indigenous woman named Grace, who fled Guatemala after enduring 20 years of rape and beatings by a partner.
Judge Sullivan permanently blocked the government “from continuing to apply those practices and from removing plaintiffs who are currently in the United States without first providing credible fear determinations consistent with the immigration laws”.
In the Mexican border city of Tijuana, where thousands of Central American migrants and refugees have been living in different shelters after arriving last month as part of a collective exodus, migrants, including Xiomara Ramirez Hernandez, hope the decision will help their chances of getting asylum in the coming months.
Up until today Hernandez, 52, from San Salvador, El Salvador, didn’t think she had a good chance of obtaining asylum. She’s staying in Tijuana’s El Barretal shelter, along with more than 3,000 other migrants and refugees, and has been in the border city for a month now.
On October 18 of this year, she was ordered to leave San Salvador within 24 hours by a member of the Barrio 18 gang, a known rival of the MS 13 gang.
The threat came after Hernandez found out her 22-year-old daughter was found beaten and naked in an empty lot in the capital city. She has been attacked, raped and left for dead by a member of Barrio 18. Hernandez approached San Salvador’s attorney general’s office to report the crime. Within days the perpetrator showed up at her door and gave her an ultimatum: leave the city or stay and be killed.
She joined the migrant caravan to escape the threats. On Wednesday morning, Hernandez was thinking about leaving Tijuana and travelling to Ciudad Juarez to look for work. But Judge Sullivan’s decision might mean a change of plans.
“If I have the chance to present my asylum claims, I’m going to, absolutely,” she told Al Jazeera. “I won’t survive back in my country.”
Human rights advocates and lawyers slammed Sessions’s decision earlier this year as a violation of women’s human rights. Gender violence is a widespread issue in Central America and at least 50 percent of women experience domestic violence in the region. UN Women has said that domestic violence represents only the beginning of a number of violent acts that could culminate in femicide. An estimated 387 women were killed in Honduras in 2017 while every 18 hours a woman was killed in El Salvador that year.
The Justice Department said it was still deciding whether it would appeal the decision.