Immigrant and women’s rights advocates have slammed a ruling by US Attorney General Jeff Sessions that may make it nearly impossible for domestic abuse and gang violence survivors to seek asylum in the US.
“Sessions’ decision is a virtual death sentence for individuals fleeing domestic violence and pervasive gang violence,” the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said on Twitter.
“It’s not driven by legal merits but by the administration’s determination to reduce immigration by any means, no matter the human consequences,” it added.
Sessions had personally intervened in a closely watched immigration case involving a Salvadoran woman who sought asylum after being raped and threatened by her former spouse.
The woman won an appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals to overturn a lower immigration court’s decision to deny her asylum petition, but in his ruling on Monday, the attorney general said that survivors of “private” crimes would generally not be granted asylum.
“Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum,” Sessions said in his decision.
“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 added.
Sessions said that an asylum applicant “must demonstrate members in a group, which is composed of members who share a common immutable characteristic, is defined with particularity, and is socially distinct within the society in question”.
We had to cross the border to be safe so that my mom, my siblings and I could be free from pain and suffering. I know exactly what it takes to migrate as a domestic violence survivor and it hurts so much to see this happening.
The ruling effectively reverses precedent put in place during the administration of US President Barack Obama that allowed more women to cite domestic violence and fears of gang violence as part of their asylum application.
Sessions told a group of immigration judges, who are part of the Department of Justice, on Monday that “the asylum system is being abused to the detriment of the rule of law, sound public policy and public safety”.
He added that in his “judgement, this is a correct interpretation of the law”.
Monday’s decision was swiftly condemned by human rights groups and immigrants, who called it “cruel and heartless”, saying it could endanger the lives of tens of thousands of women and children.
“By shutting down most claims of persecution at the hands of criminal gangs and/or intimate partners, Sessions is demonstrating his contempt for immigrants and women,” the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) said in a statement on Monday.
“He is also providing further evidence of the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant agenda, which separates families, creates fear in communities, and punishes vulnerable people who are fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries,” he added.
Erika Andiola, a DACA recipient from Mexico and the former press secretary of Bernie Sanders, shared on Twitter that her mother was a victim of domestic violence.
“We had to cross the border to be safe so that my mom, my siblings and I could be free from pain and suffering,” she said. “I know exactly what it takes to migrate as a domestic violence survivor and it hurts so much to see this happening.”
My mother was a victim of domestic violence. We had to cross the border to be safe so that my mom, my siblings and I could be free from pain and suffering. I know exactly what it takes to migrate as a domestic violence survivor and it hurts so much to see this happening. #MeToo https://t.co/jD1a5Fh9oI
— Erika Andiola (@ErikaAndiola) June 11, 2018
Many called the ruling the “horrific” continuation of the Trump administration’s attack on women’s rights and its crackdown on immigrants.
“This administration has rarely missed an opportunity to punish and hurt the most vulnerable people in our society, but even by their own shamefully low standards this is a particularly horrific move,” Lizet Ocampo, the political director for the People for the American Way, a progressive non-profit organisation, said in a statement.
Shortly after taking office, the US president signed an executive order, expanding the powers of the Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency to focus on detaining most undocumented immigrants, including those with no criminal record.
Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report detailing the harsh conditions women and children have faced in US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody along the US-Mexico border.
HRW documented more than 100 cases of women and children being held in frigid conditions beyond the three-day period recommended by CBP.
There have also been allegations of sexual harassment against guards at detention centres.
Anger has continued to mount over the administration’s recently introduced policy that separates children from migrant and refugee parents who are caught crossing the US-Mexico border.
“If you cross the border unlawfully … then we will prosecute you,” Sessions said last month. “If you’re smuggling a child, then we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law,” he added.
Trump has repeatedly rallied against immigrants since the 2016 presidential election, running on a campaign to build a wall on the US -Mexico border.
The administration has also ended Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for thousands of Salvadorans, Haitians, Nepalis, Nicaraguans and Sudanese.
Sessions’ decision on Monday is likely to be challenged in court.