Originally published by The NY Times
In recent years, the United States has been something of a beacon of hope for women fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries. In 2014, in a giant step forward, immigration courts explicitly determined that a person fleeing severe domestic violence may be granted asylum here if the violence rises to the level of persecution, if the government in the victim’s home country cannot or will not punish her abuser and if various other criteria are met. It’s a high bar but one that, sadly, women from many countries can clear. Now their last chance at protection may be under threat.
The case that established that certain victims of domestic violence are eligible for asylum, the Matter of A-R-C-G-, was decided in a landmark ruling four years ago by the Board of Immigration Appeals — the highest court in our immigration judicial system. The survivor in the case, a woman from Guatemala, was a victim of severe physical and sexual abuse. She had endured 10 years of unrelenting violence at the hands of her spouse, who burned her with acid, beat and kicked her, broke her nose and punched her in the stomach with such force when she was eight months pregnant that the baby was born prematurely and with bruises. Her husband told her it would be pointless to call the police, because “even the police and judges beat their wives.”
The ruling that granted her protection was a transformative one, not just for the woman involved but for our country, too. At last, the United States stood firmly in opposition to violence against women and recognized that we can and should offer hope to survivors.
In March, however, Attorney General Jeff Sessions suddenly and inexplicably stepped into this seemingly settled matter, using a rarely utilized power to assign a similar petition for asylum, known as the Matter of A-B-, to himself for reconsideration.
The facts in the Matter of A-B- are similar to those in the 2014 case. Ms. A-B-, a Salvadoran woman, was brutalized by her husband for 15 years. He beat and kicked her, including while she was pregnant; bashed her head against the wall; threatened her with death while holding a knife to her throat or brandishing a gun; and threatened to hang her. Ms. A-B- attempted to secure state protection to no avail. On the two occasions she managed to obtain restraining orders, the police did nothing to enforce them. When she went to the police after her husband attacked her with a knife, their response was that if she had any “dignity,” she would leave him. When Ms. A-B- did attempt to leave her husband, he tracked her down, raped her and threatened to kill her. When she finally secured a divorce, her ex-husband told her that if she thought the divorce freed her from him, she was “wrong.” She finally decided to flee the country after he told her that he and his friends were going to kill her, put her in a body bag and dump her in the river.
When Ms. A-B- came to the United States seeking asylum, her case was heard by an immigration judge in Charlotte, N.C., named V. Stuart Couch, who is notorious for his high denial rate. Mr. Couch denied her asylum; Ms. A-B- appealed, and the decision was overruled by the Board of Immigration Appeals, the same board that had ruled favorably in the 2014 case. The board sent the case back to Mr. Couch for security checks to be completed and asylum to be granted. Without any explanation, Mr. Couch held on to the case and refused to grant asylum as directed. And then, deviating from normal procedures, Mr. Sessions took jurisdiction.
The attorney general does have the power to reconsider any decision by the Board of Immigration Appeals. However, the procedural irregularities, paired with the possibility that Mr. Sessions may be using his authority to upend the precedent set in the Matter of A-R-C-G-, are troubling. Mr. Sessions has given himself the power not only to decide Ms. A-B-’s fate but also ultimately to try to rule on how our country handles claims for all survivors of domestic violence looking for asylum.
To be clear, we do not yet know what Mr. Sessions will decide. But in the context of the Trump administration’s antipathy toward asylum seekers, and Mr. Sessions’s statements and actions with regard to immigrant women, his decision to assign himself jurisdiction does not bode well. Asylum seekers who have arrived at the American border seeking protection have been vilified by this administration. Our government has targeted women in ways that would have been unthinkable under prior administrations, including the recent decisions to separate mothers who arrive at the border from their children and to detain pregnant women. Mr. Sessions himself has expressed his deep skepticism for asylum claims based on gender-related persecution.
At a time when violence against women and girls is a global crisis, a decision denying protection to women who flee gender violence, including domestic violence, would be a grave mistake. This is a moment of truth of our country. Will we remain a beacon of hope for women worldwide whose lives are on the line because of domestic violence, and whose governments cannot or will not protect them? The answer, it seems, is in the attorney general’s hands.