Originally published by Politico
A move by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to make it more difficult for victims of domestic violence and other crimes to receive asylum in the U.S. could fuel a backlash that the Trump administration already faces over its immigration crackdown.
The 31-page decision narrows the grounds for asylum for victims of “private crime” and will cut off an avenue to refuge for women fleeing to the United States from Central America.
“Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum,” Sessions said in the opinion.
The legal guidance is the latest step in a broader drive to rein in undocumented immigration under President Donald Trump. In early May, the administration began to refer all people suspected of crossing the border illegally for federal prosecution, a controversial move that increased the likelihood of family separation.
Trump and top officials frequently describe the asylum system as rife with “loopholes” that draw migrants to the U.S. from Central America. The administration seeks to revise human trafficking laws and override court decisions that prevent the swift removal of thousands of children and families who arrive at the southwest border each month.
From his perch atop the Justice Department, Sessions has also sought to tighten immigration laws. The attorney general has personally intervened in several cases before the Board of Immigration Appeals, which falls under the aegis of his department.
In his ruling Monday, Sessions brushed aside critics who argued that he should recuse himself because as a senator and attorney general he's been a vocal public advocate for a crackdown on undocumented immigration and for limiting grants of asylum.
“If policy statements about immigration-related issues were a basis for disqualification, then no attorney general could fulfill his or her statutory obligations to review the decisions of the Board,” Sessions wrote.
The decision issued Monday, in a case known as the Matter of A-B, addresses whether a person who is the victim of private criminal activity qualifies as a member of a “particular social group” eligible for asylum in the U.S.
Asylum seekers must prove they have a credible fear of persecution in their home country, but that fear must also be based on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
In 2014, the Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that “married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship” constitute a social group under the standard, which bolstered the claims of women fleeing violence in Central America.
Sessions said the 2014 decision lacked “the rigorous analysis” required to establish precedent and overrode the ruling.
“The mere fact that a country may have problems policing certain crimes effectively — 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,” the attorney general wrote.
Sessions also took aim at the four-year-old decision over its conclusion that women in Guatemala were at particular risk of violence because of a “culture of machismo.”
“I note that conclusory assertions of countrywide negative cultural stereotypes, such as [the] broad charge that Guatemala has a ‘culture of machismo and family violence’ based on an unsourced partial quotation from a news article eight years earlier, neither contribute to an analysis of the particularity requirement nor constitute appropriate evidence to support such asylum determinations,” the attorney general wrote in a footnote.
Sessions’ ruling vacates a 2016 immigration appeals court decision to grant asylum to a woman from El Salvador who claimed her former husband repeatedly abused her physically, emotionally and sexually.
While the new opinion makes no direct reference to the current controversy over the Trump administration’s treatment of asylum seekers arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, Sessions went out of his way to “remind all asylum adjudicators” that they have the right to deny asylum to individuals even if they meet all the requirements for asylum under U.S. law.
Several of the criteria Sessions cited to support such a denial seemed like they could be wielded against those currently making asylum applications at the southern border, including “whether the alien passed through any other countries or arrived in the United States directly from her country” and “whether orderly refugee procedures were in fact available to help her in any country she passed through.”
Trump has complained about migrants surging into ports of entry along the border. Sessions' opinion specifically notes that "circumventing orderly refugee procedures" can be grounds for denying an asylum application.
The asylum decision issued Monday sounded alarms among supporters of migrants and domestic violence victims.
Even before the formal announcement, the Virginia-based Tahirih Justice Center warned of the possible effect on women fleeing persecution.
“Our clients and many women like them may lose their cases because of this, which could send them home to face violence or death,” the group said. “For them, and for our own conscience, we are prepared to fight.”
Beth Werlin, executive director of the American Immigration Council, blasted the decision as contrary to American values.
“From its earliest days, the United States has opened its doors to individuals fleeing oppression and persecution," she said. "Today’s decision by the attorney general is yet another attempt to close our doors."
Sessions teased the imminent announcement Monday morning at a training conference for federal immigration judges.
“Asylum was never meant to alleviate all problems, even all serious problems, that people face every day all over the world,” Sessions said at the event.
The attorney general defended the decision to tighten asylum standards.
"Clarity in law is the right thing,” he said. “The world will know what our rules are."