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US Rolls Back Protections for Asylum Seekers, Again

AG Sessions Says Domestic Abuse, Gang Violence Not Grounds for Asylum

The Trump administration continues its no-holds-barred attack on asylum seekers.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions stands during a news conference to discuss "efforts to reduce violent crime" at the Department of Justice in Washington, U.S., December 15, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

This week, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions raised the bar to make asylum nearly impossible for people fleeing domestic abuse and gang violence who cannot be protected in their home countries. His decision undoes established US precedent and goes against international law, which clearly recognizes people fleeing persecution by groups or individuals as refugees when their governments fail to protect them.

Because of the nature of the US immigration and asylum system, the attorney general, as head of the Department of Justice, has the power to unilaterally change decisions made by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), the appellate body for immigration cases.

Now, the attorney general has used this power to overrule the BIA’s decision in a seminal 2014 case which had allowed domestic violence survivors whose governments didn’t protect them – and who were otherwise qualified – to receive asylum in the United States. Sessions’s order directs an immigration judge to deny a case called Matter of A-B-, and in doing so, overruled a 2014 decision called Matter of A-R-C-G-.

The decision Sessions overruled, Matter of A-R-C-G-, involved a Guatemalan woman, married at age 17, whose husband for years raped, beat, and burned her. She begged the police to protect her, but they refused. She tried to escape by hiding within Guatemala, but he followed her, threatened to kill her, and forced her to return home.

In his decision, the attorney general seeks to narrow who qualifies for asylum by asserting that “claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by nongovernmental actors will not qualify for asylum.” Sessions qualifies this broad stroke by saying, “I do not decide that violence inflicted by nongovernmental actors may never serve as the basis for an asylum or withholding application.” But overruling the A-R-C-G- decision, which involved egregious abuse, lack of state protection, and no internal flight alternative, indicates that tens of thousands of asylum claims of people fleeing horrific violence, particularly from Central America, are now in doubt.

Sessions’s decision tries to slam the door shut to people facing life-threatening, gender-based violence and the very real problem of police ignoring, instead of protecting, women endangered by their partners. He is also continuing to perpetuate the myth that asylum seekers come to the US because of its “lax” immigration laws – not because they are fleeing for their lives. 

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