WASHINGTON – Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday said that immigrant victims of gang violence or domestic abuse will no longer be able to claim asylum in the U.S., saying the law was not designed to “alleviate all problems.”
Sessions’ decision reverses a 2014 Board of Immigration Appeals ruling that said married women who cannot get out of abusive relationships in their own countries are part of a “particular social group,” one of the criteria for immigrants seeking not to be sent home.
“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,” Sessions said in his decision. “The asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune.”
Sessions said an immigrant would have to prove that their own country’s ability to protect them from “private criminal activity” if they were returned would be so lacking that the violence could, in effect, be attributed to the government.
Critics assailed the change, which Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, said will “cement the Trump administration’s legacy as one of the cruelest in recent memory.”
Allie Bones, the CEO at the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual and Domestic Violence, called Sessions’ ruling a “major change in policy” that will set the bar extremely high for abused women seeking asylum.
“It has been a long-standing practice for survivors of domestic violence to be able to seek asylum in this country when we know that they are being persecuted in other countries or not allowed to seek any kind of relief from violence in their home countries,” she said.
But Sessions, in a speech to a training program for judges in the Executive Office for Immigration Review, said the change is needed because the asylum system is being abused, leading to a ballooning backlog of cases in immigration courts.
“The asylum system is being abused to the detriment of the rule of law, sound public policy and public safety – and to the detriment of people with just claims,” he said, according to the text of his speech. “Saying a few simple words – claiming fear of return – is now transforming a straightforward arrest for illegal entry and immediate return into a prolonged legal process, where an alien may be released from custody into the United States and possibly never show up for an immigration hearing.”
He said that created a “powerful incentive” for immigrants to come here, contributing to an increase in credible fear asylum case reviews to 94,000 by 2017, and an immigration case backlog of about 700,000 cases today.
Sessions also highlighted the administration’s redistribution of 35 prosecutors and 18 immigration judges to help clear up the backlog of immigration cases in detention centers along the Southwest border. He said it was all aimed at “a firm goal, and that is to end the lawlessness that now exists in our immigration system.”
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It follows Sessions’ announcement this spring of a “zero tolerance” policy for illegal border crossers, with anyone caught crossing the border referred for prosecution. More recently that has included the separation of parents and children who show up at the border – a move advocates say has been particularly painful for immigrant families.
“What’s happening in the immigration enforcement and detention system has been a massive waste of resources,” said Victoria Lopez, the senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union.
“There are much better, much more humane ways of treating asylum seekers that come to this country seeking protection than prosecuting them at the border … than detaining them and separating them from their children,” she said.
Tucson immigration attorney Maurice Goldman said the changes have shifted the handling of immigration cases from what was a civil court system to a criminal one.
“It’s not looking at the immigration system in a way that it should be viewed,” Goldman said. “The system is complex. It’s complicated. It’s not black and white. There’s a lot of gray area in immigration.
“To have a zero-tolerance policy like he has is, in my opinion, contrary to what the United States stands for,” Goldman said.
Grijalva questioned whether the move on asylum seekers is even legal.
“I would remind Attorney General Sessions to remember the moral and legal obligations that we have to asylum seekers under both international and domestic law, and cease his baseless attacks on families and children seeking asylum from horrific violence,” said Grijalva.
He called it another move by an administration that intends to “utilize every possible tool at its disposal to demonize immigrants and their children, criminalize their existence, and terrorize vulnerable asylum seekers.”
Bones said the decision “says a lot about us as a society, that this decision would be changed in this way.”
“The anti-immigrant sentiment that is being put forward by this administration is kind of leaking over into areas where we have generally had strong support for survivors of domestic violence all around the world,” she said.