U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered immigration judges on Monday that victims of domestic abuse and gang violence generally will not qualify for asylum under federal law. His recent ruling overturned a 2016 decision which granted asylum to an El Salvadorian woman who had suffered abuse at the hands of her husband.
Sessions’ decision establishes a high bar for victims of crime to qualify for U.S. asylum protections. The Trump administration has made a priority of trying to significantly reduce asylum claims, although asylum is considered a valid protection under federal law, as well as an international law obligation.
According to the Department of Homeland security, over 60,000 individuals from the most gang- and violence-afflicted Central American countries (e.g. El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) applied for asylum in some manner. Rampant gang violence and high homicide rates have become a significant problem in that region, even causing President Donald Trump to call MS-13 gang members “animals.”
In order to qualify for asylum, immigrants must establish that they have a fear of persecution in their homeland based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a political social group. The latter group is considered a catchall category which has often included domestic and gang violence victims.
But in the ruling, the attorney general said such cases would be less prevalent from now on.
“Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum,” Sessions wrote. “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 is using traditional—but rarely used—powers of self-referral to reshape the way immigration courts work. The new ruling will immediately affect tens of thousands of cases currently in the immigration court pipeline.