Houston Chronicle

Sessions places new limits on asylum claims

AG: Domestic, gang violence not grounds for granting status

- By Elliot Spagat

SAN DIEGO — Immigratio­n judges generally cannot consider domestic and gang violence as grounds for asylum, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Monday in a ruling that could affect large numbers of Central Americans who have increasing­ly turned to the United States for protection.

“Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrate­d by non-government actors will not qualify for asylum,” Sessions wrote in 31-page decision. “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.”

The widely expected move overruled a Board of Immigratio­n Appeals decision in 2016 that gave asylum status to a woman from El Salvador who fled her husband. Sessions took aim at one of five categories to qualify for asylum — persecutio­n for membership in a social group — calling it “inherently ambiguous.” The other categories are for race, religion, nationalit­y and political affiliatio­n.

Domestic violence is a “particular­ly difficult crime to prevent and prosecute, even in the United States,” Sessions wrote, but its prevalence in El Salvador doesn’t mean that its government was unwilling or unable to protect victims any less so than the United States.

Sessions said the woman obtained restrainin­g orders against her husband and had him arrested at least once.

“No country provides its citizens with complete security from private criminal activity, and perfect protection is not required,” he wrote.

The government does not say how many asylum claims are for domestic or gang violence.

Karen Musalo, co-counsel for the Salvadoran woman and a professor at University of California Hastings College of Law, said the decision could undermine claims of women suffering violence throughout the world, including sex traffickin­g.

“This is not just about domestic violence, or El Salvador, or gangs,” she said. “This is the attorney general trying to yank us back to the dark ages of rights for women.”

Sessions sent the case back to an immigratio­n judge, whose ruling can be appealed to the Justice Department’s Board of Immigratio­n Appeals and then to a federal appeals court. Other cases in the pipeline may reach the appellate level first, Musalo said.

Fifteen former immigratio­n judges signed a letter calling Sessions’ decision “an affront to the rule of law.”

“For reasons understood only by himself, the Attorney General today erased an important legal developmen­t that was universall­y agreed to be correct,” they wrote. “Today we are deeply disappoint­ed that our country will no longer offer legal protection to women … from terrible forms of domestic violence from which their home countries are unable or unwilling to protect them.”

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