"Asylum was never meant to alleviate all problems -- even all serious problems -- that people face every day all over the world," said Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a recent speech. He has personally ruled that immigration courts can no longer grant U.S. asylum based on an applicant's fear of personal violence by gangs or domestic partners.
The ruling was achieved through the unusual level of authority over immigration courts that has been granted to the U.S. attorney general. Unlike most courts in the United States, immigration courts are administrative courts created under the auspices of the Department of Justice. As head of the DOJ, the attorney general has nearly unlimited authority over how they operate.
In a highly unusual move, Attorney General Sessions took that authority to mean that he can personally overrule any immigration court's decisions. This is what he recently did in the asylum appeal of an El Salvadoran woman.
In that case, the woman known as Ms. A.B. claimed she was in fear for her life after living in an abusive marriage for over 10 years. Although she has divorced her husband, she claims she is still in fear -- enough that she spoke to reporters only on condition of anonymity. She says the police in El Salvador refused to help.
In order to qualify for asylum in the United States, the applicant must prove:
- They have suffered persecution or fear persecution
- Due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group
The Board of Immigration Appeals agreed with Ms. A.B. that she was essentially being persecuted because she was a woman when her husband abused her and the authorities would do nothing to stop it.
Similarly, people who are targeted by violent gangs for personal or political reason have qualified for asylum in the past when their local authorities are unwilling or unable to intervene.
Attorney General Sessions intervened in Ms. A.B.'s case instead of allowing further courts to side with her. He ruled against her and has sent her case back down to an immigration judge where she will be slated for deportation. Her attorneys plan to challenge the decision in federal court.
Unless that appeal is unusually successful, however, people seeking asylum to escape from persecution or violence by domestic partners or criminal gangs will likely be turned down.
Sessions' decision, says an attorney for the woman "really is looking to dial us back to the dark ages, before we really recognized women's rights as human rights."