WASHINGTON – Attorney General Jeff Sessions signaled Monday that victims of domestic abuse and gang violence generally will not qualify for asylum under federal law, a decision that advocates say will endanger tens of thousands of foreign nationals seeking safe harbor in the United States.
Sessions' ruling overturned a 2016 decision by the Justice Department's Board of Immigration Appeals that said an abused woman from El Salvador was eligible for asylum. The appeals board is typically the highest government authority on immigration law, but the attorney general has the power to assign cases to himself and set precedents.
Such cases can be appealed to the circuit courts, which are part of the judicial branch of government.
Sessions told immigration judges, whose courts are part of the Justice Department, that his decision "restores sound principles of asylum and long standing principles of immigration law." He said it will help reduce the growing backlog of 700,000 court cases, more than triple the number in 2009.
"We have not acted hastily, but carefully," he said in the statement to the judges. "In my judgment, this is a correct interpretation of the law."
To qualify for asylum, foreign nationals must establish that they have a fear of persecution in their homeland based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or "membership in a particular social group," a catchall category that has in the past included victims of domestic violence and other abuse.
But Sessions said such cases would be less common in future. "Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by nongovernmental actors will not qualify for asylum," he 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."
Critics called it the latest effort by the administration to erode asylum protections for hundreds of thousands of immigrants, particularly those fleeing gang violence and high homicide rates in Central America. They said Sessions' decision overturns decades of legal efforts to protect abused women.
Michelle Brané, director of the Women's Refugee Commission's Migrant Rights and Justice program, said: "Women and children will die as a result of these policies."
The American Immigration Council, a nonprofit advocacy group, said Sessions is "taking away a vital lifeline" for victims of severe domestic and gang violence.
The Trump administration has accused migrants of exploiting the U.S. asylum system. To discourage people from coming to the U.S., federal officials recently adopted a "zero tolerance" policy for illegal border crossings, prosecuting people even if they are seeking asylum or have crossed the border with their children. Such criminal prosecutions mean separating parents from their children.