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 reopened the case for his review in March.
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.
Dan Kowalski, editor of Bender's Immigration Bulletin, said the decision, subject to appeal in federal appeals court, could affect tens of thousands of people claiming asylum on grounds of domestic violence.
The decision came hours after Sessions' latest criticism on the asylum system, which he and other administration officials consider rife with abuse. The cases can take years to resolve in backlogged immigration courts that Sessions oversees and applicants often are released on bond in the meantime.
"Saying a few simple words — claiming a 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," Sessions said at a training event for immigration judges. "This is a large part of what has been accurately called 'catch and release.'"