In turning away domestic abuse victims, Jeff Sessions abandons legal precedent

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On Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions made it harder for asylum-seekers to enter the United States. He announced that being a victim of domestic abuse or gang violence will no longer be accepted as a basis for claiming asylum. “An alien may suffer threats and violence in a foreign country for any number of reasons related to her social, economic, family or other personal circumstances,” he wrote. “Yet the statute does not provide redress for all misfortune.” Sessions’ decision was the result of his intervention in an asylum case known as “Matter of A-B-“

{mosads}Sessions’ decision sets a new bar for heartlessness by arguably the most anti-immigrant administration in modern history. It is not supported by the reality of our immigration system; Sessions is overturning settled law and creating legal precedent based on his political views. His ruling will likely expose thousands of women, children, and LGBTQ asylum-seekers to danger or death in their homelands.


To understand the stakes here, it is necessary to understand the asylum process. A foreign national seeking asylum in the U.S. must prove that they have a credible fear of persecution in their homeland, based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. During the Obama administration, “membership in a particular social group” was interpreted by the Board of Immigration Appeals to include women who were the victims of severe domestic violence in their home countries.   

Enter Jeff Sessions. Exercising his authority as head of the Department of Justice — which oversees immigration courts — Sessions decided to review a 2016 case that involved a woman applying for asylum based on domestic abuse. A-B-, from El Salvador, was abused by her husband for 15 years. During that time, he beat her regularly, including while she was pregnant, and bashed her head against a wall. Police in El Salvador told her they would not intervene unless they caught her husband in the act of violence or saw blood. When she left her husband, he found her and raped her. A-B- fled El Salvador after her ex-husband threatened again to kill her and dump her body in a river. 

Although the Board of Immigration Appeals ruled in favor of A-B-’s asylum claim, Sessions stepped in and reversed it. Going forward, victims of what Sessions calls “private” crimes, like domestic abuse and gang violence, will not be eligible for asylum.

Sessions’ decision will have an immediate impact on thousands of cases in immigration courts. It means that women from around the world who suffer horrific abuse will no longer be able to apply for refuge here. It means that it will be easier for the Trump administration to turn back desperate Central American migrants at our southern border. And it means that some women and children, with the asylum door now slammed in their faces, will face grave violence — or worse — in their home countries. 

Sessions decision is especially cruel because, even under prior law, women who were the victim of severe abuse were not guaranteed asylum. Their status as abused women only made them eligible to apply for asylum. In fact, most people who apply for asylum here are not successful. In 2017, the national rate for the denial of asylum claims was 61 percent, and for people from Central American countries like El Salvador it is as high as 79 percent. Sessions has just made the already-difficult path for people seeking asylum much steeper. 

On Monday, Sessions said that rolling back protections for victims of domestic abuse was necessary because asylum claims were “overwhelming the system and leaving legitimate claims buried.” But of the roughly 711,00 cases backlogged in immigration courts, less than half are asylum cases. And no matter what the volume of claims may be, asylum is a legal right under U.S. law and international refugee treaties — regardless of a person’s immigration status

No doubt, the U.S. needs a more functional immigration system. That doesn’t mean we need a harsher, more restrictive system. Consider that 15 retired immigration judges and former members of the Board of Immigration Appeals signed a statement calling Sessions’ decision “an affront to the rule of law.” They point out that the precedent Sessions reversed was the culmination of 15 years of legal process through the immigration courts and the Board of Immigration Appeals. How can conservatives, who typically oppose the overreach of the federal government, be comfortable with Sessions acting like a one-man Supreme Court? 

By curtailing the opportunities for asylum, Attorney General Sessions abandons America’s responsibility to help victims of violence and persecution. His decision violates women’s rights, immigrants’ rights and human rights.

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and contributor to and CNN Opinion. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes.

Tags Asylum in the United States Asylum seeker Cultural globalization Culture Demography Immigration International law Jeff Sessions refugees
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