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ACLU sues Jeff Sessions over restricting asylum for victims of domestic, gang violence

"This is a naked attempt by the Trump administration to eviscerate our country’s asylum protections," said an attorney with the ACLU.
Image: Jeff Sessions
Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a Religious Liberty Summit at the Department of Justice on July 30, 2018.Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP file

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the Trump administration on Tuesday for restricting migrants fleeing their home countries because of domestic and gang violence from being granted asylum.

The ACLU said it had filed a federal lawsuit in Washington against Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others over policies instructing asylum officers that "in general" claims based on domestic or gang violence "will not establish the basis for asylum, refugee status or a credible or reasonable fear of persecution."

"This is a naked attempt by the Trump administration to eviscerate our country's asylum protections," Jennifer Chang Newell, managing attorney with the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. "It's clear the administration's goal is to deny and deport as many people as possible, as quickly as possible."

The suit is asking the court to declare Sessions' policies to be contrary to law and vacate them, and enter an order staying the expedited removal of the plaintiffs and allowing them the ability to be given new credible fear interviews.

Among the plaintiffs, who were given pseudonyms in the lawsuit, is Grace, an indigenous woman from a small village in Guatemala who sought asylum after fleeing an abusive partner and his gang member sons and facing years of sexual assault, beatings and death threats, according to the ACLU. The ACLU claims Grace would have a strong claim to asylum based on legal precedent but was denied asylum after Sessions' new policy.

The Department of Justice said in a statement Wednesday morning that most victims of such crimes do not fit the definition for asylum claims.

"Our nation’s immigration laws provide for asylum to be granted to individuals who have been persecuted, or who have a well-founded fear of persecution, on account of their membership in a ‘particular social group,’ but most victims of personal crimes do not fit this definition — no matter how vile and reprehensible the crime perpetrated against them," the department said in a statement.

"The Department of Justice remains committed to reducing violence against women and enforcing laws against domestic violence, both in the United States and around the world," the statement added.

On June 11, Session first moved to restrict the kinds of cases that qualify for asylum and later issued guidance to asylum officers. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 12 parents and children who, the ACLU says, were wrongly found not to have a credible fear of return.

If Sessions' memo stands, the lawsuit argues, people "desperately seeking safety will be unlawfully deported to places where they fear they will be raped, kidnapped, beaten, and killed."

Under U.S. and international law, a person may seek asylum based on persecution or a well-founded fear of future persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

Asylum cases were already difficult to win. Only 20 percent of asylum applications were granted last fiscal year, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which handles some asylum cases.

The Trump administration has said the asylum process is being exploited by immigrants who are counting on passing the initial credible fear screening and being released into the country.

Sessions' June memo overruled a 2014 decision by the Board of Immigration Appeals that gave asylum status to a Guatemalan woman who fled her husband after what the board called "repugnant abuse." The board found that the woman qualified for asylum because she was a member of a particular social group — in this case, married women in Guatemala who could not leave their relationship.

Immigration courts and judges operate under the Justice Department, and Sessions can overrule the board. In this case, he said the board had erred.

Many asylum seekers "are leaving difficult and dangerous situations," Sessions said in a June speech. "But we cannot abandon legal discipline and sound legal concepts."

Immigration lawyers say people who they expected would pass credible fear screenings have began to fail them, and lawyers say immigration judges are signing off on more denials during appeals, effectively ending what could have been a years-long asylum process before it begins.

The number of immigrants who didn't pass credible fear screenings rose in June, according to statistics the government released Tuesday. Asylum officers denied about 13 percent of cases in June compared with 8 percent in May and an average of 10 percent during the previous fiscal year, according to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

"The Trump administration is violating U.S. immigration law, international refugee law, and our Constitution," said Eunice Lee, co-legal director of the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, in a statement. The center has joined the ACLU in the Grace v. Sessions lawsuit.

"It's putting the lives of our plaintiffs and thousands of asylum seekers in grave danger," she said.