Attorney General Jeff Sessions moved to further restrict U.S. acceptance of immigrants by ruling Monday that fear of domestic abuse or gang violence is not an acceptable basis for granting asylum.
"The asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune," Sessions wrote in a formal legal opinion, exercising his authority to overturn decisions by federal immigration judges. "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."
He acted in the case of a woman from El Salvador who entered the U.S. illegally in 2014 and sought asylum, claiming that her husband repeatedly abused her "emotionally, physically and sexually."
Under U.S. and international law, a person may seek asylum based on past persecution or a well-founded fear of future persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Four years ago, an immigration court recognized "married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship" as such a social group.
In overturning that ruling, Sessions said it did not conform with the requirements of federal law that a social group must have well-defined characteristics that are socially distinct. The claims of the woman in this case, who said her social group was "El Salvadoran women unable to leave their domestic relationships where they have children," did not fit the law's requirements, he said.
"I do not minimize the vile abuse that the respondent reported she suffered at the hands of her ex-husband or the harrowing experiences of many other victims of domestic violence around the world," Sessions said. "I understand that many victims of domestic violence may seek to flee from their home countries to extricate themselves from a dire situation or to give themselves the opportunity for a better life. But the asylum statute is not a general-hardship statute."
Advocates for immigrants immediately condemned the ruling.
Beth Werlin of the American Immigration Council said it would "result in sending countless mothers and children back to their abusers and criminal gangs. Turning our backs on victims of violence and deporting them to grave danger should not be the legacy sought by any administration."
Earlier Monday, in a speech to Justice Department immigration lawyers in Tysons Corner, Virginia, Sessions said the asylum system is being abused and "was never meant to alleviate all problems, even serious problems, that people face every day all over the world."
He said that the number of asylum claims jumped to 94,000 in 2016, compared with 5,000 in 2009, and that only about one-fifth of claims in the past five years have been found to be justified.