Congress Might Stop Jeff Sessions From Denying Domestic Violence Survivors Asylum — Here's How

Mario Tama/Getty Images News/Getty Images

In June, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered immigration officials to stop granting asylum claims to immigrants who are survivors of domestic abuse and gang violence. But on Wednesday, congressional lawmakers approved an amendment that would reverse this, and ban the government from using federal funds to deny asylum claims to domestic and gang violence survivors.

Sessions officially ordered the change in policy on June 11, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — one of several branches of the Homeland Security Department that oversees immigration-related matters — implemented it later that day.

"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," Sessions wrote. Under the new policy, domestic and gang violence survivors must prove that their country's "government condoned the private actions [against them] or demonstrated an inability to protect" them in order to receive asylum.

In issuing the guidance, Sessions was overturning a 2014 decision by an immigration court, which had found that women who came to the United States to escape domestic violence in their home countries did in fact qualify for asylum.

But while debating a funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security, lawmakers Wednesday approved an amendment that — if passed by the full House of Representatives — would block Sessions' guidance from being implemented. The amendment in question was offered by Democratic Rep. David Price, and it would ban the Department of Homeland Security — and, by extension, USCIS — from using any federal funds to enforce Sessions' directive.

"The Attorney General took it upon himself to overturn a 2014 precedent that had finally clarified years of uncertainty surrounding domestic violence," Price said after introducing his amendment in a House Appropriations Committee meeting. "This policy change will lead to higher denial rates by USCIS officers who administer initial credible fear screenings, meaning some immigrants experiencing gang and domestic violence will be removed before even given the chance to pursue an asylum claim."

To the shock of observers, Price's amendment passed. This was a surprise in large part because Republicans have a majority on that committee — and every committee, as they control the House— and rejected several other Democrat-proposed amendments during that same meeting. But Price's passed via a voice vote, and as such, it will be included in the final DHS funding bill when the full House votes on it.

In addition to the adoption of the Price amendment, progressives enjoyed two more unexpected victories during Wednesday's committee meeting: An amendment from Rep. Yvette Clarke that bans officials from shackling pregnant immigrants was also passed, as was Rep. Pete Aguilar's amendment to shield DACA recipients from deportation. Both Clarke and Aguilar are Democrats.

The Price, Clarke and Aguilar amendments are not law yet. Although they were successfully inserted into the DHS funding bill, that bill will now have to be approved by the full House, then the Senate, and finally, President Trump. This may not be as difficult as it sounds, however: The DHS bill also includes $5 billion in funding for Trump's proposed border wall, as well as an additional $3.7 billion for DHS's overall discretionary funding for 2019.