Human rights activists were shocked Monday by Attorney General Jeff Sessions' latest immigration order. According to a directive released by the Justice Department, Sessions is ending asylum for most domestic abuse victims, as well as those fleeing gang violence. Before the directive's release, Sessions justified the order by saying that "asylum was never meant to alleviate all problems — even all serious problems — that people face every day all over the world."
Sessions' decision isn't a surprise for those who may have kept an eye on his department's aggressive anti-immigration agenda. According to Sessions' directive, "Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum." According to legal experts from the American Civil Liberties Union, Sessions' ruling has the potential to exacerbate conditions for immigration-seeking women who may be looking for a refuge from gender-based violence and abuse in their native lands.
According to the nonprofit Migration Policy Institute, violence against women is a driving force behind women seeking asylum in foreign countries, particularly for women migrating from Central American nations like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Getting to America is also riddled with shocking safety hazards. The institute added that, based on an Amnesty International study, between 60 to 80 percent of the women trying to enter the United States by way of Mexico are raped.
In spite of those worrying statistics, Sessions doesn't seem to be moved in favor of granting asylum to vulnerable women seeking refuge in the United States.
"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 order reads.
Sessions' ruling also suggests an asylum applicant must prove that the local government she is seeking to leave actively neglected her plea for protection from domestic abuse. It's quite a demand to place on a migrant who, more often than not, does not have the power to meet that expectation.
"An applicant seeking to establish persecution based on violent conduct of a private actor must show more than the government’s difficulty controlling private behavior," the directive says. "The applicant must show that the government condoned the private actions or demonstrated an inability to protect the victims."
From a historical vantage point, Sessions' move is the foil to one order former President Barack Obama's Justice Department issued to grant asylum to migrants trying to escape domestic abuse. That 2014 order stated that the United States would allow women fleeing domestic abuse to seek refuge in the country, with a few caveats. One was that the emphasis would be on women who came from countries where domestic abuse was not a human rights concern for the local government.
"Even within the domestic violence context, the issue of social distinction will depend on the facts and evidence in each individual case, including documented country conditions; law enforcement statistics and expert witnesses, if proffered; the respondent’s past experiences; and other reliable and credible sources of information," the 2014 directive says.
Denise Gilman, who spearheads the immigration medical center for the University of Texas Law School, told The Los Angeles Times how Sessions' move would impact migrant women.
"There are many, many Central American women and women from other parts of the world who have been able to obtain protection," Gilman told the newspaper. "Many women sitting right now in detention under these claims might lose their right to obtain protection and be deported to dangerous situations."