Jeff Sessions Might Make It Much Harder For Domestic Abuse Survivors To Seek Asylum In The U.S.

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On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is reviewing domestic abuse survivors' right to seek asylum in the United States. If the attorney general moves forward with this decision, it could have massive implications for women fleeing to the United States to escape abusive domestic situations in their own countries.

As the Wall Street Journal reported, on March 7 Sessions issued an order to personally take over an immigration case. According to the Journal, the case involves addressing whether people who are victims of “private criminal activity” can be considered members of a “particular social group," which would then qualify them for asylum under U.S. law.

Ben Winograd, a lawyer for the applicant in this case, revealed to the Journal that his client is someone who has survived domestic violence in El Salvador and is seeking asylum in the United States. Geoffrey Hoffman, the director of the University of Houston Law Center’s immigration clinic, is familiar with the case and also told the outlet that its “underlying issue is domestic violence." CNN was more specific about the details of the case, noting that it involves a woman who has been granted asylum by the Board of Immigration Appeals because of abuse she reportedly endured from her ex-husband.

According to Jess Bravin of the Wall Street Journal, the attorney general himself did not give any details "regarding the case or the applicant" in his order. A Justice Department official did tell the Journal, however, that he is "... considering this matter because of a lack of clarity in the court system,”

Back in 2014, as Slate described, the Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that victims of domestic violence can apply for asylum based on the fact that they have been abused. This ruling was made when the Board overturned a judge's previous decision that found that a woman fleeing to the United States after suffering domestic abuse in Guatemala was not eligible for asylum. The judge's finding indicated that because the woman had endured "criminal acts, not persecution," she was ineligible for asylum.

However, in the 2014 decision, the Board found that women who are fleeing an abusive domestic relationship in their home country can qualify for asylum. The Board deemed that these women fit one of the five traits required for granting asylum — “membership in a particular social group.” More specifically, the Board ruled that women escaping domestic violence share two common characteristics: their sex and their inability to end or leave their domestic relationship. The Board found that these shared characteristics mean that these women qualify as members of a "particular social group." This qualification then renders them eligible for asylum.

As Slate noted, the Board of Immigration Appeals' rulings are binding on the Department of Homeland Security. Thus, since 2014, this standard has generally been applied in cases where women are seeking asylum because they are fleeing from domestic violence.

Slate also reported that, as attorney general, Sessions is allowed to reverse Board decisions. If Sessions does indeed seek to overturn the Board's decision in the aforementioned case involving the Salvadoran woman, it could set a new precedent, CNN reported. This could mean that women who are fleeing domestic abuse are no longer considered members of a particular social group and no longer eligible for asylum. Immigrant rights activists have significant concerns about the attorney general's involvement in the case, with Archi Pyati of the Tahirih Justice Center telling CNN:

We're very concerned about what this could mean for the women who flee their homes, leaving everything behind — their community, parents, and children — in order to get to safety ... In some countries, the government will do nothing to stop a man from abusing a woman ... Right now, the attorney general is signaling that he may reconsider whether we as a nation are willing to stand up for what is right and offer a beacon of hope to those women with nowhere else to go.
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However, others are praising Sessions' involvement in immigration matters, including Andrew R. Arthur, a former immigration judge and a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative organization. "President Trump plainly has a specific view when it comes to immigration, and Attorney General Sessions, through his review authority, is going try to implement that view," Arthur said to the Wall Street Journal. " They want to streamline the system so those that merit relief are able to get their [asylum] applications in an expedited manner, while those who are not eligible either don’t apply or get a quick decision.”

According to CNN, if Sessions does indeed decide to reverse the decision of the Board of Immigration Appeals in the aforementioned case, his decision can be overturned by a federal appellate court or by the U.S. Supreme Court. However, this can only happen if an immigrant seeks to appeal their case to one of these bodies — and wins the appeal.