As part of an anti-immigration agenda led by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Trump administration may end protections for abused women who seek asylum in the United States. Politico reported that Sessions has been leading an effort since January to change asylum law so that fewer women are allowed to enter the country because they're fleeing domestic and sexual abuse.
To accomplish this, Politico reported, Sessions has been using his authority as attorney general to review immigration cases and set new precedents for lower courts. One case involved an abused woman from El Salvador and is particularly revealing about his mentality toward the issue: Sessions said he was using it to decide whether domestic abuse, as a "private criminal activity," should enable a victim to seek asylum abroad.
To successfully obtain refuge in the United States, asylum seekers must fit a specific set of criteria. According to Political Asylum USA, successful applicants must fear persecution on the basis of their religion, race, nationality, political views, or membership in a particular social group.
That last criterion is where things get tricky. If domestic violence is considered to be a gendered problem, it could be argued that women fleeing this abuse are entitled to U.S. protections. Gender can be considered a "social group." Sessions said he wanted to use the El Salvadorian woman's case to determine whether it is possible to be part of "a cognizable particular social group" while being a "victim of private criminal activity," CNN reported.
Many would argue that it is, indeed, possible. International health expert Shelah Bloom defined "gender-based violence" as "violence that occurs as a result of the normative role expectations associated with each gender, along with the unequal power relationships between the two genders, within the context of a specific society." Instances of domestic violence often fit that definition.
And in fact, that's the socially-conscious mindset with which U.S. asylum cases are sometimes considered. According to Politico, women fleeing abuse often can acquire protections on the basis of that threat even when they couldn't obtain protected status based on threats from gangs or other non-domestic criminals.
Of course, it often depends on the judge: As Blaine Bookey wrote in a 2012 article for the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, "Whether a woman fleeing domestic violence will receive protection in the United States seems to depend not on the consistent application of objective principles, but rather on the view of her individual judge, often untethered to any legal principles at all."
Now the Trump administration is reportedly trying to make it even harder for abused women to obtain refuge. Sessions has taken on more than four cases about female asylum seekers who are fleeing abuse since January, which Politico asserts is a high number for a period of just a few months.
Sessions hinted at this project on April 11 when condemning "loopholes" in U.S. law that he thinks allow immigrants to enter the country undeservedly. In a speech to law enforcement near the border in New Mexico, he said that many asylum seekers who were accepted by the Obama administration had claims of threats that "were not justified." He also said that "loopholes in our laws [are] being exploited by illegal aliens and open border radicals every day," and that in particular there has been "exploitation of this 'credible fear' loophole."
Reviewing these cases isn't the only way that the Trump administration has been attempting to stem the flow of women fleeing abuse into the United States. The president has ordered that more detention facilities be opened as quickly as possible and declared that almost all asylum seekers will be detained, including mothers and pregnant women.
Sessions may be able to relegate domestic abuse to the category of "private criminal activity," but women across the world know that that's not a comprehensive description of the problem.