News & Politics

Sessions Tightens Asylum Requirements for Victims of Domestic Abuse and Gang Violence

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the administration would tighten asylum rules that allow victims of domestic and gang violence to enter the U.S.

The decision has the potential to affect tens of thousands of Central American refugees who are fleeing rampant gang violence related to the drug trade. Victims of domestic abuse would also be affected.


Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision sets a high bar for victims of crime to qualify for asylum protections. Not only must the government of the home country be unable or unwilling to help the victims, but “the applicant must show that the government condoned the private actions or demonstrated an inability to protect the victims.”

The ruling is the latest instance of Sessions taking full advantage of his authority over the immigration courts — a separate court system designed by law to be under the auspices of the Justice Department. The attorney general functions as a one-person Supreme Court in the system, in addition to hiring and evaluating the lower court judges themselves.

There aren’t too many governments that will admit they are so corrupt that they “condone” the private actions of violent criminals in their countries.

The outrage expressed at the new rules was immediate:

“Today’s decision puts many refugees and asylum seekers fleeing horrific violence — especially women — in grave danger and violates the spirit of our asylum law which Congress wrote to protect victims of persecution, including women and children who flee their home countries in fear of their lives,” said David Leopold, a former president and general counsel of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

“Just last month, the UN Refugee Agency reported that it was seeing a ‘significant increase in the number of people fleeing violence and persecution in the North of Central America,’ with many ‘in serious peril,'” Acer said.

Sessions was unfazed:

Speaking Monday morning an annual training conference for the nation’s hundreds of immigration judges, Sessions said his move “restores sound principles” of the law.

“Asylum was never meant to alleviate all problems, even all serious problems, that people face every day all over the world,” Sessions said. “I will be issuing a decision that restores sound principles of asylum and long standing principles of immigration law.”

The legal underpinnings of our asylum law are fairly straightforward.

“Such applicants must establish membership in a particular and socially distinct group that exists independently of the alleged underlying harm, demonstrate that their persecutors harmed them on account of their membership in that group rather than for personal reasons, and establish that the government protection from such harm in their home country is so lacking that their persecutors’ actions can be attributed to the government,” he wrote.

If a husband in Honduras beats his wife and children it’s a tragedy, but according to U.S. law, that doesn’t necessarily qualify the victim for asylum. What Sessions is trying to do is establish a more reasonable application of the asylum law, which was originally written to protect people being persecuted for their religious or political beliefs. If Congress wants to protect all domestic abuse victims overseas, let them write the statute.

And that’s the problem. As tragic as the situation in these countries is, addressing the problems of gang violence and domestic abuse in Central America does not lie with the U.S. government. It is a regional problem that demands a regional solution, including the participation of the U.S. government.

Of course it’s heartbreaking to deny many victims of violence asylum. But almost all applicants are from countries in close proximity to the U.S. Should that be the standard by which we offer protection? What about women in Somalia or children in Nigeria? They suffer from violence and domestic abuse just as much as Central American victims but because they don’t present themselves at the U.S. border begging for asylum, nothing can be done for them.

I’m all for being compassionate where compassion is given with intelligence and reason. The policy Sessions is proposing offers exactly that.

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