WASHINGTON - Attorney General Jeff Sessions unveiled strict new limitations on asylum applicants Monday, asserting that victims of domestic abuse and even gang violence would no longer qualify for such protection.
The decision represents a dramatic shift from past practice, including those involving Central American women who have sought safe haven from troubled domestic relationships in which they were subjected to repeated physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
"Our nation's immigration laws provide for asylum to be granted to individuals who have been persecuted, or have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of their membership in a particular social group," the Justice Department said in a written statement, accompanying Sessions' opinion. "But victims of personal crimes do not fit this definition - no matter how vile and reprehensible the crime perpetrated against them."
Citing a 2016 case involving a woman from El Salvador, Sessions did not question that serious abuse had occurred at the hands of her ex-husband with whom she shared three children.
"I understand that many victims of domestic violence may seek to flee from their home countries to extricate themselves from a dire situation or to give themselves the opportunity for a better life," the attorney general concluded. "But the asylum statute is not a general hardship statute."
Instead, Sessions said that applicants must now show that asylum is "necessary because her home government is unwilling or unable to protect her."
"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 action represents a new hard-line on immigration enforcement--the signature issue of the 2016 Trump campaign. And Sessions, despite constant criticism from President Trump for recusing himself from the investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election, has been crucial to the administration's effort in transforming rhetoric into policy.
Most recently that strategy has involved carrying out a pledge to prosecute all undocumented immigrants, often by separating adult immigrants from their children.
While the Trump administration has long championed immigration enforcement, changes to asylum policy had been contemplated since the Republican Party drafted its platform at the 2016 convention.
"From its beginning, our country has been a haven of refuge and asylum. That should continue - but with major changes. Asylum should be limited to cases of political, ethnic or religious persecution, the party's platform statement said.
Yet the right to apply for asylum in the U.S. has been long established, through the United Nations' 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the UN's 1967 Protocol, which were later codified into U.S. law through the Refugee Act of 1980.
Immigration advocates and civil rights groups quickly condemned the administration's position, suggesting that thousands of people could be put at increased risk.
"Today's cruel and heartless decision by Attorney General Jeff Sessions... strikes at the heart of longstanding protections guaranteed to asylum seekers, and will condemn tens of thousands of men, women and children to death," said Michelle Lapointe, the Southern Poverty Law Center's acting deputy legal director.
"By declaring that the lack of policing of domestic and gang violence in other countries cannot be the sole basis for asylum in the U.S., Sessions is instituting a policy that will block thousands of people from seeking refuge in America. Women and children from other parts of the world who might have been able to get protection under these claims may now be deported to dangerous situations where they could very well lose their lives," Lapointe said.
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi characterized the decision as "heartless and inhumane."
"Republicans in the White House have just condemned countless vulnerable, innocent women to a lifetime of violence and even death, just to score political points with their base," Pelosi said. "This act of staggering cruelty insults our nation's values and our proud history as a land of hope and freedom for those fleeing pain and persecution at home."
Sessions signaled that he would be taking the action earlier Monday in a speech to the Executive Office for Immigration Review.
"The asylum system is being abused to the detriment of the rule of law, sound public policy and public safety," Sessions said, adding that increasing numbers of applicants have been claiming fears that a return to their country of origin would result in their persecution.
The numbers, the attorney general said, threaten to overwhelm the system.
"Now we all know that many of those crossing our border illegally are leaving difficult and dangerous situations. And we understand all are due proper respect and the proper legal process," Sessions said. "But we cannot abandon legal discipline and sound legal concepts."
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