Domestic Violence & Asylum: Jeff Sessions Denies Refuge To Victims

By Andrew Soboeiro

Women’s rights and immigrant rights: these values have been on the chopping block since Day 1 of the Trump Administration. A recent decision by Jeff Sessions threatens both sets of rights at once. The Attorney General has reversed a prior Board of Immigration Appeals ruling that afforded victims of domestic violence a path to legal asylum based on their victimization and the inability of their home governments to protect them from their abusers. In doing so, he is denying countless immigrants any hope of ever qualifying for legal status, condemning thousands to suffer and die from domestic violence, and undermining the foundations of our democracy.

The Decision in Detail

To understand what Jeff Sessions has done, it’s first necessary to review the Matter of A-R-C-G. This was a case before the Board of Immigration Appeals concerning an immigrant from Guatemala named Aminta Cifuentes. Cifuentes had fled Guatemala to escape her horrifically abusive husband, who had beaten her, raped her, threatened to murder her, and even tried to set her on fire. Local law enforcement officials had refused to protect her, so she sought refuge in the United States.

Cifuentes officially received that refuge in 2014, when the Board ruled that she was a valid candidate for asylum. Under US law, applicants for asylum must have been persecuted in their country of origin for belonging to a particular social group. The Board decided that married women in Guatemala constituted a particular social group, and that because Guatemalan authorities failed to protect them from abusive partners, they were effectively persecuted. This ruling made it far easier for immigrants who had been in abusive relationships to receive legal asylum in the United States.

On Monday, Jeff Sessions abruptly overturned this ruling. The Attorney General has the authority to reverse the Board’s decisions unilaterally, and he used this authority to deny asylum to domestic violence survivors. Sessions argued that because domestic abuse is a “private criminal activity” rather than a government policy, it is not persecution. He also claimed that domestic abusers do not target their victims based on their membership in the social group “married women.” On this basis, he required domestic violence survivors to prove that their governments specifically condone domestic violence or are unable to prevent it. Otherwise, they have no case for asylum.

Radical Ramifications

This decision is horrifying enough for its short-term results. By denying asylum to domestic violence victims, Sessions is saying that the United States will turn its back on some of the most vulnerable people in the world. Many abuse victims go on to be murdered by their abusers. Even those who survive experience years or even decades of suffering, and their children often become victims as well. Sessions’ policy is thus to let thousands of people suffer and die who would otherwise have been eligible to apply for lawful immigration status.

In addition to abandoning domestic violence victims, this case sets a precedent that could threaten countless other applicants for asylum. Gang violence, anti-LGBTQ hate crimes, and myriad other threats and attacks could all be construed as “private criminal activities.” If battered women are not valid candidates for asylum, these victims likely aren’t, either.

As with many of the Trump Administration’s immigration policies, this decision won’t just harm immigrants. Sessions argued his ruling on dubious legal grounds, relying on a selective reading of a concurring opinion from a separate case. There is good reason to believe that he made this decision not because he thought it accurately reflected the law, but rather as a means of achieving a policy goal— namely, to dissuade immigrant families from entering the United States. But as more than a dozen former immigration judges and Board of Immigration Appeals members argued, this effectively turns the law into a political instrument. The Rule of Law is one of the pillars of a free society; by disregarding it for political purposes, Sessions puts us all at risk.

For more information on immigration law and policy in the United States, call Vigoda Law Firm today at 919-307-7817.