By characterizing domestic violence as “private criminal activity,” even when the police can’t prevent or stop it, Attorney General Jeff Sessions apparently intends to bar the victims from winning asylum.
Under two court orders, the government is now reuniting migrant children with their mothers. Although the California court that ordered the reunification may permit continued detention of the families until their asylum claims can be decided, something worse than separation or detention awaits those mothers who are deported: rape and death.
Many of the mothers and children who previously could have won asylum will now be sent back to Central America, where they face horrific violence at the hands of the brutal gangs from which they fled.
That risk is now very great because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently changed policy that had allowed immigration judges to grant asylum to victims of domestic violence.
In 2016, I volunteered as a lawyer at the family detention center in Dilley, Texas. Every mother I met had fled to the United States to escape brutal domestic violence, threats of rape or death from gangs. Nearly all were found by asylum officers to have “credible fear of persecution,” enabling them to claim asylum in hearings before federal immigration judges.
Immigration advocates who work on the cases of mothers in the family detention centers in Texas estimate that more than 85 percent of them are at risk of serious bodily harm or death at the hands of violent men in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Federal statistics for family cases are unavailable, but until recently, many of the families fleeing from those countries eventually did win asylum from immigration judges. In the clinic that I codirect at Georgetown Law, and at other law-school clinics, students have won asylum for several of them. We also know from data collected by the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California Hastings that hundreds of other Central American families have obtained protection in immigration courts around the country. It had become well established that victims of domestic violence could win asylum. In some cases, asylum was also granted to families fleeing threats of violence in countries where the police are unable to prevent such violence.
But the Immigration and Nationality Act allows the Attorney General unilaterally to tell immigration judges how to interpret the law. Attorney General Sessions recently overruled the appellate case that supported asylum for domestic-violence victims.
Reversing that woman’s asylum grant, he wrote that her ex-husband “attacked her because of his pre-existing relationship with the victim” rather than because she was a member of a “group” of women who were violently attacked by husbands or gang members.
Our attorney general’s view of the law, apparently, is that domestic violence is a purely private affair, unrelated to social norms or patterns in countries in which such violence is endemic. By characterizing domestic violence as “private criminal activity,” even when the police can’t prevent or stop it, he also apparently intends to bar the victims from winning asylum.
Immigration judges don’t enjoy deporting genuine victims of violence. Perhaps some will find creative ways to grant relief to these families, rather than becoming cogs in the giant femicide machines of northern Central America. But many will feel bound to follow Sessions’ official guidance.
If the women fleeing for their lives have to prove that those who want to rape and kill them bear animus toward all women similarly situated, and not just their actual victims, they will be hard pressed to win asylum. And so they will be deported back to the situations of rape, beating and slashing they fled.
The public should not be distracted by the government’s reunification of families. The families now being released may stay together for a few months. But they remain in terrible peril because of the Trump administration’s lack of empathy and humanitarian concern for the parents and children who quite reasonably fear for their lives.