Immigration activists have made a legal challenge to the government’s criteria for migrants seeking asylum on Tuesday, saying that the grounds outlined were too narrow and should be expanded.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies filed suit on behalf of a dozen individuals who say they left their home countries after experiencing “horrific persecution,” including the murder of family members. These people were denied asylum in the United States.
The lead plaintiff, identified only as “Grace,” is a native of Guatemala who says she came to the United States after two decades of physical and sexual abuse by her husband. “Grace” faces the possibility of deportation back to Guatemala, where her lawyers say her life is at risk.
Previously, a person could claim fear of gang violence or domestic abuse as a reason why they should be granted asylum into the United States. In June, Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a new policy, stating that these factors “generally” do not constitute a suitable reason.
In a June 11 decision by the attorney general relating to a particular case referred to as A-B-, he ruled that “generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum.”
While Sessions said that he did not “minimize the vile abuse” that particular woman had endured, “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.”
Catholics have spoken out strongly against the new policy.
At the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ general assembly in June, USCCB President Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston condemned the new policy in his opening address to the bishops.
DiNardo said that the policy would risk the lives of women, and that “unless overturned, the decision will erode the capacity of asylum to save lives, particularly in cases that involve asylum seekers who are persecuted by private actors.”
The ACLU argues that the updated policy is an “attempt to subvert decades of settled asylum law” and is a “fundamental misunderstanding of domestic violence.” The plaintiffs are arguing that the new policy effectively restricts asylum claims to those fleeing persecution either by the government, or that the government actively condoned the persecution.
This, they argue, goes against the established legal standard that the local government merely be “unwilling or unable” to offer protection.
In May, administration officials said that individuals and people-smuggling organizations were exaggerating the threat of violence they faced in an effort to exploit the system and gain entry to the United States.
Sessions said that the June changes would restore "sound principles of asylum and long-standing principles of immigration law."
Under immigration law, a person seeking asylum must prove that they are subject to persecution in their home country due to their race, nationality, religious beliefs, political views, or membership in a certain social group. Over time, the definition of “certain social group” has been expanded to include women who are fleeing domestic violence in countries where there are few legal avenues for a woman to prosecute or even escape her abuser.
Over the past year, the number of people seeking asylum who fail the first step, known as the “credible fear screening,” has increased. People who fail the credible fear screening are subject deportation back to their country of origin.
The case will be heard by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.