COMMENTARY: Jeff Sessions wants to keep out domestic violence survivors


U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently made a surprise announcement: He will be re-evaluating U.S. asylum policy regarding survivors of domestic violence. A reversal of current policy would mean that people fleeing domestic violence in their home countries no longer qualify for asylum in the United States.

This is yet another attempt to codify the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant and anti-refugee agenda, this time targeting some of the most vulnerable and traumatized people who seek refuge in our country. If we want to stop this from happening, and keep our doors open to those escaping abuse, we have to act now to keep current protections in place.

Gender violence in parts of Central America has driven tens of thousands of women, girls and LGBT people to flee for their lives. And the roots of this violence are tied to U.S. policy in the region. For example, in Guatemala and El Salvador, the United States covertly trained armed groups throughout the 1980s to use rape and other forms of gender violence to prevent people from resisting the installation of right-wing governments in their countries. Much of that violence became normalized and persisted long after the wars officially ended. In Honduras, the United States enabled a coup in 2009. Military rule in that country has meant the slashing of services to prevent gender violence and protect survivors, and the regime itself has carried out rapes, beatings and murders of women who oppose their rule.

In short, our government has stoked these countries’ crises and is now shutting our doors on asylum seekers.

The specific case on Sessions’ desk is the Matter of A-B-, in which a woman from El Salvador (with the initials A.B.) appealed for asylum based on abuse she had suffered from her partner. Her application was initially denied, then approved on appeal to the Board of Immigration Appeals, which found that she qualified as a member of a targeted “social group,” under asylum law.

But now her fate — and that of countless others like her — is again in question. Sessions is reviewing whether A.B. and other victims of what he calls “private criminal activity” should be considered members of a particular social group under the law — and whether they should benefit from asylum protections.

By framing this as an issue of “private criminal activity,” the attorney general falls right in line with an argument long used to undermine women’s rights protections, namely that “private” violence — in the home or between intimate partners — does not warrant intervention by the state. Women’s rights activists have fought back against this flawed logic at every level — from challenging police officers who would minimize domestic violence as merely a lovers’ quarrel, to lobbying for the recognition under international law that governments must address this kind of violence.

The broad language of Sessions’ announcement hints that this decision could be used to turn away not just survivors of domestic violence, but a wide range of people who seek safety in the United States. People facing other forms of gender-based violence — such as sex trafficking, female genital mutilation, forced marriage, and violence against LGBT people — could also be ineligible for asylum if he reverses this policy. They could simply be turned away or deported, without ever seeing an immigration judge.

But the decision hasn’t been finalized yet. Sessions asked legal advocates to have submitted briefs by last Friday in response to the question of “Whether, and under what circumstances, being a victim of private criminal activity constitutes a cognizable ‘particular social group’ for purposes of an application for asylum or withholding of removal.”

Many advocates have responded, sending in amicus briefs and alerting the legal and migrant rights communities. There’s also a role for the broader public to play: Our leaders need to hear from us. Let them know that we won’t allow women’s and LGBT rights to be eroded. We demand that protections for asylum seekers be strengthened, not weakened.