Immigration judges say Sessions’ decision makes it harder for people facing ‘life and death’ to win asylum in US

A woman dresses a girl at a shelter, surrounded by luggage and clothes

Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision on asylum seekers is 30 pages long.

Advocates and many judges say that the decision is extraordinary, not only because the attorney general took steps to overrule the court’s’ prior rulings, but because the decision that victims of certain kinds of violence can qualify for asylum has been previously reviewed over the course of decades.

A group of 15 former immigration judges signed a letter on June 11 calling the decision “an affront to the rule of law.” They point out that the decision Sessions overturned, a precedent cited in the “Matter of A-B-” decision that he was reviewing, had been certified by three attorney generals before him: one Democrat and two Republicans.

“For reasons understood only by himself, the Attorney General today erased an important legal development that was universally agreed to be correct,” the letter says. “Today we are deeply disappointed that our country will no longer offer legal protection to women seeking refuge from terrible forms of domestic violence from which their home countries are unable or unwilling to protect them.”

In his decision, Sessions said “private criminal activity,” specifically being a victim of domestic violence, does not qualify migrants for asylum. Rather, victims have to show each time that they are part of some distinct social group (a category in international and US law that allows people to qualify for refugee status) and were harmed because they are part of that group — and not for “personal reasons.”

Sessions said US law “does not provide redress for all misfortune. It applies when persecution arises on the account of membership in a protected group and the victim may not find protection except by taking refuge in another country.”

“Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-government actors will not qualify for asylum,” the decision reads. In a footnote, he also says that few of these cases would merit even being heard by judges in the first place because they would not pass the threshold of “credible fear.”

But attorney Karen Musalo says every case has to be decided individually. Muslao is the director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the UC Hastings College of the Law and has been representing women in immigration hearings for decades. She is concerned that some asylum officers will see this decision as a directive to turn people away from seeing a judge. “That’s patently wrong,” she says.

US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that conducts initial screenings for asylum cases (known as “credible fear interviews”) did not respond to a request for information about how the decision might change the work they do.

Musalo’s is among the attorneys representing A-B-, a Salvadoran woman identified only by her initials in court filings, whose case Sessions reviewed. Her center was part of a group that submitted a brief of over 700 pages in the case; that brief was not cited in Sessions’ decision. The brief reviewed impunity in El Salvador, for example, for those who commit violence against women and also had specific evidence about A-B- and how local police failed to protect her from domestic violence.

“What’s surprising is how deficient and flawed his understanding of the law and his reasoning is. The way he pronounces how certain concepts in refugee law should be understood and interpreted is sort of breath-taking,” says Musalo. “He was reaching for a result, so he was willing to distort legal principles and ignored the facts.”

To Musalo, this case is about more than asylum, though. She says it’s a surprising, damaging twist in the broader #MeToo movement. Sessions is “trying to turn back the clock on how we conceptualize protections for women and other individual,” she says. “In the bigger picture of ending violence against women, that’s just not an acceptable position for our country to take and we’re going to do everything we can to reverse that.”

That includes monitoring cases in the system now and making appeals in federal courts, which could overturn Sessions’ decision. Congress, Musalo says, could also take action.

More about the process: How does seeking asylum work?

Because Sessions controls the immigration courts, which are administrative courts that are part of the Department of Justice rather than part of the judiciary branch, immigration judges will have to follow his precedent in determining who qualifies for asylum. District court and other federal judges 

Ashley Tabaddor, an immigration judge and president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said she was troubled by Sessions’ lack of explanation for why he intervened in this particular case.

The attorney general’s ability to “exercise veto power in our decision-making is an indication of why the court needs true independence” from the Justice Department, Tabaddor told the New York Times.

Immigration judge Dana Leigh Marks, the immigration judges association past president, says the group has been advocating for such independence for years.

“We have a political boss. The attorney general is our boss and political considerations allow him, under the current structure, to take certain cases from the Board of Immigration Appeals and to choose to rule on those cases in order to set policy and precedent,” she says. “Our organization for years has been arguing that … there’s a major flaw in this structure, that immigration courts are places where life and death cases are being heard.”

Therefore, she adds, they should be structured “like a traditional court.”

Burn marks
Naomi, who is seeking asylum in the US, said her son’s hand, arm and back were disfigured after her ex-boyfriend in Honduras threw hot oil at her and burned the child instead. Courtesy of Central American Legal Assistance

Sessions’ decision will have immediate implications for domestic violence victims currently seeking asylum in the US.

Naomi, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym because her case is pending in New York, is from Honduras. Her former boyfriend there threw hot oil at her, but hit her 4-year-old son instead. The boyfriend threatened them with a gun — she fled, ultimately coming to the US where she has some family. She told us that she tried to get the police to help, but they wouldn’t.

More about Naomi’s case: Sessions reviewed a case very similar to hers.

Naomi’s attorney, Heather Axford with Central American Legal Assistance in Brooklyn, said they might need to try a new argument to keep her client in the US.

“We need to come up with new ways to define a particular social group, we need to explore the possibility of when the facts lend themselves to a political opinion claim, and we need to make claims under the Convention Against Torture,” she told WNYC Monday. The US signed and ratified the Convention Against Torture in 1994.

Mary Hansel, deputy director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, says the Sessions decision goes against US human rights obligations.

“An evolving body of international legal authorities indicates that a state’s failure to protect individuals (whether citizens or asylum seekers) from domestic violence may actually amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” Hansel writes in an email to PRI. In international human rights law, states need to protect individuals from harm. “Essentially, when women are forced to endure domestic violence without adequate redress, states are on the hook for allowing this to happen.”

Naomi’s story is horrific, but it is not unusual for women desperate to escape these situations to flee to the US. Many of these women had a high bar for winning an asylum case to begin with. They have to provide evidence that they were persecuted and documents to support their case. Sometimes, lawyers call expert witnesses to explain what is happening in their country of origin. Language barriers, lack of access to lawyers, contending with trauma and often being in detention during proceedings also contribute to making their cases exceptionally difficult.

Sessions’ decision will make it even harder.

In justifying tighter standards, Sessions often claims that there is fraud in the system and that asylum seekers have an easy time arguing their cases.

“We’ve had situations in which a person comes to the United States and says they are a victim of domestic violence, therefore they are entitled to enter the United States” Sessions told Phoenix radio station KTAR in May. “Well, that’s obviously false, but some judges have gone along with that.”

Also: Here’s how one woman from El Salvador won asylum in 2016

Unlike other court proceedings, immigrants who do not have or cannot afford attorneys are not guaranteed legal counsel. There are no public defenders in immigration court. And just 20 percent of those seeking asylum are represented by attorneys, according to a report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

The Trump administration has taken several steps to clear the 700,000 cases pending in immigration court.  At the end of May, Sessions instituted a quota system for immigration judges, requiring them to decide 700 cases each year and have fewer than 15 percent of cases be overturned on appeal.

Marks told NPR that the quota could hurt judicial independence. “The last thing on a judge’s mind should be pressure that you’re disappointing your boss or, even worse, risking discipline because you are not working fast enough,” she said.

According to TRAC, the courts decided more than 30,000 cases in the 2017 fiscal year compared to about 22,000 in 2016. Some 61.8 percent of these cases were denied; the agency does not report how many of the claims were due to domestic or gang violence, or for other reasons. For people from Central America, the denial rate is 75 to 80 percent. Ninety percent of those who don’t have attorneys lose their cases.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Sessions’ overturned a decision in the “Matter of A-B-.”

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