Kevin D. Liles for NPR
Survivors of domestic violence and gangs stand a better chance of securing asylum in the United States as the Justice Department overturns several controversial decisions by the Trump administration.
In a pair of rulings announced on Wednesday, Attorney General Merrick Garland overturns several controversial legal rulings made by his predecessors – in effect restoring the possibility of asylum protections for women fleeing domestic violence in other countries and families targeted by violent gangs.
“These decisions involve important questions about the meaning of our nation’s asylum laws, which reflect America’s commitment to providing refuge for some of the world’s most vulnerable people,” the Associate Attorney General wrote. Vanita Gupta in a note explaining the decisions to the country’s immigration judges.
But Wednesday’s decisions don’t necessarily resolve these complex issues. President Biden signed an executive order in February ordering the Department of Justice and Homeland Security to develop new rules on who can claim asylum.
This process, however, should take months. Immigrant advocates have warned survivors of abuse still risk deportation because the Trump-era rulings were still in effect and urged the attorney general to take swift action in the meantime.
“The attorney general’s action today will restore fairness to the asylum process,” said Blaine Bookey, an attorney at the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.
“It will save lives. It will ensure that women seeking asylum from domestic violence and other forms of gender-based persecution can have their claims fairly considered,” Bookey said in an interview.
The cases at issue – known as the AB Case and the LEA Case – were both decided by attorneys general during the Trump administration. Under the rulings, the rules for who is eligible for asylum have largely been restored to where they stood before President Trump took office.
Trump has often called the asylum a “scam” and his administration has taken numerous steps to limit asylum protections for migrants arriving at the southern border.
“The asylum system is being abused to the detriment of the rule of law,” then Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a 2018 speech when he argued that there are certain social ills that the United States simply cannot solve.
“Asylum was never meant to alleviate all the problems – even all the serious problems – that people face every day all over the world,” Sessions said.
The legal argument about who should be entitled to asylum rests on the meaning of three words: “a particular social group”.
Asylum seekers must show that they face a well-founded fear of persecution based on at least one of the five protected grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group. But the precise meaning of the latter category has been hotly debated.
The sessions decided in 2018 that survivors of domestic violence and gangs are generally not considered a “particular social group”. But immigrant advocates say the interpretation rolled back US law. They argue that many women still face persecution in countries where police will not protect them from violent partners and that they should be able to make their asylum claims under US law.
The woman at the center of the debate says she is satisfied with the Attorney General’s decisions. Woman known in court documents only as Ms AB says she had no choice but to leave El Salvador and seek protection in the United States
For a while, it looked like she had won her asylum case – until Sessions stepped in, using her case to set a precedent that put new restrictions in place.
“I feel satisfied and happy that my case can help other women who are going through the same thing as me,” she said in Spanish through an interpreter.
Ms AB’s own asylum claim remains unresolved. But her lawyers say they are convinced that she will eventually get an asylum application and that she can finally ask to bring her children to join her in the United States.