Sessions to Those Fleeing Domestic and Gang Violence: Not Our Problem

Jeff Sessions (photo by Gage Skidmore)

On Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared that domestic and gang violence are not legitimate grounds for asylum.

Sessions’ ruling overturns a 2016 immigration appeals court decision that granted asylum to a Salvadoran woman whose husband had sexually, emotionally, and physically abused her. “Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum,” Sessions said, adding,

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.

Sessions explained that in order to receive asylum, an applicant must sufficiently demonstrate that they belong to a “particular social group,” that membership in the group was the reason for persecution, and that their government was unable to protect them. “I understand that many victims of domestic violence may seek to flee from their home countries to extricate themselves from a dire situation or to give themselves the opportunity for a better life. But the asylum statute is not a general hardship statute,” Sessions concluded.

Sessions has a long record of diminishing women’s rights and civil rights. He consistently takes positions hostile to the rights of sexual assault survivors, explicitly attacks the validity of Roe v. Wade, demonstrates opposition toward women’s reproductive health care, and he’s one of the leading voices arguing against immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

The decision on Monday also reverses a 2014 precedent that allowed women to cite severe domestic violence on their application for asylum.  The precedent-setting case involved a woman from Guatemala, Aminta Cifuentes, who suffered severe abuse by her husband for a decade. During this time, Cifuentes repeatedly went to the police, but they refused to interfere in a domestic dispute. And when she fled to another city in an attempt to remove herself from the situation, her abuser found her. The US appeals board granted her asylum, ruling that she was a part of a social group of “married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship,” and that the government did not adequately protect her.

Since 2014, the Board’s ruling has been used numerous times to gain asylum in the United States. It’s estimated that at least 10,000 people per year are granted asylum on the basis of domestic abuse and gang violence. But with Sessions’ recent decision, the United States will now refuse victims of intimate partner violence, sending them back to potentially life-threatening situations because, according to Sessions, domestic violence is a “private” crime.

Sessions’ opinion demonstrates a clear lack of understanding in regard to the prevalence and nature of domestic violence. Every day, people are assaulted, raped, trafficked, and subjected to other forms of abuse. The United Nations recognizes that at least one in three women experiences physical violence by an intimate partner in her lifetime. Cultural and religious norms can significantly influence and normalize physical and emotional abuse. And in some countries, over 60 percent of females have been victims of intimate partner violence.

Domestic violence, particularly against women of color, is not “private” violence—it’s an epidemic.