Immigrant Advocates Urge Biden Administration to End Trump Restrictions on Asylum for Domestic Violence Victims

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In a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, some attorneys and advocates requested he use his authority to get rid of five Trump policies, including one by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions that reversed a 2014 precedent establishing that women fleeing domestic violence could qualify for asylum. File photo of U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on April 26, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Mandel Ngan-Pool/Getty Images)

Immigrant advocates and law professors in the Bay Area are urging the Biden administration to immediately revoke Trump-era restrictions on asylum that they say have led the U.S. to send back to danger thousands of immigrant women and families fleeing domestic violence or gang brutality.

Within weeks of taking office, President Biden ordered the U.S. attorney general and the Homeland Security secretary to take steps to review and restore an asylum system he said was “badly damaged” by policies under the Trump administration. But the agencies are not expected to issue regulations related to victims of domestic and gang violence until late summer or fall.

In the meantime, the U.S. attorney general, who oversees immigration courts, should vacate orders by his Trump-era predecessors that dramatically limited who was eligible for asylum protection, said Karen Musalo, director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at UC Hastings in San Francisco.

“People’s fates are in the balance,” said Musalo, a law professor. “Every day that these decisions remain in place means that individuals who have deserving claims for protection and whose lives are really at risk are being denied and sent back to the countries they fled.”

In a letter this month to Attorney General Merrick Garland, Musalo and attorneys with other litigation and advocacy organizations requested he use his authority to get rid of five Trump policies, including one by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions that reversed a 2014 precedent establishing that women fleeing domestic violence could qualify for asylum.

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The Department of Justice did not return KQED’s requests for comment.

An immigration judge may grant asylum to people with a well-founded fear of persecution in their home countries because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

In 2018, Sessions rejected the claim of a Salvadoran mother of three who had suffered nearly 15 years of physical and sexual violence at the hands of her ex-husband. The woman, known in court documents as A.B., was represented by Musalo.

In his Matter of A-B- decision, Sessions concluded that domestic violence is a private or personal crime, not a form of persecution deserving of asylum on account of membership in a particular group.

But there is overwhelming evidence that domestic violence is rooted in the subordination of women by men and caused by a society’s gender conditioning, said Nancy Lemon, a UC Berkeley law professor who wrote the textbook "Domestic Violence Law." She called the Matter of A-B- ruling “an affront to women’s rights.”

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“Former Attorney General Sessions’ view of domestic violence is not only incredibly antiquated and dangerous, it also absolves government of any role in addressing the problem,” said Lemon during a call with reporters. “This sort of backwards rhetoric is very harmful and has set back many decades of progress in women's rights at home and abroad.”

Applicants often face a very difficult road to win asylum, especially if they lack legal counsel, and the share of denials significantly increased during the Trump administration. Judges nationwide denied nearly 55% of asylum claims in 2016, the last year of the Obama administration, but the rate of denials climbed to 72% in 2020, according to figures compiled by researchers at Syracuse University.

A Bay Area woman named Blanca, who won asylum in the U.S. and asked for her last name to be withheld, spoke at a press conference Tuesday, calling on the Biden administration to reverse the Matter of A-B- ruling and other asylum restrictions. She said she fled severe beatings and emotional abuse by the father of her three children in Guatemala after the local police and government failed to enforce a restraining order or help protect her and her kids.

Now, Blanca has become an advocate with the Bay Area nonprofit Mujeres Unidas y Activas, speaking up for other women and children who, she said, deserve similar protections.

“Domestic violence is not a private matter, as Jeff Sessions said in 2018,” said Blanca, in Spanish. “The government has the responsibility to protect our lives even when the aggressor is our spouse ... To live free of violence is a right we all have as human beings, but we women have been suppressed by both abusers and the government.”