Every day Trump’s asylum rulings remain in effect, refugees are at risk of being denied protection and sent back to the violence they’ve escaped.
Although President Biden has promised to restore humanity to our asylum system, many of his predecessor’s cruelest policies remain in effect, placing vulnerable women and families at risk of deportation to the very dangers they have fled. Trump’s racist, misogynist legacy includes a series of restrictive Justice Department rulings that have made it extremely difficult for people fleeing gender-based violence to win asylum protection.
These harmful policies can be easily undone with one simple action on the part of Attorney General Merrick Garland. By vacating the Trump administration’s rulings, Garland can give people seeking refuge from domestic violence, gang brutality, and other abuses a fighting chance in court—and uphold our country’s commitments to protect human rights. Immigrants, asylum seekers and advocates are rising up and urging Garland to do right by our communities, protect lives, and keep families together.
How Did We Get Here?
Let us rewind a bit and explain how we got here. Back in 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions personally intervened in the case of a Salvadoran domestic violence survivor known as Ms. A.B. He overturned a lower court’s grant of asylum to her and declared that “generally” women like Ms. A.B. cannot qualify for refugee protection. In doing so, he wiped out decades of legal precedents that recognized survivors as deserving of protection and doubled down on the antiquated and misogynistic notion that domestic violence is a “private” matter that governments have no obligation to address.
When Blanca*, a survivor and member leader with Mujeres Unidas y Activas, learned of Sessions’s ruling she was outraged. “I fled my home in Guatemala to save my life and my children’s,” she said. “Suggesting that domestic violence is a ‘private’ matter is an expression of patriarchal power that justifies violence against us, just like my abuser and the government in my home country did.”
“Suggesting that domestic violence is a ‘private’ matter is an expression of patriarchal power that justifies violence against us, just like my abuser and the government in my home country did.”
—Blanca*, a survivor and member leader with Mujeres Unidas y Activas
The fallout has been devastating. Following Sessions’s ruling, immigration judges began denying asylum to survivors of domestic violence and other forms of gender-related persecution and issuing deportation orders in cases that should have been relatively straightforward. And Jeff Sessions’s successors, including William Barr, decided to follow his lead, issuing several subsequent decisions that restricted asylum even further. The last of these came down just days before the Trump administration left office.
These policies have impacted people from all over the world escaping persecution perpetrated by members of their families and communities, with a disproportionate impact on women, children and LGBTQ+ people. For those seeking safety from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, where those forms of violence are highly prevalent, asylum approval rates have plummeted.
In February President Biden issued an executive order directing his Departments of Justice and Homeland Security to review a number of Trump-era asylum policies, including those relevant to women and families. After that review is complete, the agencies are expected to introduce new regulations to bring our treatment of asylum seekers into alignment with our international obligations, which uphold domestic violence survivors’ right to access asylum, and with our country’s cherished values of dignity and compassion for the persecuted. But this process will likely take many months—or even years—to complete.
In the meantime, people seeking asylum cannot afford to wait. Every day Trump’s asylum rulings remain in effect, refugees are at risk of being denied protection and sent back to the violence they’ve escaped. “We are fleeing the possibility of being assassinated,” Ms. A.B. told NPR in April. “I was able to escape, but many have died, many people are no longer around to tell their story.”
Attorney General Garland has the power to restore some fairness to the asylum process now by simply vacating the damaging decisions issued by Jeff Sessions and other anti-immigrant forces in Trump’s Justice Department. There is clear precedent for him to do so. Attorneys general under the Clinton and Obama administrations similarly vacated the flawed decisions of their predecessors upon assuming office, in order to give their administrations time to issue new regulations to guide immigration decision-making.
Sarahi*, a survivor and asylee represented by Pangea Legal Services, knows firsthand what a profound and life-saving impact Garland could make. “I don’t even want to think about what would have happened to me if I was sent back to Guatemala like the Trump administration would have wanted,” she has said. “I honestly do not think I would be alive to tell the tale. Attorney General Garland, please listen to our voices. All I want is for other women and families like me to be able to live in peace.”
*Names truncated or changed to protect anonymity.
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