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Victims Of Domestic Abuse, Gangs To Be Denied Asylum In U.S.


All right, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has sent a pretty clear message to migrants. They will have a tougher time getting asylum in the United States. He has vowed to prosecute anyone entering the country illegally, including those who ask for asylum. And if they bring their children, they will be separated at the border. Well, now a new development - Sessions has decided that most migrants fleeing domestic abuse or gang violence no longer qualify for asylum. Here's more from NPR's Joel Rose.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: In a closely watched case, Jeff Sessions intervened in a single asylum claim. It's the case of one woman from El Salvador. But his decision could have broad implications for thousands of asylum-seekers.


JEFF SESSIONS: We all know that many of those crossing the border illegally are leaving difficult, even dangerous, conditions. But we cannot abandon legal discipline and sound legal concepts.

ROSE: As attorney general, Sessions has broad power over the nation's immigration courts. He can take on cases of individual immigrants and set precedent for the entire system. In his decision announced Monday, Sessions argues that people all over the world are victims of violent crime. But he says the asylum system is intended to protect people fleeing from persecution, like religious minorities or political dissidents.


SESSIONS: Today I'm issuing a decision that restores sound principles of asylum and long-standing principles of immigration law.

ROSE: Sessions and other immigration hard-liners say it's become too easy to claim asylum in the United States and that migrants know this. Andrew Arthur is a former immigration judge who's now a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors lower levels of immigration.

ANDREW ARTHUR: I do agree with the attorney general that certain asylum-seekers were gaming the system in order to gain entry into the United States.

ROSE: But immigrant advocates say Sessions is taking away an essential lifeline for survivors of domestic abuse and gang violence and turning his back on an American legacy of protecting the most vulnerable. Immigration lawyers, for instance, have worked for decades to help domestic violence survivors from Central America, where the problem is pervasive. They say these women are persecuted by their husbands and ignored by their own governments.

BLAINE BOOKEY: The decision itself really is looking to dial us back, you know, to the Dark Ages before we really recognized women's rights as human rights.

ROSE: Blaine Bookey is a lawyer at the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies in California, which represented the Salvadoran woman in the case before the attorney general. The woman spoke out for the first time to NPR last month. She asked to remain anonymous because she still fears her abusive ex-husband. She's known in court papers only as Ms. A.B.


A.B.: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: She said she feared for her life after suffering more than a decade of abuse. And police in El Salvador refused to help her. Finally, Ms. A.B. fled to the U.S. and applied for asylum and fought her case to the Board of Immigration Appeals, which sided with her. But then Jeff Sessions intervened. He ruled against her and sent the case back to an immigration judge to order her deportation. Ms. A.B.'s lawyer, Blaine Bookey, says her client is devastated.

BOOKEY: You know, we've spoken with Ms. A.B. herself, and she's incredibly fearful, as you can imagine. And there are lots of Ms. A.B.s out there that will be really at risk of deportation to their possible deaths.

ROSE: Ms. A.B.'s lawyers say they plan to challenge the decision in federal court.

In the meantime, Sessions says he hopes his message is reaching would-be asylum-seekers in Central America and that they think twice before traveling to the U.S. border.


SESSIONS: The world will know what our rules are. And great numbers will no longer undertake this dangerous journey.

ROSE: In recent months, there's been a surge in the number of immigrants trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Immigrant rights advocates say that's because they're fleeing extreme violence in their home countries, violence that shows no signs of abating.

Joel Rose, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF WINDSOR AIRLIFT'S "COLD OCTOBER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.