A federal judge ruled on Wednesday that the Trump administration's attempt to bar domestic and gang violence victims from seeking asylum in the United States violated long-established immigration laws.
Former Attorney Jeff Sessions issued an interim decision in June in which he ruled that the violence survivors did not merit asylum, essentially because they were not part of a politically persecuted class in their home countries. On Wednesday, Washington, D.C., District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled that Sessions' decision was "unlawfully and arbitrarily imposed a heightened standard to their credible fear determinations," citing existing legislation like the 1980 Refugee Act, which established that escapees' claims must be viewed with "generous standard for protection in cases of doubt."
Immigrant rights groups lauded the decision as a defense of rule of law and long-standing protections for immigrants.
"Today's decision should send a clear signal to the administration: you cannot simply wave a pen and undo decades of carefully established law and policy—based on international standards and obligations—that permit individuals access to the asylum system," Archi Pyati, policy chief at the Tahirih Justice Center, an advocacy group, said in a statement emailed to Pacific Standard. Tahirih filed a brief in favor of the plaintiffs against Sessions' ruling.
"Survivors of domestic and sexual violence deserve an opportunity to seek asylum in the U.S. and should not be summarily kept out, leaving them to struggle to find protection, and putting their lives at risk," Pyati adds.
(1) membership in a group, which is composed of members who share a common immutable characteristic, is defined with particularity, and is socially distinct within the society in question; and (2) that membership in the group is a central reason for her persecution.
Analysts previously told Pacific Standard that there was still some leeway for immigration lawyers to argue that, in some countries, domestic and gang violence victims are indeed part of a victimized class, even if they are not systematically persecuted by the government. Despite the decision, cases are still adjudicated on a case-by-case basis, and some may still be found to fulfill Sessions' criteria.
Pacific Standard has reported on the case of Vilma Carrillo, an escapee from domestic abuse in Guatemala who has been separated from her daughter, who is a U.S. citizen and therefore ineligible to be detained together with her mother. Carrillo left Guatemala after being brutalized by her husband, who her attorneys say at one point punched her in the face so hard that it shattered four front teeth. Guatemalan police frequently harass people seeking the protection of the law, according to Department of State travel warnings.
Carrillo's case has been denied by a Georgia immigration judge, a decision that could jeopardize her custody of her child. It remains to be seen how Wednesday's decision will affect Carrillo's appeal and whether she will be reunited with her child.
Sullivan's ruling requires that the government retroactively revisit denied asylum claims for violence victims, but it is unclear whether the ruling will stand at all, analysts say. The judge "ordered the government to return to the United States those plaintiffs who were deported and to provide them with new asylum interviews," says Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration law professor at Cornell University.
"The government is sure to appeal this decision. In the meantime, however, the federal court ruling ensures that people fleeing domestic violence or gang violence will have a fair shot at proving they qualify for asylum," Yale-Loehr adds.