The horror stories of asylum seekers fleeing violence in Central America are enough to break the heart of anyone who doesn’t work in the Trump administration. One mother escaped Honduras after a gang murdered her brother and tortured and murdered her 14-year-old son for refusing to be a lookout. Another woman fled Guatemala after gang members repeatedly raped her and threatened to cut her unborn baby out of her womb. Another woman’s husband told her he would chop off her head with a machete if she didn’t drink poison; then he kidnapped their daughter at knifepoint.
Yet Jeff Sessions is unmoved. In fact, the U.S. Attorney General has repeatedly dismissed the claims of asylum seekers, echoing Trump’s favorite word by calling them “fake claims.”
“We… have dirty immigration lawyers who are encouraging their otherwise unlawfully present clients to make false claims of asylum providing them with the magic words needed to trigger the credible fear process,” Sessions said in a speech last year.
As we reported in April, Sessions was personally taking over asylum cases in an effort to reconsider whether domestic or sexual violence should ever be justification for seeking asylum in the United States.
This month, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has begun implementing new guidelines that will make it nearly impossible for victims of both domestic violence and gang violence to obtain asylum.
The guidelines say: “In general… claims based on membership in a putative particular social group defined by the members’ vulnerability to harm of domestic violence or gang violence committed by non-government actors will not establish the basis for asylum, refugee status, or a credible or reasonable fear of persecution.”
The new rules direct immigration officials to immediately reject any asylum claim based on fear of gang and domestic violence, before claimants even enter the U.S. or can plead their case in court. They also tell officers to consider immediately rejecting an immigrant who crossed the border illegally, whether or not they have a credible fear of persecution.
That is extremely worrying for several reasons. First, during the past year, border officials have been turning away asylum seekers who present themselves legally at ports of entry. One family was turned away nine times. Many sleep outside at the border for days. This often forces families and individuals to cross the border outside ports of entry. While many immigration hardliners say crossing outside ports of entry is illegal – and therefore grounds for deportation under the new rules – that’s not true. The Immigration and Nationality Act allows asylum seekers to apply “whether or not at a designated point of arrival.”
Another important point is that the new guidelines say the U.S. will no longer grant asylum based on claims of “gang violence committed by non-government actors.” In Central America, however, the gangs are deeply tied to the corrupt government and police. Government officials often use gangs to wield their power and intimidate the people. In turn, domestic violence is tightly linked to gang violence.