The Trump administration is now instructing immigration officials to turn away immigrants who arrive at the U.S. border seeking asylum from gang-related or domestic violence, CNN reported Thursday. Even if an immigrant legitimately fears persecution, the administration wants officials to consider whether an immigrant entered the country without authorization — and to hold that against them.
Under this new guidance, thousands more people could be denied the chance to seek asylum in the United States.
The new guidance, which was reportedly given to immigration officials Wednesday and which CNN reviewed, instructs, “Claims based on ... 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.”
"Our laws do not offer protection against instances of violence based on personal, private conflict that is not on account of a protected ground, but over the years grounds for qualifying for asylum have greatly expanded far beyond what Congress originally intended," U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesperson Michael Bars told VICE News in a statement. "Many petitioners understand this, know how to exploit our system, and are able to enter the U.S., avoid removal, and remain in the country. They’re then referred to an immigration judge and released on a promise to appear for a court date weeks, months, or years down the line regardless of whether they plan to show up."
In fiscal year 2016, only a quarter of immigrants didn't show up to hearings where immigration judges issued a decision in their case, according to Justice Department data. That's a slight drop from fiscal year 2015, when 28 percent of orders were issued in cases where immigrants didn't appear, but an increase from fiscal year 2012, when just 11 percent of orders were issued in absentia.
"USCIS is committed to adjudicating all petitions fairly, efficiently, and effectively on a case-by-case basis to determine if they meet all standards required under the law," Bars added.
Immigration officials will now reportedly reject people following their initial screenings at the border, which are known as “credible fear interviews.” Those interviews are traditionally used to establish whether an immigrant should have a chance to argue their case in front of a judge, and don’t require immigrants to conclusively and legally prove that they deserve asylum.
Technically, people who are denied at their credible fear interviews can appeal their case to an immigration judge. But immigrants arriving at the United States’ southern border — who are overwhelmingly from Central America, and may not speak English well or at all — may not know that’s an option, as CNN notes.
Plus, immigration judges are also beholden to the reported guidance. And they could lack the time or ability to properly evaluate an immigrant’s case.
“They can ask an immigration judge to review the denial of the credible fear interview, but this is done in a very quick, expedited fashion. So you don’t get a hearing before the immigration judge,” Jorge Barón, executive director of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, told VICE News in June. “Currently, under the statute, there isn’t a mechanism to then appeal that decision by the immigration judge.”
The government doesn’t break down requests for asylum by reason.
This new guidance extends a binding directive issued by Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month, which ruled that gang violence and domestic abuse are not grounds to grant asylum to immigrants. Sessions has repeatedly slammed the U.S. asylum system as broken and backlogged.
“The mere fact that a country may have problems effectively policing certain crimes — such as domestic violence or gang violence — or that certain populations are more likely to be victims of crime, cannot itself establish an asylum claim,” Sessions wrote in his directive. He also repeatedly referred to domestic abuse and gang violence as “private,” a term that immigration attorneys have condemned.
Shortly after Sessions released his directive, Laura Lunn, an attorney for the Immigrant Law Group PC in Denver, told VICE News that women, in particular, frequently face such violence because they are women.
“The misconception is that these are just private actors that are having marital problems with their partner, and there’s a lack of recognition of the targeted abuses. Gender violence is not just a personal issue,” she said. “It’s about exerting authority over somebody else who’s of a different gender from you.”
Cover image: U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivers remarks on immigration and law enforcement actions on at Lackawanna College June 15, 2018 in Scranton, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images)