Jeff Sessions Does Not Understand Domestic Violence

Jeff Sessions Does Not Understand Domestic Violence

As the Trump administration half-heartedly attempts to clean up the mess that its family separation policy created, another regressive policy that alters who can seek asylum in the United States is now in effect.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a directive in mid-June that severely restricts the ability of asylum seekers to gain entry into the United States by citing fears of domestic or gang violence. Sessions reconsidered an already-approved asylum petition of a domestic violence survivor, known in the case as “A-B-” from El Salvador. He also overruled a 2014 precedent that recognized domestic violence as a basis for asylum, reigniting the debate on what constitutes a need for refuge.

The number of people granted asylum is actually quite small: In 2016, for every asylum applicant who succeeded, more than ten others failed. Which makes the June 11 decision even more stunning: Sessions fails to understand intimate partner violence, mislabeling it as “private” matter between a husband and wife that is limited to the domestic sphere.

Because of their “pre-existing personal relationship,” Sessions concludes that domestic violence survivors do not face persecution due to their membership in a “particular social group,” which is required to gain asylum in the United States.

Sessions ignores a simple fact: El Salvador is one of the deadliest places in the world to be a woman. It’s also been called the “murder capital of the world”: A recent study found a woman is killed there every 16 hours.

Violence in the small Central American country, particularly violence perpetrated against women, is pervasive and infects the country’s entire ecosystem. Government corruption is widespread; doctors are intimidated by the prospect of prison time from helping women who were raped obtain abortions (which are illegal in all circumstances); intimate partner violence occurs daily; and gangs commit murder and sexual violence with almost complete impunity.

And yet, the Trump administration maintains that people fleeing this violence are not refugees. Doctors Without Borders called this policy a death sentence for any woman attempting to escape her abuser.

The assumption that toughening up border enforcement will deter migrants from attempting to cross it is deeply flawed. Stricter border laws push people fleeing violence to pay higher prices to use traffickers instead, which reinforces the vicious cycle of organized crime.

The brutality that A-B- faced did not occur in a vacuum. This “private violence” is not private at all; it’s actually a public health crisis. Domestic violence affects nearly a third of women worldwide. As many as 38 percent of murders of women in the world are committed by a male intimate partner.

The World Health Organization defines intimate partner violence as “behavior by an intimate partner or ex-partner that causes physical, sexual or psychological harm, including physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse, and controlling behaviors.” These behaviors can lead to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, and suicide attempts. Violence can also lead to unintended physical outcomes, including pregnancies, gynecological problems, induced abortions, and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

Children growing up in such situations are more likely to perpetrate or experience violence later in life. There are considerable social and economic costs as well: Women facing violence can experience social isolation, loss of wages from an inability to work, lack of participation in their community, and an inability to care for themselves and their children.

But the attorney general, whose history of racist remarks led to the loss of a federal judgeship in 1986, likely failed to take such factors into consideration in his shameful ruling.

An immigration judge would usually handle an asylum case. If a woman loses her case, the matter can go before the federal Board of Immigration Appeals before being heard in federal circuit court. But in an effort to severely limit the number of people granted asylum, Sessions exploited a rarely used provision allowing him to personally override this process in the A-B- case.  

In 2016, the Board of Immigration Appeals found that A-B- did indeed qualify for asylum because she was part of a “particular social group” of women in El Salvador who are unable to leave violent marriages due the Salvadoran government’s failure to protect them.

Sessions has sent a clear message to the Central American women forced to abandon their homes and flee for their lives: No matter how much abuse you’ve suffered, American immigration officials would prefer to send you back to your country to meet an almost certain death.