Last week Attorney General Jeff Sessions made changes to the qualifications of those seeking asylum in the United States. Now, people fleeing domestic or gang violence no longer qualify for asylum.
To be granted asylum, people have to prove they’re in fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion. An immigration appeals court during the Obama administration ruled those fearing domestic and gang violence fall into the “social group” category. Sessions overturned that decision.
Thousands of people have left their native countries hoping to be granted asylum in the United States. Immigration experts say these changes have already impacted people in the San Joaquin Valley.
Jeremy Clason, a certified immigration specialist in Fresno, calls the policy change “horrifying.” Most people that come through his doors applying for asylum are escaping domestic violence, he says.
“The cases that walk through the door are Mexico and Central America and those are the types of cases that are based on domestic violence, and that’s exactly the types of cases that no longer exist,” says Clason.
The policy change has already turned some people’s lives upside down.
Clason says he knew one woman who left El Salvador with her toddler a few months ago. She was running from her boyfriend who beat her and slashed her with a machete. She spoke to Clason the weekend before Sessions's announcement on June 11. Within days, her case dissolved.
“And so she fled to the U.S., she showed me the scars and last Friday, it was either last Thursday or Friday, I said, ‘You can absolutely win your case.’ And then as of Monday she no longer has a case,” says Clason.
A certified immigration specialist in Bakersfield, Win Eaton, says his office also has a number of people seeking asylum because of domestic violence. Some of those people could have other options to gain legal residencies. But, it’s temporary and doesn’t come with any path to citizenship or benefits.
“For instance they might have Convention Against Torture, Withholding of Removal Relief, but they will never be able to get a green card if that’s the way their allowed to stay in the United States because withholding and Convention Against Torture, what we call CAT, is only going to allow them to stay here for their protection," says Eaton. "But it doesn’t give them a path to residency or citizenship the way an asylee would be benefited."
Now that the rules have changed, it’s unclear what will happen to asylees with open cases. Eaton says the policy changes are "horrible" and it’s “very likely” they will be denied and deported. There is also no guarantee they will be protected if they have to go back to their countries. He says most could endure more brutality or even death.
“These are people that are fleeing horrible circumstances and now we’ve politicized the process by putting the political appointee, Jeff Sessions, the attorney general of the United States in the middle of rendering these, these edicts,” says Eaton.
Many of the people Eaton works with come to the U.S. as a last resort. He says many would rather stay in their native countries. But if they do, they can’t keep their families safe.
Eaton’s office also represents asylee’s fearful of gang violence. Gang members will often use kids as bargaining chips to get working families to give them thousands of dollars. When they fall short on cash, he says, gang members kill their children.
“One woman said it best here a little while ago," says Eaton. "She told me directly that she would rather have her son, who was at that time 11 years old, die en route to the United States or seeking refuge some place than to be forced to join one of the gangs and to lose his life in a criminal environment.”
Some Valley Republicans say Sessions's decision needed to happen and is a step in the right direction. Guillermo Moreno, with the Fresno County Republican Party, agrees with Sessions and says citing domestic or gang violence shouldn’t be part of asylum policy.
“So, the fact that (Attorney) General Jeff Sessions came out with this and reiterated the fact that, you know, we can’t do this, we can’t just open it up for everyone in every single, you know, every single circumstance, you know it’s something that had to be done,” says Moreno.
The thousands of people who applied for asylum citing domestic and gang violence has backed up courts, says Moreno. Some of those cases don’t have merit and get denied, he says, and it becomes a problem.
“You know this new direction will more than likely help those that are truly seeking to enter the country under a valid asylum claim," says Moreno.
The corrupt government systems in Latin American countries also hold responsibility, says Moreno. They need to do more for victims of domestic and gang violence, he says.
If the U.S government wants to continue to step in and help victims in these situations, then that should be addressed separately, and not as an asylum claim, says Moreno.
An earlier version of this story named an immigration specialist Jeffery Clason but his name is Jeremy Clason.