- The Washington Times - Monday, June 11, 2018

The tired, poor and huddled masses seeking asylum in the U.S. will now have to prove not only that their lives were wretched back home, but also that they personally faced persecution because of their race, religion or some other special class, the Trump administration said Monday.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who announced the decision in a legal ruling, said he was trying to inject some sanity back into a system that had spiraled out of control, with women in abusive relationships or families living in gang-infested neighborhoods in Central America demanding protection.

Mr. Sessions said that stretched the definition of asylum, which was intended to be a protection for those fleeing political violence, religious persecution or beatings because they belonged to an ethnic minority.

“Asylum was never meant to alleviate all problems — even all serious problems — that people face every day all over the world,” Mr. Sessions told the country’s immigration judges in a speech Monday morning.

His guidance, in the form of a ruling in a key asylum case, overturned a decision and set a precedent for the higher bar judges should apply before granting asylum.

For people facing persecution at the hands of a government, little changes.

But those who say they faced private criminal activity — from family or neighbors — will have to prove they were targeted because of membership in a protected group, that membership was “a central reason” for their persecution and that their home country was actively looking the other way.

That would likely rule out asylum claims by women whose husbands beat them or families who have had relatives killed by gangs and fear they are next.

Immigrant rights activists said the changes will mean a death sentence for some. Democrats on Capitol Hill said Mr. Sessions was siding with wife-beaters and lacked a moral compass.

Jess Morales Rocketto, chair of We Belong Together, a pro-immigration campaign, accused Mr. Sessions of leaving women to the hands of their abusers.

“This administration is no better than neighbors who ignore cries and pleas from a woman being assaulted next door,” she said.

Yet Andrew R. “Art” Arthur, a former immigration judge and now a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, said Mr. Sessions is bringing clarity to the system.

The ruling overturns several 2014 decisions that found women who were abused but felt they were unable to leave their relationships amounted to a protected class.

“It’s the correct move,” Mr. Arthur said. “These are the bright-line rules that asylum officers, immigration judges and the Board of Immigration Appeals have needed for years in order to sort out these claims based upon criminality.”

He pointed to another major part of Mr. Sessions’ ruling — a footnote in which the attorney general reminded immigration judges and asylum officers that they can be skeptical of asylum claims from people who fled one country, came through another “safe” country such as Mexico and then arrived at the U.S.

If a migrant’s goal was merely to escape persecution at home — the purpose of asylum — they could have remained safely in the other country, U.S. officials argue.

Mr. Sessions also wrote that asylum can be rejected for people who ignore the orderly process that the U.S. has set up for requesting asylum and instead jump the border and make their claims only after they are caught.

While those orders aren’t binding, they could play a significant role in how asylum is granted.

The asylum system has come under scrutiny after a migrant caravan with some 1,500 people, mostly from Central America, crossed Mexico.

Mexico offered them protection, but nearly 500 refused and continued to the U.S., where they made initial asylum claims. Because of the low initial bar, nearly all of them passed what is known as a “credible fear” screening. That means they have been allowed to enter the U.S. and apply for asylum — and, in most cases, have already been released into the population.

With the asylum backlog now topping 300,000 cases, it could be years until they get a final hearing — giving them a chance to disappear into the shadows with 11 million other illegal immigrants in the U.S.

About half will never bother to follow through on their asylum claims, and only about 20 percent will be successful. Officials say it makes no sense that more than 80 percent can clear the initial “credible fear” screening but just 20 percent eventually qualify for asylum.

Authorities say the smuggling cartels have begun to coach their clients on how to pass the credible fear screenings in order to gain a foothold in the U.S.

That has helped create a surge, with initial asylum claims lodged with Homeland Security soaring from just 5,000 in 2009 to 73,000 in 2016.

The case Mr. Sessions was deciding Monday involved a woman from El Salvador who said she suffered abuse from her now-former husband. She tried to sneak into the U.S., was caught and put into deportation proceedings, and then claimed asylum.

She argued that because of their children, she had no way to leave the relationship back home and she needed protections in the U.S.

An immigration judge first rejected her claim, saying she wasn’t credible, she wasn’t part of a recognized class of persecuted people, and even if she was, her husband’s violence toward her had nothing to do with that. The judge also said there was no evidence that El Salvador was unwilling to help her — a required part of asylum claims.

The Board of Immigration Appeals overruled the judge.

Mr. Sessions’ decision now overrules the board.

He said that while domestic violence may be endemic in El Salvador, it’s also a major problem in the U.S. That doesn’t mean the U.S. — or El Salvador — turns a blind eye to it or is unwilling to try to help, he said.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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