AUSTIN -- Immigration attorneys are left struggling to figure out what's next for their clients, after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions decided earlier this week survivors of domestic violence and gang violence won't necessarily qualify for asylum.
"Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum," Sessions wrote in his 31-page decision.
Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch, who has practiced immigration law in Austin for around a decade, calls Sessions' decision "a nail in the coffin." She worries asylum cases won't make it past the first step, which is what's called a credible fear interview.
"So asylum officers are going to take this decision by the attorney general and they're going to say, 'Oh, generally people like this don't apply because that's what the attorney general says, so I'm going to deny this credible fear interview,'" she said. "This family is going to be deported back to their country and we're never going to get them to the point where they go in front of a judge who can actually conduct a legal analysis of the decision and all the evidence and the testimony."
Lincoln-Goldfinch recalls a previous client's case where a woman from Central America with two small children was married to a man who was a police officer, but known to be involved in gang activities.
"He was a very violent man," she said. "He almost killed her several times and did not permit her to leave the house or have a job. She was able to escape and come to the United States and to this day lives in fear of him and his ability to find her. She is now living in the United States with legal status."
She believes this client's case wouldn't have been able to go through the court process if Sessions' decision had been in place at the time.
"She is a woman who based on this decision by Attorney General Sessions would be sent back to probably a certain death in her home country," she said.
Robert Painter, director of pro bono programs and communications at American Gateways, says the organization currently has at least a dozen cases that will be directly impacted by this decision.
"Our concern is that the decision creates this problematic distinction between public and private violence," he said. "I think to some extent, that's an arbitrary decision and it doesn't recognize that you can be a victim of private criminal activity that does rise to a level of persecution and is actually sanctioned by the state or enabled by government actors."
American Gateways often works with women from the T. Don Hutto Residential Center and many them are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, according to Painter.
"These are also countries that have deeply entrenched cultural norms that enable domestic violence and where there are serious problems with the capacity with the governments there – whatever their willingness is to prevent domestic violence," he said.
But Sessions wrote that can't be immediate grounds for asylum in the U.S.
"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.
"I understand that many other victims of domestic violence may seek to flee from their home countries to extricate themselves from a dire situation or to give themselves the opportunity for a better life," Sessions concluded on the last page of his decision, while citing a previous immigration case. "But the 'asylum statute is not a general hardship statute.'"
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