A decision to deny appeals for asylum in the United States based on claims of domestic abuse or gang violence has been deplored by Catholic leaders from coast to coast. San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy called a ruling by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reject such claims “a denial of our heritage.”
“For the whole of our history, the United States has been a refuge for people seeking protection from oppression,” he said. “If we are going to begin now to categorize domestic violence and rape as other than an oppression of people’s human dignity, then we have truly lost our moral compass as a country.”
He added, “This is simply the end of the United States being the haven to refugees in the world, the end of our great national tradition.”
In a ruling that could affect thousands of Central Americans who have made a perilous journey north in search of safety in the United States, the attorney general said on June 11 that immigration judges generally cannot consider domestic and gang violence as grounds for asylum.
San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy called a ruling by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reject such claims “a denial of our heritage.”
“At its core, asylum is an instrument to preserve the right to life,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston, Tex., and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a statement released on June 13. “The Attorney General’s recent decision elicits deep concern because it potentially strips asylum from many women who lack adequate protection,” he said.
“These vulnerable women will now face return to the extreme dangers of domestic violence in their home country,” he said. “This decision negates decades of precedents that have provided protection to women fleeing domestic violence. Unless overturned, the decision will erode the capacity of asylum to save lives, particularly in cases that involve asylum seekers who are persecuted by private actors.” The cardinal urged U.S. courts and policymakers “to respect and enhance, not erode, the potential of our asylum system to preserve and protect the right to life.”
In New York, Donald M. Kerwin Jr., director of the Center for Migration Studies, said the decision was just another in a series of steps that the Trump administration has taken to limit protection in the United States for people fleeing violence, conflict or political oppression, “starting with cuts in the refugee resettlement program, the evisceration of temporary protected status, [and] the denial of access to the asylum system at the U.S./Mexico border,” among other policy and bureaucratic moves aimed at halting the flow of refugees and asylum seekers to the United States. He said the attorney general had made the unprecedented decision to refer a case “to himself” with the goal of trying to eliminate asylum claims by “creating a standard that cannot be met.”
“At its core, asylum is an instrument to preserve the right to life,” said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo.
In a 31-page decision, the attorney general said, “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.”
In a widely anticipated move, Mr. Sessions overruled a Board of Immigration Appeals decision in 2016 that gave asylum status to a woman from El Salvador who had fled her husband. Mr. Sessions had personally reopened the case for his review in March as the Trump administration stepped up criticism of asylum practices.
Mr. Sessions focused on one of five categories accepted to qualify for asylum—persecution for membership in a social group—calling it “inherently ambiguous.” The other criteria are race, religion, nationality and political affiliation.
Domestic violence is a “particularly difficult crime to prevent and prosecute, even in the United States,” Mr. Sessions wrote, but he said its prevalence in El Salvador does not mean that its government is less willing or able to protect victims than the United States is.
Domestic violence is a “particularly difficult crime to prevent and prosecute, even in the United States,” Mr. Sessions wrote.
Mr. Kerwin does not share that judgment. He said that among many asylum seekers reaching the U.S. border, “extreme levels of violence have been experienced because a government is unable or unwilling to stop it or, as in some cases, is complicit in it.”
“To declare that asylum can no longer be granted to victims of gang violence or spouse abuse not only flies in the face of the American tradition of protecting the most vulnerable immigrants, it sets a dangerous precedent for other victims of violence, including those who are targeted for their religious beliefs,” said Jeanne Atkinson, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (Clinic), in a statement released on June 11. According to Clinic, asylum law has long recognized that persecution can occur at the hands of entities that a national government is “unable or unwilling to control,” including terrorist groups like the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and the Tamil Tigers.
Many of the nation’s Jesuit institutions also expressed strong opposition to the attorney general’s decision. “As Jesuit organizations and affiliated law professors and advocates serving refugees and asylum seekers, we are appalled at this ill-conceived decision,” read a statement released on June 13 by Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, the Jesuit Conference Office of Justice and Ecology, the Kino Border Initiative and 12 U.S.-based Jesuit law schools.
“It is contrary to both U.S. and Catholic values which protect the most vulnerable, including victims of violence and persecution,” the statement continued. “In the midst of the largest global forced migration crisis in recorded history, with over 65 million people displaced from their homes, we must do more, not less, to address the needs of individuals, families and communities in search of safety and security.”
According to these Jesuit groups, the protection of the individual is at the heart of U.S. asylum and immigration law “and should include those experiencing domestic and gang violence.” They added, “We must not turn our backs on those who are most in need.”
“We must do more, not less, to address the needs of those in search of safety and security.”
“This is a sad day,” Ms. Atkinson said. “With this decision the Trump administration continues to keep out of this country those who need the promise and protections of the United States the most, saying that such refugees should use ‘legal channels’ to seek entry to the United States at the same time it systematically moves to close those channels.”
She added that Clinic staff had “personally witnessed what happens when beleaguered, fearful people try to use ‘legal channels’ by presenting themselves at ports of entry following a grueling journey.” Hundreds have waited for days at ports of entry along the Mexican border, seeking admission to apply for asylum, she said.
That bureaucratic bog at the border serves a purpose of the Trump administration, Mr. Kerwin suggested. He has been surprised to hear administration officials “with a straight face” try to make the case that Mexico, a nation struggling with deep structural corruption and rampant drug and political violence, should be considered a “safe, third-party state,” obviating a U.S. obligation under international law to accept asylum seekers as they reach the border.
Mr. Kerwin dismissed the policy shift as “ridiculous, mean-spirited and meretricious.”
The United States, he suggested, “is beginning to look a lot like one of these Eastern European ethno-nationalist countries” where near-outright racism has begun to pass for migration policy.
“Families are the foundational element of our society, and they must be able to stay together.”
“We are in a moral realm now that is really quite disturbing, and we think that what they are doing is evil,” he said. (Mr. Kerwin struggled over the word evil before deciding it was the only appropriate descriptor.)
““There is something much deeper going on here and more troubling,” he said. “People are fleeing for their lives with their children, and they are being denied protection.... I think what’s at the heart of it is a different view of the country, a different vision than the one a lot of us share about this democracy and a vision that I hope the majority of the country would reject.”
In San Diego, Bishop McElroy has decided that advocacy and education campaigns alone are no longer a sufficient response to the immigration crisis as the Trump administration continues more aggressive enforcement policies against undocumented people that include separating children from their parents.
“We have to take some steps to provide assistance to keep families together,” he said, “and for that reason we’ve established a program through our Catholic Charities to provide housing and assistance for those asylum seekers who meet the first threshold [in the asylum process] and who are allowed into the country.”
In his statement on June 13 on behalf of the U.S. bishops, Cardinal DiNardo took the opportunity to join with Bishop Joe Vásquez, chairman of U.S.C.C.B.’s Committee on Migration, in condemning “the continued use of family separation at the U.S./Mexico border as an implementation of the administration’s zero tolerance policy.”
“Our government has the discretion in our laws to ensure that young children are not separated from their parents and exposed to irreparable harm and trauma,” he said. “Families are the foundational element of our society, and they must be able to stay together.” The cardinal acknowledged that “protecting our borders is important,” but, he said, “we can and must do better as a government, and as a society, to find other ways to ensure that safety. Separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral."
It is not clear if the attorney general’s reversal of asylum policy will withstand court challenges, according to Mr. Kerwin, but in the meantime, a message has been sent to families from Mexico and Central America who are considering fleeing the chaos and disorder of their home states. Border arrests topped 50,000 for a third straight month in May and lines of asylum seekers have grown at U.S. crossings with Mexico.
How many will refrain from making the difficult journey north will depend on how desperate their current circumstances are, Mr. Kerwin said, pointing out that so far migrants are still coming to the border despite the new aggressiveness of border and immigration enforcement.
Updated on June 13, 5:13 p.m. ET to include a statement from Jesuit institutions.