“Asylum was never meant to alleviate all problems — even all serious problems — that people face every day all over the world,” Sessions said Monday in a speech before immigration judges in Virginia.
As attorney general, Sessions has broad powers over the nation’s immigration courts. He can take on cases of individual immigrants, as he did in this case of one woman from El Salvador. And his decision sets precedent for the entire U.S. asylum system, so it has implications for thousands of asylum-seekers.
Immigrant rights advocates say Sessions’ decision runs counter to years of established precedent. They fear the lives of asylum-seekers will be in danger when they are returned to their countries of origin.
“The decision itself really is looking to dial us back to the dark ages, before we really recognized women’s rights as human rights,” said Blaine Bookey, a lawyer at the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. Bookey represented the Salvadoran woman in the case before the attorney general.
In his decision, Sessions argues the asylum system is intended to protect not victims of violent crime but people fleeing from persecution, like religious minorities or political dissidents.
“We all know that many of those crossing our border illegally are leaving difficult, even dangerous situations,” Sessions said. But he said his decision would restore “sound principles of asylum and long-standing principles of immigration law.”
Sessions and other immigration hard-liners say that it has become too easy to claim asylum in the United States — and that migrants know this.
“I do agree with the attorney general that certain asylum-seekers were gaming the system in order to gain entry into the United States,” said Andrew Arthur, a former immigration judge who is now a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors lower levels of immigration.