The US attorney general has ruled that victims of domestic abuse and gang violence should no longer generally qualify for asylum in the US.
Jeff Sessions’ ruling overturns a 2016 decision which granted asylum to a woman from El Salvador who had been raped and abused by her husband.
America’s top law official said the “asylum statute is not a general hardship statute”.
Activists say the move will affect tens of thousands of asylum applications.
“Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum,” Mr Sessions wrote in his ruling.
He added: “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.”
How did the ruling come about?
Mr Sessions’ decision overrules a lower court’s ruling that granted asylum to a woman who told US immigration authorities she had been abused by her husband in El Salvador.
The woman – known in court documents as A-B – entered the US illegally in 2014, and requested asylum on the basis her former spouse had repeatedly abused her “emotionally, physically and sexually”.
In December 2016, the Board of Immigration Appeals found that A-B qualified for asylum.
But speaking on Monday at an annual training conference for the nation’s hundreds of immigration judges, Mr Sessions disputed the board’s findings that the woman’s case made her a member of “particular social group”.
“The asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune,” he said, adding that the woman was a victim of “private criminal activity” rather than state-sponsored persecution.
“Asylum was never meant to alleviate all problems, even all serious problems, that people face every day all over the world,” the attorney general said in advance of his ruling.
The US immigration courts are under the auspices of the Department of Justice, which Mr Sessions leads.
What happens next?
It’s unclear how many cases are affected by the ruling, but activists say that at least 10,000 people per year are granted asylum in the US on the basis of domestic abuse and gang violence in their home countries.
Pro-immigration groups say they will fight the decision, which is part of a larger effort by the Trump administration to place restrictions on immigration.
Last week, Mr Sessions defended the department’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents after they have crossed into the US.
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Activists say the ruling will especially resonate in Central America, where gang violence is rampant.
Migrants from that region frequently cite gang violence as the reason for seeking refuge in the US.
What’s the reaction?
The decision “will no doubt result in sending countless mothers and children back to their abusers and criminal gangs,” said Beth Werlin of the American Immigration Council.
“Turning our backs on victims of violence and deporting them to grave danger should not be the legacy sought by any administration.”
Frank Sharry, founder of America’s Voice, an immigration reform group, tweeted: “Sessions is locking Central Americans inside the burning house they’re trying to escape.”