No more asylum claims based on fear of gang violence: Sessions

Critics say mothers and children will be sent back to their abusers.

June 11, 2018, 4:44 PM

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is making an aggressive new move to crack down on illegal immigration, announcing Monday that the Trump administration will no longer accept asylum claims based on fear of domestic violence, gang violence or other “personal crime.”

“Our nation’s immigration laws provide for asylum to be granted to individuals who have been persecuted, or who have a well-founded fear of persecution, on account of their membership in a ‘particular social group,’ but most victims of personal crimes do not fit this definition — no matter how vile and reprehensible the crime perpetrated against them," a Justice Department statement said.

Pushback from immigration groups was swift.

“The Attorney General’s decision — if permitted to stand—will no doubt result in sending countless mothers and children back to their abusers and criminal gangs. Turning our backs on victims of violence and deporting them to grave danger should not be the legacy sought by any administration," Beth Werlin, Executive Director of the American Immigration Council, said in a release.

Lee Gelernt, Deputy Director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, told ABC News that Sessions’ decision will be appealed, indicating the matter is “far from over.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, blasted the Sessions move.

“Once again, an administration that claims to be tough on crime is actually just tough on crime victims. Today’s shameful decision by the Attorney General slams the door in the face of women fleeing brutal violence, LGBT refugees fleeing persecution, and thousands of others seeking safety in the United States," he said in a statement.

"Today’s decision will send untold numbers of refugees to their deaths. Attorney General Sessions: their blood is on your hands,” Blumenthal said.

Earlier in the day at an event outside Washington, Sessions took aim at the asylum-seeking process in the United States.

"The asylum system is being abused to the detriment of the rule of law, sound public policy, and public safety — and to the detriment of people with just claims," he said. "Saying a few simple words—claiming a fear of return — is now transforming a straightforward arrest for illegal entry and immediate return into a prolonged legal process, where an alien may be released from custody into the United States and possibly never show up for an immigration hearing," Sessions continued.

When a person comes to the United States seeking asylum, they must declare to the customs officer that they have a "credible fear of persecution" in his or her home country.

Both the 1951 United States Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and U.S. law say that the United States must recognize refugees with that fear of persecution and who aren't able to seek help from their home country.

But on Monday, Sessions portrayed asylum seekers as making claims as a means to an end.

"Asylum was never meant to alleviate all problems — even all serious problems — that people face every day all over the world," he said.

Sessions said that majority of asylum claims "are not valid."

He lamented that the numbers have ballooned for people who claim asylum and are being placed in immigration courts.

The U.S. investigates and determines if people who claim asylum has "credible fear" and then if it is determined they do, according to U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, they are brought in front of an immigration judge for a hearing on whether they'll be granted asylum.

The number of credible fear screenings has risen more than a thousand percent between 2008-2016.

USCIS says screenings have gone from 5,100 in 2008 to close to 92,000 screenings in 2016.

The Department of Justice has sent more than 15 immigration judges and over 30 prosecutors to the southern border to process asylum and other immigration cases.

"We have a firm goal, and that is to end the lawlessness that now exists in our immigration system," Sessions said.

Sessions also touched on the "zero tolerance" policy DOJ has put in place.

"I have put in place a ‘zero tolerance’ policy for illegal entry on our Southwest border. If you cross the Southwest border unlawfully, then we will prosecute you. It’s that simple," Sessions said in front of Immigration Judges at the Executive Office for Immigration Review Annual Training Conference.

This is not the first time the Attorney General has spoken about "zero tolerance" on the border. The Department has touted the policy since early April, and Sessions spoke about it in early May.

He also defended the policy on conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt's show.

The zero tolerance policy the Department of Justice has enacted has also led to the separation of children and parents.

"We believe every person that enters the country illegally like that should be prosecuted. And you can’t be giving immunity to people who bring children with them recklessly and improperly and illegally," Sessions told interviewer Hugh Hewitt on June 5th.

The goal, the attorney general said, is to have no illegal border crossings.

ABC News' Geneva Sands and Lauren Pearle contributed to this report.

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