A federal appeals court has struck down Trump administration policies that sought to gut protections for asylum seekers fleeing domestic violence and gangs.

The Center for Gender & Refugee Studies (CGRS) and the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the policies that sought to speedily send women, children and other asylum seekers back to countries where they faced brutal violence and death. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., today upheld key aspects of a lower court ruling against the administration. The case is Grace v. Barr.

Photo of Professor Karen Musalo

Professor Karen Musalo

“Once again the courts have struck down the Trump administration’s policies, which have the single-minded intent to deny refugee protection to those fleeing inconceivable harms,” said Professor Karen Musalo, Director of CGRS. “We are heartened by the court’s clear pronouncement that asylum claims of women fleeing domestic violence, and those fleeing gangs, are not foreclosed from protection under our laws.”

The appeals court reinstated two aspects of the Trump policy after the government conceded that such policies should not be read to foreclose successful claims in cases of women fleeing domestic violence or gang violence.

Cody Wofsy, an attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, who argued the case, called ita major defeat for the administration’s assault on asylum rights and the law.”

The plaintiffs include women who have endured extensive persecution in the form of sexual and physical violence. Fearing they would be seriously harmed or killed, they sought refuge in the U.S., many of them with their young children. But under the new policies, even though government officials found the accounts truthful, they concluded the women did not have a “credible fear of persecution” under the new heightened screening policies and ordered them to be sent back to the countries where they face grave harm.

Blaine Bookey, CGRS Legal Director

“Our plaintiffs sought refuge in the United States after enduring unimaginable horrors in their home countries. Today’s decision ensures that the administration cannot just change the rules of the game with the stroke of a pen and deny them the protections to which they are entitled,” said CGRS Legal Director Blaine Bookey. “Importantly, this ruling recognizes that women and others fleeing domestic violence and gang brutality cannot be cast aside as undeserving and must have their claims considered fairly, on a case-by-case basis.”

The ACLU and CGRS filed suit Aug. 7, 2018. At issue were the Administration’s new “expedited removal” policies put forth by Attorney General Jeff Sessions that instruct asylum officers to “generally” deny such claims — calling them purely “personal” — as well as apply erroneous legal standards, and ignore contrary federal court precedents. The policies undermine the fundamental human rights of women, contradicting decades of settled domestic and international law recognizing gender-based persecution as a basis for asylum. They also impermissibly undermine claims involving gang violence.

Plaintiffs include:

  • “Mina,” who escaped her home in Honduras after suffering a vicious attack and receiving death threats by a powerful drug-trafficking gang. Gang members targeted Mina and her family after her husband and father-in-law helped a friend escape when the gang was trying to kill him. After murdering her father-in-law and threatening to kill her husband, gang members beat Mina so badly that she could not walk the next day. Her attackers told her they would rape her and mutilate her body if she did not leave town. Mina and her husband fled to the U.S. and sought asylum.
  • “Maria,” a recently orphaned teenager, fled her home in El Salvador to escape a forced relationship and sexual violence at the hands of a gang member nicknamed “F.” When Maria’s brother-in-law, a member of the same gang, began using her deceased mother’s house as a gang gathering place, Maria stood up to him because of her strong Christian faith. After she asked her brother-in-law to leave, F. threatened her. He later attempted to sexually assault her days before she fled to the U.S., taking only the clothes on her back.
  • “Grace” fled Guatemala to escape her abusive partner and his violent gang member sons from a previous relationship. He repeatedly beat and threatened to kill her and her children throughout their 22-year relationship and after she tried to leave him. He also sexually assaulted her and her daughter over many years. Grace is part of an indigenous group that is discriminated against in Guatemala by non-indigenous “Ladinos.”