According to Sessions, immigration judges must stop granting asylum to most survivors of domestic violence and gang violence. The decision is part of Sessions's order on a case called the Matter of A-B-. The survivor at the centre of the case is a Salvadoran woman who fled the country four years ago, after being abused by her ex-husband for a decade. She alleges Salvadoran authorities did nothing to protect her.
The woman, whose identity has been protected out of fear her ex-husband will find her, told NPR that he physically abused her, raped her, and followed her even when she moved to another part of the Central American nation.
"In El Salvador there's no protection for women," she told NPR. "Anyone who's been there knows this."
The woman arrived illegally in the US in 2014 and was originally denied asylum, before the Board of Immigration Appeals granted her request.
Now, Sessions has overturned that decision. He also rejected a separate 2014 Board of Immigration Appeals decision called the A-R-C-G- , which has been used as a precedent for numerous asylum cases involving domestic violence survivors.
"Generally, claims by aliens pertaining to domestic violence or gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum," he said in the ruling. "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."
Asylum seekers like the survivor at the centre of the Matter of A-B- case are typically Central American migrants fleeing the violence in the region, which typically comes at the hands of intimate partners or gangs. According to the 2016 Small Arms Survey analysis of violent deaths, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America are the three regions with the highest femicide rates in the world.
Both US and international law establish that people can seek asylum out of fear of being persecuted in their home countries based on their race, political opinion, nationality, religion, or belonging to a particular social group. Per the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, it doesn't matter whether someone arrives legally or illegal in order to seek asylum.
"To obtain asylum through the affirmative asylum process you must be physically present in the United States," the USCIS website reads. "You may apply for asylum status regardless of how you arrived in the United States or your current immigration status."
The A-R-C-G- case allowed judges to determine that domestic violence survivors can be considered members of a particular social group. But Sessions' decision puts a stop to that determination and tightens the standards under which judges can grant asylum to survivors, likely putting tens of thousands at risk.
The policy is part of Sessions' bigger efforts to completely change the immigration system. Since becoming attorney general, he has tried to end President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme, imposed case quotas on immigration judges, and most recently, ordered that migrant parents and children get separated at the border. The policy has traumatised hundreds of children and a Honduran man died by suicide after being separated from his wife and three-year-old son.