Immigration advocates and domestic violence experts are calling on the Biden administration to reverse Trump-era policies that made it increasingly difficult for survivors of gender-based violence — including acts of domestic violence — to seek asylum in the United States. President Joe Biden has committed to restoring protections for people fleeing domestic violence, but he has not reversed those policies. 

At Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday, he asked legislators to pass his comprehensive immigration bill but did not address asylum. As Biden approached his first 100 days in office, advocates, legal groups and political leaders called for Attorney General Merrick Garland to act. The Department of Justice did not return a request to comment. 

During the Trump administration, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions overturned a 2014 precedent that made it easier for those fleeing domestic abuse to qualify for asylum. Sessions said that domestic violence was a private crime, effectively saying it would not be grounds for asylum. 

Bill Barr, his successor as attorney general, strengthened that decision, continuing to limit the ability of survivors of domestic violence, as well as those fleeing violence based on family ties, to claim asylum. 

On February 2, Biden ordered a review of the Trump-era policies, which is set to be completed by August with provisions in place no later than November 1. Advocates and experts are still pushing Garland, who has the authority to repeal these restrictions at any point, to lift restrictions for survivors of gender-based violence long before this deadline, highlighting the urgency, which they say could have broad impacts on women and LGBTQ+ people. 

“As long as they are still on the books, women’s cases are getting denied,” said Kate Jastram, director of policy and advocacy at the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies. 

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Globally, 1 in 3 women have experienced or been subjected to either “physical, sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime,” according to the World Health Organization. During the pandemic, families are forced to stay at home, increasing the tensions and violence of a domestic abuse situation, said Nancy Lemon, a lecturer in domestic violence law at Berkeley. 

“Domestic violence is an epidemic rooted in gender conditioning and patriarchal norms,” Lemon said in a news conference Tuesday hosted by the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, where advocates called for the reversal of these policies that affect survivors of domestic violence seeking asylum. “Amidst a global surge in domestic violence exacerbated by conditions created by COVID-19, it is more important than ever that the United States extend protection to those whose own governments have failed them.”

In 1985 the Board of Immigration Appeals explicitly named kinship as a viable “social group” for asylum purposes, confirming an avenue to protection for people fleeing persecution related to their family ties, according to the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies

“The stakes could not be higher. Vacating … will mean the difference between life and death for courageous individuals who look to the United States for protection,” Karen Musalo, CGRS director and professor of law at the University of California, Hastings, said in the news conference.

Historically, few asylum seekers are allowed permanent entry into the United States, and the process can be extremely long — months or years — as they wait for their decision, experts told The 19th. Although DHS does not store specific reasons for asylum, a study in 2017 by the Weill Cornell Center for Human Rights found that 91.7 percent of the cisgender women evaluated over nine years who claimed asylum were in some part members of a non-government related “social group” that led to abuse. 

In 2020, in part due to the pandemic, asylum grant rates in immigration court were 37 percent lower than in 2016, according to Human Rights First. In that fiscal year, 73.7 percent of immigration judge decisions denied asylum, according to TRAC, a research non-profit at Syracuse University. The number of official asylum applications decreased by 8.6 percent from 2018 to 2019, from 106,128 applications to 96,952, according to the Department of Homeland Security, which experts attribute to a chilling effect by the Trump administration.

“Asylum grant rates have plummeted, and the U.S. government has ordered refugees deported to the very dangers they narrowly escaped, placing them in harm’s way and tearing families apart,” said Blaine Bookey, the legal director at the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies in the press conference Tuesday. “We’re ready to hold the Biden administration accountable to its promise to ‘build back better.’”

Farrah Qazi, an immigration attorney based in Chicago, works with predominantly women who flee from their home country. 

“By the time they come into my office, they’ve been traumatized, and re-traumatized and re- traumatized so many times,” said Qazi, who works with many many women who flee domestic abuse. “I see tragic, tragic stories of a society failing young girls and then women as they get older. … They are survivors tenfold.” 

For some of her cases, Qazi uses the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 — which Biden worked to pass when he was in the Senate — to help her clients claim asylum, which would not require their partner to sign paperwork in the case of domestic abuse. A VAWA offense can be used on any person who may be in danger in relation to their partner. She pushes, however, for a system in which seeking asylum based on gendered violence and domestic partnerships is recognized. 

“Asking for asylum is not illegal. That is a universally declared human right that is given to people,” Qazi said. 

A woman identified as Sarahi, who has changed their name for safety reasons, successfully sought asylum from El Salvador in 2018 based on gender-based violence after entering the United States in 2014, articulated the same sentiments of fear in the news conference Tuesday. She was one of few whose case was granted in the Trump administration. 

“I left my country after being mistreated for being a woman for decades. I had to make the difficult decision to leave my life behind,” Sarahi, who spoke through a translator. “I don’t even want to think about what would have happened to me if I had been sent back like the Trump administration would have wanted. I honestly do not think I would be alive to tell the tale.”

Rep. Sara Jacobs, a Democrat who represents San Diego, where the highest number of refugees reside, has spoken to many women seeking asylum. 

“In my conversations with these people, many of the women were subject to rape, to sexual assault, to sex trafficking while they were waiting in Mexico and in their home country,” Jacobs said, referring to the waiting process of seeking asylum.

The urgency on this is clear, said Jacobs, who remembers the stories of her great-grandmother, 14 at the time, seeking refuge in the United States from persecution as a Jewish woman. 

“We have a responsibility to make sure that people and women and LGBTQ+ individuals who are fleeing this kind of violence have a safe refuge in the United States. We talked about the United States as the ‘city on a hill,’” Jacobs said. “This is exactly what we mean, the place that people look to when they need to be protected. And I think that it’s important morally, and I think it’s important for our national security and are standing around the world to make sure that we continue and build on that role that we have historically played.”