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US Asylum Advocates Welcome Lifting of Trump-era Restrictions

Asylum-seeking migrant families disembark an inflatable raft after crossing the Rio Grande river into the United States from Mexico in Roma, Texas, June 9, 2021.

Human rights advocates welcomed the Biden administration’s reversal of limits on asylum eligibility in the United States, announced by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland this week.

Rights groups say the decision restores a pathway to safety for survivors of domestic violence and families targeted by violent gangs — categories the former Trump administration all but excluded for asylum in two orders issued by Garland’s predecessors.

“It's a move that will have immediate effect,” said Robyn Baynard, senior advocacy counsel for refugee protection at Human Rights First, speaking with VOA. “I can't overstate how big of an impact this is going to have on their [asylum seekers’] cases.”

Baynard noted that asylum petitioners whose cases were denied based on the previous orders and are awaiting appeal can now request their cases be sent back to immigration courts to be reconsidered in light of this week’s decision.

The Trump administration argued that limits on asylum eligibility were needed to curb what it saw as abuse of America’s immigration system.

“The vast majority of the current asylum claims are not valid,” then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a 2018 speech. “Asylum was never meant to alleviate all problems — even all serious problems — that people face every day all over the world.”

Sessions issued a ruling restricting asylum eligibility for people, mostly women, who fled domestic violence. His successor, former attorney general William Barr, in 2019 issued a ruling that family members of people targeted by criminal gangs were not eligible for asylum based on their family ties.

The rulings were grounded in the Trump administration’s interpretation of U.S. immigration law, which holds that asylum-seekers must prove they face a well-founded fear of persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, political opinions or membership in a particular social group.

Sessions argued that women fleeing domestic violence did not belong to a “particular social group.” Barr later argued the same regarding family members of people facing gang violence.

As of Wednesday, both rulings were vacated in their entirety. Garland’s action comes four months after President Joe Biden signed an executive order instructing federal agencies to review and determine whether to rescind multiple restrictive Trump-era rules pertaining to asylum seekers and refugees.

In a memorandum coinciding with Garland’s announcement, Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta wrote that U.S. asylum laws “reflect America’s commitment to providing refuge to some of the world’s most vulnerable people.”

Going forward, Gupta said the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security are working on guidance to “determine the circumstances in which a person should be considered a member of a 'particular social group.’”

Meanwhile, Gupta said immigration judges “should no longer follow the vacated decisions” and rule on cases based on the precedent that existed prior to the Trump administration’s orders.