Attorney General Merrick Garland departs after speaking at the Justice Department in Washington, June 15, 2021.
Attorney General Merrick Garland departs after speaking at the Justice Department in Washington, June 15, 2021.

The U.S. government on Wednesday ended two Trump administration policies that made it harder for immigrants fleeing violence to qualify for asylum, especially Central Americans.

Attorney General Merrick Garland issued new instructions to immigration judges to stop following the Trump-era rules that made it tough for immigrants who faced domestic or gang violence to win asylum in the United States. He also undid a policy that made it difficult for immigrants to obtain asylum based on threats to a family member.

The moves could make it easier for immigrants to win their cases for humanitarian protection and were widely celebrated by immigrant advocates.

"The significance of this cannot be overstated," said Kate Melloy Goettel, legal director of litigation at the American Immigration Council. "This was one of the worst anti-asylum decisions under the Trump era, and this is a really important first step in undoing that."

Garland said he was making the changes after President Joe Biden ordered his office and the Department of Homeland Security to draft rules addressing complex issues in immigration law about groups of people who should qualify for asylum.

More asylum filings seen

Gene Hamilton, who served in the Justice Department and was a key architect of many of former President Donald Trump's immigration policies, said in a statement that he believed the change would lead to more immigrants filing asylum claims that are based on crime and that should not be a reason for protections.

The Biden administration changes come as U.S. immigration authorities have reported unusually high numbers of encounters with migrants on the southern border. In April, border officials reported the highest number of encounters in more than 20 years, though many migrants were repeat crossers who previously had been expelled from the country under pandemic-related powers. The number of children crossing the border alone also has hovered at all-time highs.

Many Central Americans arrive on the border fleeing gang violence in their countries. But it isn't easy to qualify for asylum under U.S. immigration laws, and the Trump-era policies made it that much harder.

More than half of asylum cases decided by immigration courts in fiscal 2020 were denials, according to data from the Department of Justice's Executive Office for Immigration Review. Four years earlier, it was about one in five cases.

In the current fiscal year, people from countries such as Russia and Cameroon have seen higher asylum grant rates in the immigration courts than people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the data show.

Immigration judges abide by instructions set by the attorney general, and their courts are within the Justice Department.

Domestic violence victims

In one of the reversals, Garland restored a 2014 case that defined married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationships as a group deserving of asylum, a decision that eased the way for other victims of domestic violence. In 2018, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions overturned that guidance and added that victims of gang violence also should be largely ineligible, extending the scope to large swaths of nongovernment actors.

In another case involving a Mexican man who claimed his father was targeted by a drug cartel, Garland reversed a decision by former Attorney General William Barr that said such family ties were insufficient ground for an asylum claim.

Jason Dzubow, an immigration attorney in Washington who focuses on asylum, said he recently represented a Salvadoran family in which the husband was killed and gang members started coming after his children. While Dzubow argued they were in danger because of their family ties, he said the immigration judge denied the case, citing the Trump-era decision among the reasons.

Dzubow welcomed Garland's changes but said he doesn't expect to suddenly see large numbers of Central Americans winning their asylum cases, which remain difficult to win under U.S. law.

"I don't expect it is going to open the floodgates, and all of a sudden everyone from Central America can win their cases. Those cases are very burdensome and difficult," he said. "We need to make a decision: Do we want to protect these people?"