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Attorney General Jeff Sessions is imposing sharp new limits on who can get asylum in the United States. Under the changes, most asylum seekers fleeing domestic violence or gang violence will not qualify. Here's Sessions speaking this morning at a conference of immigration judges.
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JEFF SESSIONS: Asylum was never meant to alleviate all problems, even all serious problems that people face every day all over the world. So today, I'm issuing a decision that restores sound principles of asylum and longstanding principles of immigration law.
CORNISH: Immigrants' rights advocates say this decision runs counter to decades of established precedent. And they say thousands of people could be in danger when they return to their home countries. Joining me now is NPR's Joel Rose. And Joel, I know the attorney general's decision came as part of a ruling in a particular case that you've actually been covering. Bring us up to speed.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Well, sure. As attorney general, Jeff Sessions has broad powers over immigration courts. He can reach down into any individual case he wants and set precedent for the entire system. And here, Sessions intervened in the case of a woman from El Salvador. She's asked to remain anonymous. And she's known in court papers as Miss A-B.
I interviewed her last month, and she described suffering more than a decade of abuse by her husband. He hit her and raped her. Finally, she fled and applied for asylum in the U.S.
CORNISH: Now, Sessions decided against her. What does that mean for other domestic violence survivors?
ROSE: Well, in short, it means that most of them will no longer be able to qualify for asylum here. That's after decades of fighting in court to be able to get these protections in the first place. And it's a big deal because with asylum protections, these women were able to stay in the United States and get a path to citizenship.
CORNISH: Help us understand how this worked, though. I mean, what was the argument they were able to make saying that they did deserve asylum?
ROSE: OK. This is where it's going to get a little technical but bear with me. In order to get asylum, you have to show persecution on account of race, religion, nationality or political opinion or persecution based on membership in what's called a particular social group. Immigrant rights lawyers have argued specifically that domestic violence survivors from Central America can qualify as members of a particular social group because domestic violence is such a pervasive problem there.
And these women have not only been persecuted by their husbands, their own governments are unwilling to protect them. So the abusers know that they'll get away with it. And U.S. immigration courts have gradually come to accept this theory that these women can be part of a particular social group, and it seemed to be settled law, although now Jeff Sessions has overturned that precedent.
CORNISH: And what is the argument from the attorney general on that?
ROSE: He concedes in his decision that the abuse Miss A-B and other domestic violence survivors report is quote, "vile," but he says that people all over the world are victims of private crime, of crimes of violence, and that we can't accept all of them. And in fact, Sessions argues that people are actually - asylum seekers have actually been gaming the system and coming here because it's become too easy to get asylum.
In fact, he said this morning that hopefully this ruling will discourage people from making the dangerous journey to the U.S. in the first place.
CORNISH: And the reach of this ruling, how many people affected?
ROSE: It's hard to say in hard numbers. Nobody tracks the exact reasons that people give when they ask for asylum, but it's probably in the thousands.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Joel Rose. Joel, thank you.
ROSE: You're welcome.
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