Sessions May End Asylum For Thousands Of Immigrants Like Ms. A.B. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is personally intervening in the case of one woman from El Salvador. He is questioning whether she and other crime victims deserve asylum in the U.S.

This Salvadoran Woman Is At The Center Of The Attorney General's Asylum Crackdown

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Who should get asylum in the United States? The thinking on that question has been shifting for more than half a century. In many ways, it's become easier for some people, like domestic violence survivors, to get asylum. Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to change that. He's moving to limit who can get protection and a path to American citizenship. NPR's Joel Rose has the story.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: To understand how the U.S. asylum system works, you have to turn back the clock all the way to World War II.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: They're known as displaced persons. And not until they reach their various countries will there again be order in Europe.

ROSE: Millions of refugees were displaced by the war and couldn't return home - Jews who fled the Holocaust and political outcasts who escaped from behind the Iron Curtain. So European diplomats got together in Geneva in 1951 to figure out how to help them and to establish an international framework for future refugees.

DAVID MARTIN: There was certainly a very strong humanitarian impulse behind it. But the drafters of the treaty said, we don't want to write a blank check.

ROSE: David Martin is an immigration expert at the University of Virginia School of Law. Martin says the delegates agreed that asylum should be reserved for people facing persecution based on four factors - race, religion, nationality or political opinion. Then at the last minute, Martin says, a delegate from the Netherlands added one more category to the list - people who fear persecution because they belong to a particular social group.

MARTIN: He was concerned that some victims might not fall within the four factors that already were listed. And that's about all we know about it - no real guidance as to who would be included.

ROSE: So particular social group was open to interpretation. This wasn't an issue when the United States adopted the asylum language crafted in Geneva, but it would turn out to be hugely important. Years later, immigration lawyers started to argue that all sorts of people deserve asylum as persecuted members of a particular social group - people like Rody Alvarado.

KAREN MUSALO: OK, Rody (laughter).

ROSE: Alvarado and her lawyer Karen Musalo chat like old friends because they are. They met when Alvarado left Guatemala in the mid-1990s.

RODY ALVARADO: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: Alvarado was fleeing from her husband. She says he beat her for ten years with machetes, with his fists. It was torture, she says.

ALVARADO: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: "It was a matter of life and death," she says. "If I stayed, he would have killed me." Alvarado applied for asylum in U.S. immigration court. Back then, her lawyer Karen Musalo had just founded the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies in San Francisco. Musalo argued that women like Alvarado deserve asylum because they've been persecuted by their husbands and ignored by their own governments.

MUSALO: When you have someone who wakes you up in the middle of the night with a knife at your throat and tells you that he can kill you and nobody would care - and then when you go to the police repeatedly, and they laugh at you, this is clearly a situation deserving of protection.

ROSE: At first, some courts rejected this theory. In Alvarado's case, immigration judges agreed that her story was brutal, but they ruled that the system of asylum was not intended to protect survivors of domestic violence.

MICHAEL HETHMON: It's a grave, pervasive, chronic international problem, but this is the wrong tool to solve that problem.

ROSE: Michael Hethmon is a lawyer at the Immigration Reform Law Institute. He was on the opposing side, writing briefs against the stand Karen Musalo was taking.

HETHMON: Asylum is not some sort of global Make-A-Wish Foundation.

ROSE: But Alvarado and Musalo didn't give up. Musalo kept pointing to that phrase particular social group and insisted that domestic violence survivors do fall into that category. Eventually, her argument won out. And immigration lawyers have successfully argued for an even broader interpretation of asylum law to include women fleeing genital mutilation, for instance, and people facing persecution for being gay. For a while, this seemed settled - that is until Jeff Sessions became the attorney general.


JEFF SESSIONS: Vague, insubstantial and subjective claims have swamped our system.

ROSE: This is Sessions speaking to immigration judges last year. The attorney general favors a strict interpretation of the language crafted back in Geneva in 1951. Sessions emphasizes that asylum laws protect people based on certain characteristics - race, religion, nationality or political opinion.


SESSIONS: That's what it's for. They were never intended to provide asylum to all those who fear generalized violence, crime, personal vendettas or lack of job prospects.

ROSE: Sessions is moving to limit who can get asylum, and he's questioning whether domestic violence survivors and other crime victims should qualify. Lawyers like Karen Musalo are furious.

MUSALO: It's a blind spot about women and women's human rights and kind of a fundamental misunderstanding about who fits within the refugee definition.

ROSE: No matter what happens, Rody Alvarado can stay in the U.S. She was granted asylum in 2009.

ALVARADO: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: "I felt an immense happiness," she says. "I felt far, far away from that world of suffering." Meanwhile, many women in Central America are still suffering. The United Nations says there's a hidden refugee crisis there driven largely by women fleeing from violent relationships. Joel Rose, NPR News.

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