Jeff Sessions
Credit: Office of Public Affairs/Flickr

Earlier this year when there was a lot of talk about passing a legislative fix for DACA, the Trump administration laid out what they called their “four pillars” that included demands that must be met for the president to sign such a bill. Much of the discussion back then focused on the changes they proposed to this country’s legal immigration system. But they also wanted to close so-called “loopholes” that they claimed were problematic for border enforcement. Dara Lind summarized them.

Trump’s Department of Homeland Security, as well as influential Republicans like Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX), have stressed that border security also needs to include statutory changes that would make it harder for people to pursue asylum cases after entering the US and reduce special protections for families and unaccompanied children crossing the border. Because children and families from Central America make up an increasing share of border apprehensions, they see deterring those immigrants as an important security measure.

As we all know by now, the negotiations over a legislative fix for DACA failed because Trump and his hard-line supporters in Congress refused to compromise. But that hasn’t stopped the administration’s attempt to close those loopholes by any means necessary. The stories we’re hearing lately in the news about horrific practices at the border all stem from their efforts to:

  1. make it harder for people to pursue asylum cases
  2. deter immigrants from crossing the border with their children

We first started hearing about the administration’s attempts on #2 when stories began to surface about separating children from their parents at the border. That was the result of a directive from AG Sessions to prosecute 100% of those attempting to cross the border with criminal charges. Previously they had been charged with civil offenses and allowed to remain free while awaiting a court hearing (what the administration calls “catch and release”). Criminal charges lead to detention, which means separating parents from their children.

While some people in the administration tried to pretend that this was an attempt to protect the children, the deterrent angle was embraced when Sessions defended his decision by saying that “we’ve got to get the word out,” and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly called the policy of family separation “a tough deterrent.”

Yesterday Sessions announced a policy to address the administration’s desire to make it harder for people to claim asylum.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday made it all but impossible for asylum seekers to gain entry into the United States by citing fears of domestic abuse or gang violence, in a ruling that could have a broad effect on the flow of migrants from Central America.

As Pew Research has documented, the number of undocumented immigrants attempting to enter the United States from Mexico has been on the decline in recent years, while the number who are fleeing violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador has been on the rise. Only about one in ten of those immigrants who claim asylum are granted permanent status in the U.S. In yet another attempt to signal “a tough deterrent,” Sessions’ decision yesterday pretty much excluded the possibility of gaining asylum for any migrants from those three countries.

Under federal law, asylum applicants must show that either “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion … was or will be at least one central reason” for their persecution. In a landmark case before the Board of Immigration Appeals in 2016, the precedent was set for women fleeing domestic violence to be eligible for asylum. The question was whether domestic violence fit the criteria of “membership in a particular social group” because it took place in the private sphere. The appeals board found that there was a fit because women are often unable to leave violent relationships and their governments have refused to protect them. The attorney general disagreed.

“The prototypical refugee flees her home country because the government has persecuted her,” Mr. Sessions wrote in his ruling. Because immigration courts are housed under the Justice Department, not the judicial branch of government, he has the authority to overturn their decisions.

“An alien may suffer threats and violence in a foreign country for any number of reasons relating to her social, economic, family or other personal circumstances,” he added. “Yet the asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune.”

My first thought on reading all of this was Hillary Clinton’s statement that “women’s rights are human rights.” Because the violence that is typically associated with women doesn’t fit the pattern defined by a patriarchal system, the attorney general decided that this country will refuse to protect them. If you ever struggled to understand how sexism becomes institutionalized, there you have it. Beyond that, it is obvious that Sessions simply doesn’t want to be bothered.

“Saying a few simple words — claiming a fear of return — is now transforming a straightforward arrest for illegal entry and immediate return into a prolonged legal process,” Mr. Sessions said in his speech, to immigration judges gathered outside Washington.

We’ve always known that this administration’s policies on immigration are rooted in attacking migrants who threaten their white nationalism. But in the process of attempting to stop the flow of black and brown immigrants, they have instituted policies that pose a threat to women and children, making them sexist as well as racist.

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