Sessions Intervenes In Salvadoran Woman's Asylum Case

May 21, 2018
Originally published on May 23, 2018 6:18 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Trump administration is moving to limit who can get asylum in the United States. This has stirred panic in many immigrant communities. And perhaps no one is more alarmed than one Salvadoran woman who's living in the Carolinas. This is because Attorney General Jeff Sessions has personally intervened in her case. He's questioning whether she and other crime victims deserve protection and a path to American citizenship. She has not spoken out before, but she sat down recently with NPR's Joel Rose.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: We're calling her Ms. A-B-. That's what she's called in court papers. She's been here for four years now and says she's heard Jeff Sessions' name on CNN en Espanol. But she didn't really know who he was.

Why would he pick your case? Do you have any idea?

A-B-: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: Since then, she's learned a lot about Jeff Sessions. She knows that he oversees the nation's immigration courts, that he has the power to intervene in individual cases and set precedent that could affect all asylum-seekers. And she knows that, for some reason, he's picked her case to review.

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ROSE: We met Ms. A-B- at the double-wide trailer framed by tall pine trees that she shares with another immigrant from El Salvador, the only person she knew in the U.S. before she moved here. They've made their backyard into a little corner of El Salvador. There's an outdoor shelter called a champa with hammocks and a fire pit. Chickens roam free around a hen house. She says it all reminds her of the homeland she fled to get away from her abusive ex-husband.

A-B-: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: Ms. A-B- says she endured 15 years of abuse. He hit her with beer bottles, she says. He held a gun to her head. And when she was pregnant with their second child, she says, he threatened to hang her from the roof. When she curled up on the floor to protect her belly, he kicked her in the back.

A-B-: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: Ms. A-B- moved to another part of El Salvador, but she says he found her and raped her. Finally, she traveled north, crossed the border illegally into Texas and requested asylum. She's been allowed to stay in the U.S. while her case is pending. She asked that we not use her full name because she's still afraid her ex-husband might find her.

Ms. A-B-'s case wound up before a judge in North Carolina who's become well-known for rejecting the vast majority of asylum claims he hears. He said the abuse Ms. A-B- described seemed, quote, "criminal" but ruled that wasn't enough to give her asylum. She appealed and won. Still, the North Carolina judge has refused to grant her asylum, and now Jeff Sessions is intervening.

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JEFF SESSIONS: I have no doubt that many of those crossing our border illegally are leaving behind difficult situations. But we cannot take everyone on this planet who is in a difficult situation.

ROSE: It's not clear why Jeff Sessions picked Ms. A-B-'s case. The Justice Department declined to comment. But the attorney general has been criticizing the asylum system for months. And immigrant rights activists worry he's planning to use Ms. A-B-'s claim to roll back years of case law, case law that expanded who gets asylum in the U.S. to include domestic violence survivors and women fleeing female genital mutilation and people facing persecution for being gay or transgender. Sessions and other immigration hard-liners say it's gone too far.

JAN TING: We're concerned about too many people getting asylum.

ROSE: Jan Ting teaches law at Temple University.

TING: I think it's a legitimate question to ask. Wait a minute - do we really want to say, everyone who has experienced violence at the hands of a domestic partner is entitled to asylum in the United States?

ROSE: Immigrant rights advocates say that's an oversimplification. They say these women aren't just in a difficult situation - as Sessions put it - they are being persecuted. And their own governments won't protect them. Blaine Bookey is Ms. A-B-'s lawyer.

BLAINE BOOKEY: Characterizing the types of harms that Central Americans are fleeing as, quote, "difficult" is an incredible understatement. People are fleeing for their lives.

A-B-: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: "I used to go to the police," says Ms. A-B-, "but they didn't do anything." She feels like American immigration courts have let her down, too, by approving her asylum claim and then questioning that decision.

A-B-: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: "I feel like they are playing with me," she says, "like I'm a child who got candy only to have it taken away." Now her case is in the hands of the attorney general. And what he decides could have big implications, not only for her but for thousands of other asylum-seekers, too.

Joel Rose, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF COLLEEN'S "GEOMETRIA DEL UNIVERSO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.