Jeff Sessions recently used his special authority as attorney general to review an asylum case that could have sweeping implications for how the US treats immigrants fleeing domestic violence.
Newly released records now show that the case he handpicked, which involves a Central American woman fleeing domestic abuse from her ex-husband, comes from a judge who has been repeatedly rebuked by appellate judges for his multiple rejections of asylum claims from victims of domestic abuse.
Advocates and immigration attorneys fear that Sessions could be using the case as an opportunity to reverse case law that has protected Central American women fleeing violence and sexual assault from husbands by granting them asylum in the US.
V. Stuart Couch, an immigration judge in Charlotte, North Carolina, has sought to justify denying such women the right to stay in the US in multiple cases, even with the appellate body repeatedly ruling that his findings were "clearly erroneous," according to records released after a Freedom of Information Act request.
Couch's decision in the case Matter of A-B-, a convention of naming cases in immigration court that protects the individual's identity, is a rare opinion that Sessions has referred to himself for review. Sessions has been using a little-known authority to refer immigration cases to himself for review, allowing him to almost single-handedly direct how immigration law is interpreted in this country.
In reviewing Couch's decision, Sessions invited interested parties to comment on the notion of whether being the victim of a crime can count for asylum, a complicated aspect of asylum law.
The case was initially kept secret by the Justice Department and immigration courts on privacy grounds, but was made public by immigration attorneys as a domestic violence case. Input on the case was due to Sessions on Friday.
It was also later revealed that Sessions decided to consider the case over the objections of the Department of Homeland Security, which had asked him to hold off on diving into the case until the Board of Immigration Appeals, the immigration courts' appellate body, decided on a request from Couch to take the case back up themselves. Sessions denied DHS's request.
The Department of Justice declined to comment on why or how Sessions chose the case, and it's not known how he will rule. When Sessions initially referred himself the case, a department official said he was considering it "because of a lack of clarity in the court system on the issue."
But a review of Couch's decisions in fiscal year 2017, requested under the Freedom of Information Act by immigration attorney Bryan Johnson, reveals that the judge repeatedly rejected asylum claims of Central American women who had been violently beaten, raped and physically and emotionally abused by their husbands and domestic partners.
In 10 separate cases that year, including the one that Sessions has selected for his review, Couch rejected those claims only to have the Board of Immigration Appeals find he was "clearly erroneous" in his decisions. Couch also repeated the same arguments in many of those cases, at times word-for-word, including that the women could not prove they were trapped in the relationships, that they had inconsistencies in their accounts or that the violence, and that the abuse was due to their husband or partner's criminality or violent nature, and thus was"general violence" as opposed to persecution.
"The respondent testified that when was drunk, he would physically and verbally abuse her," Couch wrote in one opinion. "She further testified 'he was fine' when he was not under the influence of alcohol. Thus, (redacted)'s abuse appears related to his own criminal tendencies and substance abuse, rather than conclusive evidence he targeted the respondent on account of her proposed particular social group."
The Board of Immigration Appeals later found "insufficient evidence" for Couch's conclusion and sent the case back to him.
The appellate body sent all 10 of those cases back to Couch for reconsideration, usually citing a 2014 case they decided, Matter of A-R-C-G-, that "married women in Guatemala who are unable to leave their relationship" qualified for asylum, which they said clearly established that Central American women trapped in abusive relationships due to societal and cultural norms on marriage qualify for protection in the US.
At issue are the legal details of asylum, a type of protection for immigrants who come to the US fleeing persecution back home. It's not enough to be scared of one's home country; asylum seekers have to prove they are in a special category of fleeing persecution, which includes being part of a "particular social group" that has a reason to fear persecution and whose government can't or won't adequately protect them. In many of the cases the appellate body sent back to Couch for reconsideration, that social group would be the women unable to leave their relationship.
Couch was the second-most overturned immigration judge in fiscal year 2017, according to separate statistics requested by Johnson. The appeals court sent 58 cases back to him that year, roughly a third of his cases that were appealed.
Data kept by the TRAC project of Syracuse University, which is imperfect but the best available, showed that Couch denies asylum claims at a far higher rate than the national average. Couch denied 86% of asylum cases he heard from 2012 to 2017, above the national average of 60%, according to that data.
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