U.S. ends strict Trump-era asylum rules for violence victims

A man in glasses and a suit holds a folder against a backdrop of U.S. flags
Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland departs after speaking at the Justice Department in Washington on June 15, 2021.
(Win McNamee / Pool Photo)

The U.S. government on Wednesday ended two Trump administration policies that made it harder for immigrants fleeing violence to qualify for asylum, especially Central Americans.

Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland issued a new policy saying immigration judges should cease following the Trump-era rules that made it tough for immigrants who faced domestic or gang violence to win asylum in the United States. The move could make it easier for them to win their cases for humanitarian protection and was widely celebrated by immigrant advocates.

“The significance of this cannot be overstated,” said Kate Melloy Goettel, legal director of litigation at the American Immigration Council. “This was one of the worst anti-asylum decisions under the Trump era, and this is a really important first step in undoing that.”


Garland said he was making the changes after President Biden ordered his office and the Department of Homeland Security to draft rules addressing complex issues in immigration law about groups of people who should qualify for asylum.

Gene Hamilton, a key architect of many of then-President Trump’s immigration policies who served in the Justice Department, said in a statement that he believed the change would lead to more immigrants filing asylum claims based on crime and that it should not be a reason for the humanitarian protection.

The Biden administration changes come as U.S. immigration authorities have reported unusually high numbers of encounters with migrants on the southern border. In April, border officials reported the highest number of encounters in more than 20 years, though many migrants were repeat crossers who had been expelled from the country under pandemic-related powers. The number of children crossing the border alone also has hovered at all-time highs.

Many Central Americans arrive at the border fleeing gang violence in their countries. But it isn’t easy to qualify for asylum under U.S. immigration laws, and the Trump-era policies made it that much harder.

More than half of asylum cases decided by the immigration courts in the 2020 fiscal year were denials, according to data from the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review. Four years earlier, it was about 1 in 5 cases.

In the current fiscal year, people from countries such as Russia and Cameroon have seen higher asylum grant rates in the immigration courts than those from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the data show.


One of the Trump administration policies was aimed at migrants who were fleeing violence from nonstate actors, such as gangs, while the other affected those who felt they were being targeted in their countries because of their family ties, said Jason Dzubow, an immigration attorney in Washington who focuses on asylum.

Dzubow said he recently represented a Salvadoran family in which the husband was killed and gang members started coming after his children. While Dzubow argued they were in danger because of their family ties, he said the immigration judge rejected the case, citing the Trump-era decision among the reasons.

Dzubow welcomed the change but said he doesn’t expect to suddenly see large numbers of Central Americans winning their asylum cases, which remain difficult under U.S. law.

“I don’t expect it is going to open the floodgates, and all of a sudden everyone from Central America can win their cases. Those cases are very burdensome and difficult,” he said. “We need to make a decision: Do we want to protect these people?”