Attorney General Merrick B. Garland on Wednesday reversed a Trump-era immigration ruling that made it all but impossible for people to seek asylum in the United States over credible fears of domestic abuse or gang violence, marking one of the Justice Department’s most significant breaks with the previous administration.
Mr. Garland vacated a decision made in 2018 by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions that had argued that asylum claims had incorrectly expanded to include victims of “private violence,” like domestic violence or gangs.
People fleeing persecution on account of their membership in a “particular social group” can seek asylum in the United States, and previous administrations have considered those fleeing domestic abuse and gang violence to fall under that definition. In vacating the Trump administration’s stance, Mr. Garland said that the Justice Department should follow the earlier precedent.
His decision came in a closely watched case known as A-B for the initials of the woman seeking asylum. The department’s Board of Immigration Appeals found in 2016 that she was part of a particular social group, saying that the government of El Salvador does little to protect people in violent relationships. That assessment qualified the woman for asylum, but Mr. Sessions overruled the appeals board.
Attorneys general can overturn decisions made by immigration judges because immigration courts are housed under the Justice Department, not the judicial branch.
“These decisions involve important questions about the meaning of our nation’s asylum laws, which reflect America’s commitment to providing refuge to some of the world’s most vulnerable people,” the associate attorney general, Vanita Gupta, wrote on Wednesday in a memo to the Justice Department’s Civil Division.
Ms. Gupta asked the division’s immigration arm to review pending cases that could be affected by Mr. Garland’s reversal.
The move is one of the Justice Department’s most significant reversals of a Trump-era policy. Earlier it defended the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, a position that officials had abandoned during the previous administration. The department also sided with unions in a case that could affect restrictions on organizing workers.
Proponents of asylum seekers cheered Mr. Garland’s latest reversal.
“We’re really heartened by this decision,” said Karen Musalo, a lawyer representing one of the asylum seekers and a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of Law. “It restores the possibility of protection to those whose very lives are in the balance.”
Mr. Garland has also continued some Trump administration policies and case positions, prompting some Democrats to criticize him as overly cautious.
Mr. Garland has defended those moves, saying that it was important to uphold Trump-era positions on cases if they reflected an impartial reading of the law.
“The essence of the rule of law is what I said when I accepted the nomination for attorney general,” Mr. Garland said at a budget hearing last week. He said there should “not be one rule for Democrats and another for Republicans, that there not be one rule for friends and another for foes.”
“It is not always easy to apply that rule,” Mr. Garland told the committee. “Sometimes it means that we have to make a decision about the law that we would never have made and that we strongly disagree with as a matter of policy.”
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