Sessions used a case involving a victim of domestic violence from El Salvador as a precedent that victims of such private crimes are not eligible for asylum under U.S. law and must prove the government condoned the private actions or demonstrated an inability to protect the victims.
"The mere fact that a country may have problems effectively policing certain crimes -- such as domestic violence or gang violence -- or that certain populations are more likely to be victims of crime, cannot itself establish an asylum claim," he said.
Denise Bell, researcher for refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty International USA, condemned the decision as a "direct assault on people seeking protection," especially families in search of asylum from prosecution in Central America.
"From the beginning, this administration has made it clear that it intends to close our borders to people fleeing persecution. This heartless decision takes the constant, ongoing attacks on asylum seekers a step further by specifically targeting people seeking safety from domestic or gang violence," Bell said. "Families seeking safety deserve our compassion. Instead, Attorney General Sessions is slamming the door on those trying to rebuild their lives."
Addressing a training session for immigration officials earlier in the day, Sessions added U.S. laws have been abused at the expense of those who deserve asylum the most and the decision "restores sound principles of asylum and longstanding principles of immigration law."
"Asylum is available for those who leave their home country because of persecution or fear on account of race, religion, nationality, or membership in a particular social group or political opinion," Sessions said Monday. "Asylum was never meant to alleviate all problems -- even all serious problems -- that people face every day all over the world."
Sessions argued refugees who enter the United States illegally abuse the system by "claiming a fear of return," and then disappear after they're released from custody pending an immigration hearing.
He said asylum claims have skyrocketed from 5,000 in 2009 to 94,000 in 2016 -- but those deemed legitimate by immigration judges have declined over that span.
Further, the current backlog of immigration cases is about 700,000 -- more than triple what it was in 2009.
He added that immigration judges should complete at least 700 cases a year. He also said 100 new immigration judges will be hired this year.