WASHINGTON — Attorney General William P. Barr moved on Monday to end asylum protections for migrants solely because their relatives have been persecuted, the latest attempt by the Trump administration to limit sanctuary for people seeking refuge in the United States.
Mr. Barr’s decision overturned a 2018 judgment by the Justice Department’s Board of Immigration Appeals, which found that a Mexican migrant whose father was targeted by a drug cartel could be eligible for asylum.
Migrants are eligible for asylum in the United States if they can prove they were persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality or what immigration laws describe as “membership in a particular social group or political opinion.” Mr. Barr’s ruling concluded that the immigration appeals court “erred” in finding that a migrant’s family qualified as a persecuted social group.
“I conclude that an alien’s family-based group will not constitute a particular social group unless it has been shown to be socially distinct in the eyes of its society, not just those of its alleged persecutor,” Mr. Barr concluded.
Federal law allows the attorney general to overrule the decisions of the immigration appeals board, which is part of the Justice Department. But like many of the Trump administration’s recent attempts to restrict migration to the United States’ southwest border, Mr. Barr’s ruling was expected to be challenged in the wider court system, immigration advocates and lawyers said.
Last week, President Trump announced a deal that requires people who travel through Guatemala to first seek asylum there, instead of in the United States. It is expected to be challenged in both the United States and Guatemala.
Earlier this month, the administration enacted a rule to bar asylum to any migrant who failed to apply for protections in at least one country on their way to the southwest border. It was blocked by a federal judge in San Francisco last week.
Mr. Barr has also tried to deter migration by denying bail to thousands of asylum seekers who are being detained in the United States while they wait for immigration hearings.
Monday’s ruling stems from the case of a Mexican migrant who illegally entered the United States in 2011 to claim asylum. The migrant said he was targeted by a cartel in Mexico City because he refused to sell drugs at his father’s store.
He initially was denied the protections by an immigration judge who ruled that the migrant was a crime victim, but not eligible for asylum. An immigration appeals court, however, found that the migrant established that he was a member of a protected social group since he was an immediate family member to his father, who was under threat.
Bradley Jenkins, the federal litigation attorney for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network who represented the Mexican migrant, said Mr. Barr’s reversal would affect thousands of asylum cases at the border.
Mr. Jenkins also noted an earlier decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, that found that a family was the “quintessential particular social group.”
“This really is the administration’s attempt to chill one of the main bases for asylum in the United States, just sort of by administration fiat,” Mr. Jenkins said. “This is a wide-ranging decision.”
Mr. Barr maintained that the earlier decision cast too wide a net on the eligibility for asylum.
“As almost every alien is a member of a family of some kind, categorically recognizing families as particular social groups would render virtually every alien a member of a particular social group,” Mr. Barr said.
Other advocates compared the ruling to one last year by Jeff Sessions, the attorney general at the time, reversing an immigration court ruling that granted asylum to a Salvadoran woman abused by her husband.
Department of Homeland Security and Justice Department officials have said the measures are necessary to deter migrants without valid asylum claims from traveling to the southwest border.
While migration to the border declined in June, officials have said facilities and resources are being pushed beyond capacity this year by a record number of Central American families seeking protection in the United States.
Lee Gelernt, the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, said Mr. Barr’s ruling would specifically restrict migrants from Central America, where thousands have fled to escape poverty and gang violence.
“This is a continuation of an attack on Central American asylum seekers,” Mr. Gelernt said. “In Central America, gangs will attack one family member but threaten another family member.”