Judge blocks Trump administration efforts to restrict asylum for migrants fleeing domestic and gang violence

The ruling could potentially impact thousands of asylum-seekers.

A Washington, D.C., federal judge on Wednesday blocked a Trump administration policy that restricts asylum claims of migrants fleeing domestic and gang-related violence.

In a 107-page ruling that could impact thousands of asylum-seekers, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan wrote that "there is no legal basis for an effective categorical ban on domestic violence and gang-related claims" during an early stage of the asylum process known as "expedited removal."

The lawsuit was filed in August by the ACLU and the University of California’s Hastings Center for Gender and Refugee Studies on behalf of twelve adults and children, predominantly from Central America, who told U.S. asylum officers that they were victims of sexual abuse, kidnappings and beatings in their home countries.

One plaintiff, who goes by the pseudonym "Grace," said she fled Guatemala after being raped, beaten and threatened for 20 years by an abusive partner. Local authorities not only refused to help her, but they assisted her persecutor in evicting her from her home, Grace claimed.

Although the asylum officers found that the plaintiffs’ accounts were sincere, they denied their initial "credible fear" claims – an early step in the asylum process – after applying the standards set forth in an immigration decision from June, 2018 by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, known as "Matter of A-B-."

Under new Trump administration standards, an asylum-seeker claiming persecution by a non-governmental actor must show that their home government "condoned the private actions" or "demonstrated a complete helplessness to protect" them.

This standard -- which Judge Sullivan has now blocked when applied in the expedited removal stage – was a departure from decades-old rules that required asylum-seekers to simply demonstrate that their government was "unable or unwilling to control" their persecutors in order to move forward in the asylum process.

Sullivan wrote that some of the Trump administration’s asylum policies are "inconsistent with the intent of Congress as articulated in the [Immigration and Nationality Act]" and that it is "the will of Congress -- not the whims of the Executive -- that determines the standard for expedited removal."

Sullivan ordered the government to bring the deported plaintiffs back to the U.S., at no expense to those plaintiffs, to pursue their asylum claims under revised policies.

Steven Stafford, a spokesman for the Department of Justice, said "We are reviewing our options with regard to this ruling, and we will continue to restore the rule of law in our immigration system."

In a second, separate ruling, a federal judge in California issued a nationwide preliminary injunction Wednesday night against a Trump administration rule making anyone who crosses the southern border somewhere other than a designated port of entry ineligible for asylum. An estimated 70,000 aliens per year cross between ports of entry, the judge cited.

U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar ruled that the administration's new rule, announced by Trump in general terms on Nov. 1, conflicts with the law that an alien “physically present in the United States or who arrives in the United States ... whether or not at a designated port of arrival” may apply for asylum.

American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lee Gelernt, who argued the case, said: “The court has once again made clear that the Trump administration cannot do an end-run around the decision by Congress to provide protection to vulnerable individuals regardless of where they seek asylum. This ruling will save lives.”

The White House responded to the earlier ruling Wednesday night, referring to the decision as "judicial activism."

"Today, a court has, once again, overridden and undermined United States immigration law. Under the law, asylum is a discretionary benefit for aliens who have a well-founded fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Today’s ruling will further overwhelm our immigration courts with meritless cases, making the existing massive backlog even worse," the White House statement reads.

"It will also encourage more illegal immigration to the United States, to the benefit of ruthless smuggling organizations that too often victimize young women and children. Today’s ruling is only the latest example of judicial activism that encourages migrants to take dangerous risks; empowers criminal organizations that spread turmoil in our hemisphere; and undermines the laws, borders, Constitution, and sovereignty of the United States. We will continue to fight for the rule of law and against these reckless rulings," the statement continued.

The ACLU hailed Wednesday’s ruling, calling it "a defeat for the Trump administration’s all-out assault on the rights of asylum seekers." The government’s asylum rules are "unlawful and inconsistent with our country’s longstanding commitment to provide protection to immigrants fleeing for their lives," wrote Jennifer Chang Newell, managing attorney of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, who argued the case.

Judge Sullivan made headlines earlier in the week when he unleashed a tongue-lashing on former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn over his lies to the FBI. After the fiery hearing, Flynn opted to postpone his sentencing and continue to cooperate with prosecutors.

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