A federal judge on Tuesday rejected President Trump's policy of locking up asylum-seekers while they wait for their immigration hearings.
“Today’s ruling means the Trump administration cannot use indefinite detention as a weapon to punish and deter asylum seekers,” proclaimed the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit contending that the policy violates U.S. and international laws.
Under previous presidencies, those fleeing poverty and violence in their homelands were allowed to remain free in the United States until their asylum hearing dates. Migrant-rights groups, as well as the United Nations and many countries, have denounced the Trump administration's imprisonment of the applicants.
The president recently signed an executive order reversing his policy of taking refugee children from their parents and sending them to separate detention facilities, but his “zero-tolerance” approach to illegal immigration continues. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has vowed to prosecute every undocumented migrant, which has resulted in clogged federal courts in border states.
“In March we filed a lawsuit … targeting five (Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency) field offices that have almost entirely stopped granting parole since early 2017,” the ACLU tweeted. “All of our plaintiffs passed 'credible fear' screenings — meaning a U.S. asylum officer determined their fear of persecution is credible, and that they have a significant possibility of receiving full asylum.”
Agents at field offices in El Paso, Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Newark allegedly have denied parole to more than 1,000 asylum applicants. “The government’s response to these figures is underwhelming at best,” U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg wrote in his ruling.
ACLU deputy legal director Cecillia Wang told National Public Radio: “We had a clear record, as the court noted, showing that in these five ICE field offices there really was a very clear pattern in what previously resulted in release of asylum seekers at a rate of 90 percent based on individualized consideration really dwindled down to near zero.”
The ACLU maintained that Boasberg's ruling “stands for the principle that the government cannot apply a blanket policy of detaining asylum seekers for the purpose of deterring people from coming into the United States to seek asylum.”
The judge explained that his decision “does no more than hold the government accountable to its own policy.” He stressed that “having extended the safeguards of the parole directive to asylum seekers, ICE must now ensure that such protections are realized.”
Boasberg wrote that “to mandate that ICE provide these baseline procedures to those entering our country – individuals who have often fled violence and persecution to seek safety on our shores – is no great judicial leap.”
Under Boasberg's preliminary injunction, ICE must review each individual case to decide whether a migrant is a flight risk, threatens national security or is a danger to the public. If not, asylum seekers are to be released pending their hearings.
Juan Cole, a history professor at the University of Michigan, pointed out that the indefinite detention of asylum seekers broke U.S. law, as well as a U.N. protocol concerning the “treatment of refugees.”
He wrote: “(The administration) keeps maintaining in public that refugees will have their applications for asylum processed if they present them at a regular border crossing. The evidence is that such applications are being summarily dismissed by immigration officials, who are not permitting asylum seekers access to counsel or judges. This procedure is illegal.”
Human Rights First, the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, and the Covington & Burling law firm joined the ACLU in filing the suit. “The ruling confirms that the government can’t default to detaining people out of hand,” said Hardy Vieux, the legal director at Human Rights First. “Rather, they must follow (the previous) policy.”
The migrant-rights organization United We Dream tweeted that the judge's decision is “a huge win, but not the solution.” The message featured the hashtag #FreedomforImmigrants.
The lead plaintiff in the court case, Haitian ethics teacher Ansly Damus, “fled violent, political persecution (and) has been granted asylum by a judge twice, but the government has appealed each time,” according to the ACLU, which noted that ICE “has not let him outside for more than a year.”
Damus recalled his frightening experiences in Haiti. He said that after he criticized a government official, a gang broke several of his bones, threatened to kill him and set his motorcycle on fire. More than 18 months ago, the teacher fled to the U.S. border in California and applied for asylum. He has been held in detention ever since.
“I have not breathed fresh air or felt the sun on my face, and I never know if it is cold or hot outside, if the sun is out, and if the seasons are changing,” the lawsuit quoted Damus as having said.
The ruling deals a blow to Trump's anti-immigration stance. The president also has not been able to persuade Congress to fund the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border that he promised to build.