Groups file suit to halt Trump administration's new asylum policy

Texas Tribune News

Asylum seekers from Central and South America wait on the Mexican side of the Brownsville/Gateway Bridge.
Asylum seekers from Central and South America wait on the Mexican side of the Brownsville/Gateway Bridge.
Reynaldo Leal for The Texas Tribune

A coalition of immigrant advocacy groups led by the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the Trump administration in a federal court in San Francisco on Tuesday in an attempt to halt the implementation of a new policy disqualifying most asylum seekers who pass through Mexico before reaching the United States.

The attorneys suing the government argued in their complaint that the Trump administration lacks the authority to exclude asylum seekers who arrive across the U.S. southern border, because U.S. immigration laws state clearly that the government cannot disqualify applicants on the basis of how they arrived.

“As part of our nation’s commitment to the protection of people fleeing persecution and consistent with our international obligations, it is a long-standing federal law that merely transiting through a third country is not a basis to categorically deny asylum to refugees who arrive at our shores,” the complaint states.

The Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security published an “interim final rule” in the Federal Register on Tuesday that aims to severely restrict the ability of asylum seekers to qualify for safe haven in the United States if they failed to request protections in other nations while en route to the border.

Attorney General William P. Barr said in a statement Monday that those who are truly facing persecution should apply for refuge in the first safe place they reach, not the most desirable destination.

Trump administration officials said the policy decree was needed to protect the U.S. asylum system from a flood of meritless claims by applicants who are seeking better economic opportunity but who are not facing persecution.

Department of Justice data shows asylum filings have nearly quadrupled in the past five years, and fewer than 20% of Central American applicants are eventually granted protections by U.S. courts.

The plaintiffs seeking to block the implementation of the restrictions allege the Trump administration violated federal rule-making procedures in formulating the restrictions, and the Immigration and Nationality Act states clearly that once applicants reach U.S. soil, they have a right to appeal for protection.

“This is the Trump administration’s most extreme run at an asylum ban yet,” said Lee Gelernt, the ACLU attorney who has led the group’s legal challenges to Trump executive action on immigration. “It clearly violates domestic and international law, and cannot stand,” he said in a statement.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, the Center for Constitutional Rights and others joined the ACLU in seeking the injunction in the Northern District of California.