Asylum seekers 'elated' after judge strikes down Trump rules

“To have the chance to come back and try again is an incredible opportunity for them that they never thought they’d be able to get,” one lawyer said.
Image: Migrants Continue To Try To Reach The United States At The Tijuana Border
A Honduran mother and daughter, part of a caravan of thousands attempting to reach the U.S., look through a gap in the U.S.-Mexico border fence while engaging with a U.S. Border Patrol agent on the other side in Tijuana, Mexico on December 15, 2018.Mario Tama / Getty Images

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By Daniella Silva

Twelve migrants at the center of a lawsuit over restrictions to asylum based on domestic and gang violence were "elated" and "very emotional" Wednesday after a judge ordered they be given another chance to make their claims, lawyers assisting in the case said.

"They're all very emotional about hearing the news and feel really excited and hopeful that they’ll have another opportunity," Katrina Eiland, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s immigrants’ rights project.

Judge Emmet Sullivan, of the U.S. District Court in Washington, on Wednesday said some policies by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions that restricted the ability to claim asylum based on gang or domestic violence were "arbitrary, capricious and in violation of the immigration laws."

"They're just elated at that opportunity and really hopeful that they have another chance," said Eiland.

The ACLU filed suit on behalf of a dozen asylum seekers, all of whom were fleeing violence in their home countries. The accounts of those migrants were deemed credible by asylum officers, but under the new guidelines, they were denied "credible fear of persecution" and were slated for expedited removal and deportation proceedings.

Sullivan blocked the feds "from continuing to apply those policies and from removing plaintiffs who are currently in the United States without first providing credible fear determinations consistent with the immigration laws."

“This is a big step back for the Trump administration’s attack on the rights of asylum seekers,” said Jennifer Chang Newell, managing attorney of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, who argued the case.

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The decision meant that the plaintiffs still in the United States must be given new credible fear interviews and any plaintiffs who had already been deported must be brought back to the U.S. and given new interviews as well, she said.

"Six of our plaintiffs, including two children, were already deported based on these unlawful polices and they have been living in fear for their lives," Chang Newell said.

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

The administration has argued that the asylum process is being exploited by migrants without valid claims.

The government has filed a motion to stay the judge’s injunction and the next steps turn on whether the government decides to appeal, Chang Newell said.

Eiland said the plaintiffs had been through "a rollercoaster."

"To have the chance to come back and try again is an incredible opportunity for them that they never thought they’d be able to get," she said.

In June, Sessions overruled a case granting asylum to a woman from El Salvador who fled domestic abuse, writing that the asylum statute "does not provide redress for all misfortune" and "generally" claims on domestic and gang violence will no longer qualify for asylum. The next month, Sessions issued official guidance to asylum officers processing migrants' claims.

In an August hearing, Sullivan demanded that the administration turn around a plane carrying a mother and daughter who were plaintiffs in the case after learning they had just been deported.

On Wednesday, Sullivan wrote that Session’s finding that domestic and gang violence should “generally” not qualify for asylum was arbitrary and capricious because “there is no legal basis for an effective categorical ban on domestic violence and gang-related claims.”

“The judge very clearly held that the government’s policies attempting to shut down the border to refuges are unlawful and individuals raising claims based on domestic and gang violence have legitimate claims and have to be allowed access to the system,” Eunice Lee, co-legal director of the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, said.

Lee said the decision was “wonderful for asylum seekers in general who are currently going through credible fear interviews.”

She added that although this decision was focused on the credible fear stage, it could have broader implications for challenges to Sessions’ ruling on asylum.

“The judge found that to be inconsistent with our immigration laws and the way our asylum system works,” she said. "Other courts will likely pick up on that."