In what the ACLU called “another defeat for the Trump administration’s all-out assault on the rights of asylum-seekers,” a federal judge on Wednesday struck down much of a “horrific” U.S. Justice Department guidance issued by ousted Attorney General Jeff Sessions in June which declared that migrants fleeing domestic abuse or gang violence would no longer automatically qualify for asylum.
“The government’s attempt to obliterate asylum protections is unlawful and inconsistent with our country’s longstanding commitment to provide protection to immigrants fleeing for their lives.”
—Jennifer Chang Newell, ACLU
Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for D.C. detailed in his ruling (pdf) how the administration’s “new credible fear policies are arbitrary, capricious, and in violation of the immigration laws.”
In addition to permanently blocking the guidance, Sullivan also ordered the federal government “to return to the United States the plaintiffs who were unlawfully deported and to provide them with new credible fear determinations” that align with national immigration legislation.
In other words, the court found that “the government’s attempt to obliterate asylum protections is unlawful and inconsistent with our country’s longstanding commitment to provide protection to immigrants fleeing for their lives,” as Jennifer Chang Newell of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, who argued the case, put it.
“Judge Sullivan’s decision ensures that our asylum system remains open to refugees at our border, including those fleeing domestic violence and gang violence,” added Eunice Lee, co-legal director of the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, which joined the ACLU in the case. “These individuals raise legitimate claims under U.S. and international law, and have an unequivocal right to seek asylum.”
The guidance issued by Sessions—who was forced out by President Donald Trump hours after the midterm elections and replaced with Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker—had been denounced by immigrant rights advocates, legal experts, and dozens of Democratic lawmakers as not only cruel, but in clear violation of U.S. and international law. Sullivan’s ruling comes as the Trump administration is engaged in a multi-pronged effort to curb all forms of migration at the U.S. southern border.
“This administration has engaged in a years-long attack on the asylum system, designed to punish refugees in order to score cheap political points,” declared the group Human Rights First. “We’re glad that today the court saw these policies for what they are: illegal, and incompatible with our values.”
“Survivors of domestic violence and gang violence have already been terrorized at home and have made the dangerous journey to the U.S. to seek protection. They have the right to seek protection in the United States as they flee to escape violence, trauma, and extreme danger in Central America,” Tarah Demant, director of Amnesty International USA’s Gender, Sexuality, and Identity Program, said in a statement.
“The U.S. government was wrong to turn its back and unlawfully deport them under this dangerous policy, which we know can mean life or death for many,” Demant added. “In light of this ruling, the U.S must allow others to return they can finally seek the protection they need before it’s too late.”
While celebrating the court victory in D.C., the advocacy group United We Dream pointed to federal agents firing rubber bullets and tear gas at migrants last month, and reiterated its call that Congress defund two key agencies overseen by the Department of Homeland Security: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
This post has been updated with comment from Amnesty International USA.
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