Judges in Two Cases Block Trump Asylum Restrictions

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Two federal judges have blocked restrictive Trump administration policies affecting immigrants seeking asylum. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Updated 5 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 19

A federal judge in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday blocked Trump administration policies that prevented immigrants who suffered gang violence or domestic violence in their home countries from seeking asylum.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, another federal judge ruled to continue blocking the administration from denying asylum to people who entered the country illegally.

Judge Blocks Restrictions on Who Can Apply for Asylum

In Washington, D.C., U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan declared that some of the guidance then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued this year cannot be used to determine whether an immigrant has a credible fear of persecution or torture in their home countries, the first step to making an asylum claim in the U.S.

The judge said the administration's policy on asylum-seekers violates federal immigration law, and that "it is the will of Congress — not the whims of the executive" that sets the standards for expedited removal.

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Trump administration officials say the asylum process is being exploited by immigrants who are counting on passing the initial credible-fear screening and being released into the country. Only about 9 percent of all people who initially claim asylum are granted it, and tens of thousands of families from Central America are coming to the U.S. every month.

The immigration policy change had an immediate impact after it was made in June. Immigration lawyers said people whom they expected would pass credible-fear screenings began to fail them, and lawyers said immigration judges are signing off on more denials during appeals, effectively ending what could have been a years-long asylum process before it began. But Trump officials also say the number of people claiming credible fear has risen dramatically.

Asylum can be granted to people who were persecuted in their home country or could be persecuted if forced to return. Thousands of people seek asylum each month at U.S. Customs and Border Protection stations along the nation's southwest border.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the government over the June 11 change on behalf of 12 parents and children who were wrongly found not to have a credible fear of return. Sullivan's ruling impacts thousands of cases where immigrants are in expedited removal proceedings.

Among the plaintiffs was a woman identified only by a pseudonym, Grace. The ACLU said Grace's partner beat her and her children, and sexually assaulted her and her daughter. Once, the ACLU said, her daughter suffered a miscarriage after he attacked her. The lawsuit says police did not act when she contacted them. It also said Grace was found not to have a credible fear of persecution.

The judge also ordered the government to return any of the plaintiffs who may have been deported back to the U.S., and prevent further deportations.

"This ruling is a defeat for the Trump administration's all-out assault on the rights of asylum-seekers. The government's attempt to obliterate asylum protections is unlawful and inconsistent with our country's long-standing commitment to provide protection to immigrants fleeing for their lives," said Jennifer Chang Newell, managing attorney of the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project, who argued the case.

S.F. Judge Orders Injunction on Asylum Restrictions

Last month in San Francisco, U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar issued a temporary restraining order against President Trump's proclamation that would allow people to apply for asylum only if they entered at official ports of entry.

Late Wednesday in San Francisco, as that order was hours from expiring, Tigar ordered a more permanent fix, in the form of an injunction. That means asylum-seekers can once again apply, no matter how they got here, while the case makes its way through the courts.

"Congress has been very clear that asylum-seekers may apply for asylum regardless of where or how they enter the country," said ACLU lawyer Lee Gelernt, who argued the case in court today.

The administration says the restrictions are needed to deter dangerous and illegal border crossings.

KQED News staff contributed to this report.