Federal Judge in S.F. Blocks Trump’s Latest Asylum Restrictions, For Now

Under the new policy, those seeking asylum would be forced to apply first in other countries.

A federal judge in San Francisco on Wednesday temporarily blocked the Trump administration’s latest attempt to drastically reduce asylum requests made in the country, a policy enacted early last week that has already resulted in several legal challenges. 

U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar granted a preliminary injunction against the policy while lawsuits proceed, ruling that President Donald Trump exceeded his authority by surpassing Congress. An appeal is expected to be filed.

The late afternoon ruling marked a whiplash in court decisions. On Wednesday morning, a federal judge in Washington D.C. kept the Trump administration’s latest asylum policy in place while the lawsuit proceeds.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly expressed “strong doubts” that plaintiffs can prove the Trump administration exceeded its authority in issuing the policy, NPR reported. Kelly, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, also said immigrant rights groups failed to outline how many people would be impacted.

The new policy, announced July 15, requires that those fleeing their countries under safety claims first apply for asylum in the next country they arrive in before seeking protection in the United States. For someone in Guatemala, that means claiming asylum in Mexico before being able to apply for asylum — a process that will leave them in limbo and exposed to dangerous conditions even longer, immigration advocates warn.

The American Civil Liberties Union, joined by the Southern Policy Law Center and Center for Constitutional Rights, filed suit in California on behalf of the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant shortly after the policy was announced. They argued that Trump does not have the authority to make such a decision under the Immigration and Nationality Act, legislation approved by Congress to prevent a repeat of locking out refugees during World War II.

“It’s a very dark road we’re going on,” said ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt on Wednesday. “This administration’s beef is with Congress, not the courts.”

Attorneys on behalf of the federal government rebutted that the rule encourages asylum seekers to apply for protection in other countries and that doing so later in the United States raises “questions about the validity and urgency of the alien’s claim.” And because it still allows “general entitlement” to apply for asylum, it’s still consistent with the law, they argued.

“This rule is lawful and it’s an appropriately-issued final rule,” Scott Stewart, deputy assistant attorney general, said in court Wednesday. 

In the end, Tigar agreed with the ACLU — an unsurprising decision given past rulings. In November 2018, Tigar blocked a Trump administration policy that prohibits asylum for people who cross the United States border without authorization, also deferring to Congress. Trump responded by attacking judges appointed by former President Barack Obama, like Tigar, and doubled down after Supreme Court Chief Justice John Robert reprimanded him for doing so.

The impact of these laws can get lost in the political back-and-forth. During the court hearing, Stewart added that “pressure on Mexico works” in order to even out the humanitarian burden.

But Amanda Bhuket, staff attorney for East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, said that asylum seekers waiting in Mexico to apply in the United States have been subjected to inhumane, dangerous conditions in a country ill-equipped to handle the volume of asylum requests.

Plus, the administration is again, causing confusion and fear among immigrant communities. The policy is not retroactive, she repeatedly has to assure clients.

“Every week, there’s something new,” Bhuket says. “When you see the risks and dangers people put themselves through just to get here — who would do that unless they’re truly trying to save their lives?”

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