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Trump’s Asylum Seeker Restriction Blocked by Federal Judge

July 25, 2019, 12:32 AM UTC

A California federal judge halted the Trump administration’s new asylum restriction that makes most migrants seeking to cross the southern border ineligible for sanctuary in the U.S. — a setback for the president hours after another judge let the rule stand.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Jon Tigar in San Francisco is at odds with U.S. District Judge Timothy Kelly in Washington, who earlier declined to suspend the rule. Kelly’s decision was cheered by the White House.

Tigar granted a request from the American Civil Liberties Union and immigrants’ rights groups to block the administration from implementing the new rule while its legality is being challenged.

Under the new policy that took effect July 16, no one crossing the Mexico border into the U.S. is eligible for asylum if they failed to apply for protection from persecution or torture in one of the countries they crossed en route. The change is aimed at families traversing Mexico and Central America’s “Northern Triangle” region of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

Appeal Showdown

Wednesday’s conflicting rulings by judges on opposite coasts potentially sets the stage for a showdown in the appeals courts. That’s similar to what happened with the administration’s travel ban aimed at visitors from mostly Muslim countries before the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled that a scaled-back version of the travel restrictions could take effect.

But there’s a key difference between Wednesday’s decisions. In Washington, Kelly turned down a request to temporarily suspend the asylum rule with an order that would normally last just two weeks. Tigar, on the other hand, issued a preliminary injunction that blocks the restriction from being enforced indefinitely while the litigation plays out.

Tigar’s ruling carries more weight — meaning that the administration will need to persuade him or an appeals court to put the injunction on hold if wants to resume enforcing the asylum restriction.

“This new rule is likely invalid because it is inconsistent with the existing asylum laws,” Tigar wrote in an order.

Trump has faced a flurry of lawsuits since taking office over his initiatives to curb immigration — and has lost most of them. In addition to rejecting the president’s efforts to tighten asylum rules, courts have blocked a policy of separating children from adults at the Mexican border and have directed the administration to release minors from immigration detention without delay.

The decision by Kelly, who was appointed by President Donald Trump in 2017, appeared on the docket without a written ruling providing further explanation.

The White House praised Kelly’s ruling as “a victory for Americans concerned about the crisis at our southern border.”

“The court properly rejected the attempt of a few special interest groups to block a rule that discourages abuse of our asylum system,” the president’s press secretary said in a statement. “Tens of thousands of migrants making opportunistic asylum claims have not only exacerbated the crisis at our southern border but also have harmed genuine asylum seekers, who are forced to wait years for relief because our system is clogged with meritless claims.”

There are 900,000 cases pending before immigration judges, almost half of which contain an asylum application, according to the government. The large majority of the asylum claims by immigrants at the Mexican border turn out to be without merit, the U.S. claims.

The ACLU argued the new rule is “flatly inconsistent” with the Immigration and Nationality Act, which specifies an alien can be categorically denied asylum only under very specific circumstances because of his or her relationship with a transit country. This would be the case if an immigrant was firmly settled in a third country, not merely traveling through it, according to the ACLU.

ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt said after Tigar ruled that the “Trump administration was attempting an unlawful end run around asylum protections enacted by Congress.”

Guatemala and Mexico haven’t signed on to a so-called safe-third-country agreement requiring migrants from points south to claim asylum in those countries instead of continuing to the U.S.

Tigar said in his ruling that the government’s records show “no evidence that the Mexican asylum regime provides a full and fair procedure for determining asylum claims.” Instead, the record demonstrates that asylum seekers sent to Mexico are likely to be exposed to violence and abuse, denied their rights under Mexican and international law and wrongly returned to the countries from which they fled persecution, the judge said.

Tigar, who was appointed by Barack Obama in 2013, last year stopped the Trump administration from automatically denying asylum to immigrants who cross the U.S. border illegally. That ruling is on appeal.

The California case is East Bay Sanctuary Covenant v. Barr, 19-cv-04073, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco). The Washington case is Capital Area Immigrant Rights Coalition v. Trump, 19-cv-2117, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).

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