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Federal judge blocks Trump restrictions on asylum at U.S.-Mexico border

Immigration Asylum
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer checks the documents of migrants in Laredo, Texas, last week.
(Marco Ugarte / Associated Press)

A federal judge Wednesday blocked the Trump administration from enforcing a new rule that bars asylum for the vast majority of migrants trying to enter the U.S. at the southern border.

U.S. District Judge Jon S. Tigar, an O bama appointee, issued a nationwide preliminary injunction against the 10-day-old rule that made migrants ineligible for asylum if they passed through another country en route to the U.S. and failed to apply for protection in that country. Most asylum seekers come from Central America.

“Under our laws, the right to determine whether a particular group of applicants is categorically barred from eligibility for asylum is conferred on Congress,” Tigar wrote, adding the new rule was inconsistent with existing laws.

“While the public has a weighty interest in the efficient administration of the immigration laws at the border,” he wrote, “it also has a substantial interest in ensuring that the statutes enacted by its representatives are not imperiled by executive fiat.”

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Earlier in the day, a different federal judge in Washington refused to block the rule. District Judge Timothy J. Kelly, a Trump appointee, said the migrant advocacy groups that challenged the regulation failed to show they would be immediately harmed by it.

Tigar noted during a hearing before his ruling that he was not bound by the Washington judge’s decision and that he and Kelly apply precedents from different circuit courts of appeals.

“The appellate courts can sort this out,” he said.

The government is expected to appeal Tigar’s decision to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Washington case would be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

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The U.S. Supreme Court would likely step in to resolve any conflicts between the circuits.

In an earlier case, Tigar blocked another Trump plan to deny asylum to anyone who crossed the border illegally, prompting Trump to denounce him as an “Obama judge.”

The Supreme Court decided 5-4 in December to let Tigar’s decision stand, rejecting an emergency appeal by the government.

In ruling against the administration again, Tigar said Wednesday that Congress made it possible to bar asylum to applicants who had an alternative, safe option in another country but required that there be reasonable assurance the person wouldn’t suffer harm or persecution there.

“The rule’s sweeping approach makes no attempt to accommodate this concern, and so is antithetical to the statute’s structure,” Tigar said.

In fact, he said, “a mountain of evidence” shows that migrants seeking asylum in Mexico are subject to violence by government officials and others, denied their rights under Mexican and international law and wrongly returned to countries where they had been persecuted.

During the hearing Wednesday morning, Tigar noted that the Trump administration had failed to present any evidence of the adequacy of an asylum system in Guatemala, one of the countries migrants pass through on the way to the U.S., or the ability of Mexico to process asylum applications.

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ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt told Tigar that neither Mexico nor Guatemala have asylum systems that work and called the new rule “arbitrary and capricious,” a characterization Tigar agreed with in his decision .

Deputy Asst. Atty. Gen. Scott Stewart disagreed, saying unrestrained migration was “putting a strain on our system” and had led to a backlog of more than 900,000 cases in immigration courts.

He said the U.S. has been negotiating with Mexico “to make sure that everybody is doing their part.”

“Pressure on Mexico works,” he said.

The ACLU and other civil rights groups filed the challenge that led to Tigar’s decision. Gelernt said that ruling recognized “that the Trump administration was attempting an unlawful end run around asylum protections enacted by Congress.”

President Trump is threatening Guatemala over immigration after its high court blocked its government from signing an asylum deal with the United States.


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