Federal judge blocks Trump administration’s sweeping asylum rules

President Trump encourages supporters Wednesday before they stormed the Capitol as Congress was finalizing the election.
It was not clear whether President Trump would appeal a federal judge’s ruling Friday that blocked his administration’s most sweeping asylum restrictions.
(Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)

A federal judge has blocked the Trump administration’s most sweeping set of asylum restrictions less than two weeks before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

The new rule had been set to take effect Monday. The ruling on Friday has limited immediate impact because the government has largely suspended asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border during the COVID-19 pandemic, citing public health concerns.

Still, letting the rules take effect would have been felt by some who can still claim asylum, and would have made it significantly harder for all asylum seekers once pandemic-related measures are lifted.

President Trump’s administration had argued that the measures were an appropriate response to a system is says is rife with abuse and overwhelmed with unworthy claims. But U.S. District Judge James Donato in San Francisco sided with advocacy groups who sued, saying acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf lacked authority to impose the sweeping rules.


Donato, who was appointed to the bench in 2013 by President Obama, wrote that Wolf’s appointment violated an established order of succession. He said it was the fifth time a court had ruled against Homeland Security on the same grounds.

“The government has recycled exactly the same legal and factual claims made in the prior cases, as if they had not been soundly rejected in well-reasoned opinions by several courts,” Donato wrote. “This is a troubling litigation strategy. In effect, the government keeps crashing the same car into a gate, hoping that someday it might break through.”

It was not immediately clear whether the administration would make an emergency appeal.

The rules sought to redefine how people qualify for asylum and similar forms of humanitarian protection if they face persecution at home. The restrictions would have broadened the grounds for a judge to deem asylum applications frivolous and prohibit applicants from ever winning protections in the United States.

Aaron Frankel, an attorney for plaintiffs, called the rules “nothing less than an attempt to end the asylum system.”

Asylum is a legal protection designed for people fleeing persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, political beliefs or membership in a social group. Any foreigner who steps on U.S. soil has a legal right to apply for asylum, according to U.S. asylum law and international treaty obligations.

Trump’s rules would narrow the types of persecution and severity of threats for which asylum is granted. Applicants seeking protections on the basis of gender or those who claim they were targeted by gangs, rogue government officials or “nonstate organizations” would probably not be eligible for asylum.

Immigration judges would be directed to be more selective about granting asylum claims and could deny most applications without a court hearing.


They also would have weighed several new factors against an applicant’s ability to win protections, among them failure to pay taxes. Criminal records would still count against an asylum seeker even if convictions were expunged.

Under pandemic-related measures in effect since March, about 9 in 10 people stopped at the border are immediately expelled on public health grounds. The rest are processed under immigration laws, including the right to seek asylum.

The Trump administration has already instituted a raft of policies restricting asylum, including making applicants wait in Mexico while their claims are heard in U.S. court.

Biden is expected to reverse some of Trump’s restrictive asylum rules, including the “Remain in Mexico” policy, but recently said his administration would need “probably the next six months” to re-create a system that can process asylum seekers to prevent a flood of migrants from arriving at the southern border.

Also Friday, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled against the administration’s policy that gave state and local governments the right to refuse to resettle refugees.

The three-judge panel said an executive order that required both state and local entities to consent to refugee placements would undermine the 1980 Refugee Act. That law set by Congress was designed to allow resettlement agencies to find the best place for a person to thrive while working with local and state officials.